Category Archives: Politics

Academia needs better grasp of real world politics

The argument has once again been made in a new book that the so-called “Peace Walls” should come down.

However, I cannot help but think such arguments are, both literally and metaphorically, academic. No Northern Irish people seriously believes “Peace Walls” are a positive thing, any more than Americans believe multiple weekly gun massacres are a positive thing. Yet more of them have gone up than come down since the so-called “Peace Agreement” of 1998.

It is frustrating that so many articles and books come out about the theory of such things, and yet so little effort is made to look at the practice. If “Peace Walls” are so obviously a bad thing (and it does not take a genius to work that out), why are they still up? Indeed, why has there been so little progress in taking them down? And let us be clear, anyone with a real knowledge of Northern Ireland knows there is no chance of their removal by 2023.

The fundamental reason for Peace Walls is, of course, not difficult to assess and does not require a book – there is a genuine fear underlying them. They are seen as direct protection for communities who simply do not trust their neighbours enough to do without them. Whether this fear and distrust is theoretically justified is almost irrelevant – fear and distrust are emotional, not rational.

There is a second fundamental issue here, which I touched on in yesterday’s blog. It is that local politicians follow; they do not lead. Why would they make genuine efforts to build bridges, reduce tensions and remove fear, when they actually thrive on (and get elected on the basis of) the status quo? It is an incredibly obvious point, yet academics and other external observers never address it. (As for the 2023 deadline, neither Mr Robinson nor Mr McGuinness will likely be around the be judged on it; and even if they are, they will play the standard blame game – why do people not get this?!)

There is a constant failing in broad academia to deal with the actual motivations of politicians and other “community leaders”. Such people simply do not read academic articles and think “Hey, I hadn’t thought of that; let’s do that!”

The very basic issue here is that people with little to lose will inevitably cling to a “community”, which gives them at least a sense of belonging and some feeling, at least, of strength in numbers. This is why, for example, immigrant communities spring up in new locations – as social networks designed to maximise the information flow and give members of the community at least some foundation in their surroundings. The standard example is the “