A second piece I wrote for LAD Fleg, in a purely personal capacity.
Looking through the strategic mistakes made by Loyalists at the time of the flag protests and since (in terms, at least, of delivering real outcomes and political influence), it is remarkable how many of the same strategic mistakes are made by Progressives – the very people against whom much of that Loyalist ire was turned! This article looks particularly at the old maxim that divided parties (and movements) don’t win elections and thus can’t secure influence; concluding by introducing the notion that all politics is based around “bogey men” as the best means of securing unity.
Like Loyalists, Progressives spend too long talking to each other. The problem is not that this results in bad policies (in fact, it tends to result in good ones). The problem is that it results in skewed priorities – and thus the discussion becomes an ever decreasing circle of total irrelevance (from the wider voting population’s perspective). This is why, despite good policies in many areas, both Loyalists and Progressives (with the odd notable exception) are left without serious political representation or influence. How often have we seen it? The election campaign was great fun – but the result was bewildering; the policies were well presented – but they were irrelevant to those determining the election outcome, namely the voters!
A particularly peculiar thing about Progressives in the context of Northern Ireland is their own inability to compromise, even with each other! While they preach about how Unionists and Nationalists should be able to sort things out instead of putting obstacles in the way (and they are right about that of course), they themselves put obstacles in the way of working with each other!
There is the aforementioned tendency to set up new parties and groups. More notably, however, there is the tendency of many Progressives to put a particular, narrow policy objective in the way of cooperation with other Progressives. We have surely all seen it: “Yes, I’d support a non-sectarian party as long as it backs the living wage”; “Oh, I’d support a cross-community movement, but only if it’s libertarian”; “Yeah, they’re okay, but I didn’t like it when they walked out of those talks 12 years ago”; “Ah well, I basically like them but I can’t join them because some of them are Socialist/Liberal/Conservative/vegetarian/meat-eating/pro-fracking/anti-fracking/brunette/blonde…”
Progressives are a relatively small minority as it is, even smaller when you only count the politically minded ones – so where on earth does this appetite for the luxury of every increasing numbers of small groups with ever decreasing numbers of people (and thus usually zero influence, individually and collectively) come from?!
Perhaps there are two prime reasons for this. Firstly, Progressives do not actually see themselves as a group – they are conditioned not to by an ongoing narrative, backed up by the political institutions, which only really allows for “Unionists”, “Nationalists” and “Others” (a deliberately ill-defined and frankly slightly irritating jumble with no common positions of their own). Thus, they do not realise what power they could have if they acted as a coherent, cohesive unit as opposed to sideshow smattering of small conflicting groups. Secondly, perhaps due to who they are, Progressives believe political arguments can be won solely by way of reason – a comforting but actually nonsensical argument given that it has never happened that way in this (or arguably any) part of the world! Thus, they forget (as ever with the odd notable exception) that influence actually derives from hard work on constituency issues.
The fundamental problem which comes from all of this, it seems to me, is that Progressives are so busy arguing over (comparative) irrelevance with each other, they have no idea how to connect with the electorate. Put crudely, when you arrive on a voter’s doorstep, they could not care less about your vision for Northern Ireland’s political institutions, your magical plan education for the next generation, or your wonderful proposed decades-long reform of the health system. What they care about is immediate. Can you get their bin replaced; can you sort a place in the local nursery for their niece; can you ensure a bed in the local A&E for their grandfather – and can you do it now?! Suddenly, that crazed 50-tweet argument you had about the living wage with someone with whom you otherwise agree on everything counts for absolutely zilch…
I have written before that there is only one thing which really matters to politically minded Progressives keen to make a difference: the anti-Progressive forces of hard-line Unionism and hard-line Nationalism, the DUP and Sinn Fein, between them hold 67 out of 108 Assembly seats; 13 out of 18 Parliamentary seats; and a majority of Council seats. There are three obvious reasons this matters, which are worth re-stating.
Firstly, it matters because of the simple numbers when it comes to passing legislation or voting through policy. If the DUP and Sinn Fein agree, it happens; and if they don’t, it doesn’t. Until they are deprived of their majority, it will ever be thus. Bring as many Bills to the Assembly as you like advocating “Opposition”, or same-sex marriage, or selection without examination at 14, or whatever – you can’t win any of them.
Secondly, it matters because of how there were structured to achieve it. Think of the calamities which have befallen the leadership of each party even just this decade – from Irisgate to the horrendous abuse cases around Liam Adams. The DUP and Sinn Fein closed ranks, kept their concerns and divisions internal, and came through as a single cohesive unit capable of winning elections. Compare that to the aforementioned Progressives, going out of their way to find the most minor policy or strategic issue to justify further division into ever smaller warring camps!
Thirdly, it matters because of what they did to achieve it – and, particularly, what they didn’t do! The DUP and Sinn Fein got there by being able to answer those immediate questions on the doorstep – in other words through a hard won reputation for constituency work. If you doubt that, look at the exceptions to the rule (say, Lady Hermon or Naomi Long) and ask yourself how they did it. If it looks like hard work, that’s because it is! What they didn’t do was spent ages and ages sitting about with each other obsessing over detailed policy platforms…
This brings us neatly to the notion of the “bogey man”. Perhaps the main way in which the DUP and Sinn Fein remain cohesive lies not in what they are far, but in what they are against. Frankly, this is the same everywhere – the motivation for winning elections is best summed up in the words of Sir Humphrey Appleby: “You know what happens when the right people don’t have power? The wrong people get it!”
Therefore, they create a “bogey man” – noting as ever that this “bogey man” need not be entirely or even remotely rational. It merely has to be something perceived (whether accurately or not) to unite against.
For Unionists, the overall “bogey man” is the “United Ireland” or any perceived staging post to it – be it a Sinn Fein Lord Mayor, a Sinn Fein European Election win, or (now, as the others have both happened) a Sinn Fein First Minister. This works best when it is presented specifically – thus, the flags issue was presented as the Alliance Party (a direct electoral rival) forming a coalition with Sinn Fein (not a direct electoral rival but representative of the “bogey man” of the operation) to “tear down” the flag. That designated days actually made Belfast a more typically British Council (as most British Councils have designated days) was neither here nor there – “bogey men” are not rational beings!
For Nationalists (including self-identifying “Republicans”), the “bogey man” is a return to Unionist domination (the opposite of which is always referred to as “equality”, even if it actually means Nationalist domination). The flags issue was presented (literally – it was even filmed) as Sinn Fein delivery of the end of Unionist domination in Belfast. That it was the first time Irish Republicans had voted for the Union Flag to fly over a civic office in Ireland and was thus reflective of Nationalism’s total defeat on the constitutional question was neither here nor there – see above!
Nationalists, of course, see change inevitably as moving away from their “bogey man”; Unionists see it as moving towards theirs. This is broadly reflected in their attitude to any change – even, say, same-sex marriage. (On one occasion, Unionists even opposed a change in Assembly procedures to allow MLAs to take their jackets off in the Chamber on a particularly hot day – and sat their sweltering as Nationalist and Alliance members proceeded with the change!)
And so we return to the two groups we started with – Loyalists and Progressives. Loyalists are in fact trapped by this anti-change Unionist versus pro-change Nationalist narrative, because in fact they do want change in terms of their social circumstances even if not in terms of the constitution. They bought into the Unionist “bogey man” narrative during the flag dispute, but must come to realise their real bogey man is the overarching narrative which doesn’t allow Northern Ireland people to seek social change without also seeking constitutional change.
Progressives are also trapped by this narrative. In fact, they found themselves presented as the “bogey man” during the flag dispute, yet they lack one of their own. Not having something to unite against, they divide up all over the place and fail to present a coherent case to the voters. In fact, their bogey man is also the narrative which doesn’t allow people to seek social change without seeking constitutional change.
If there is a problem looming, Unionists and Nationalists can simply create another illusion of a problem based on their bogey man, around which they can unite. Loyalists and Progressives haven’t mastered that, and thus remain divided.
What is remarkable, at the end of all of this, is how much Loyalists and Progressives actually have in common – despite having been on the opposite ends of a dispute created by others as a “bogey man” issue. Loyalists and Progressives are divided among themselves; they tend to talk to each other too much without engaging enough with wider society; they tend to believe contrary to the evidence that non-voters are all on their side; they haven’t recognised that political influence derives from hard constituency work; they haven’t taken account of the old maxim that divided parties (and movements) don’t win elections – and thus don’t attain influence.
Most remarkable of all, Loyalists and Progressives both in fact have the same common objective. They will get nowhere until the DUP and Sinn Fein are deprived of an Assembly majority; and to do that they have to challenge the narrative that those who want social change must also want constitutional change.
That is why, as a Progressive, I want to see Loyalists for democracy. With a bit of hard work, we can make it deliver for both of us.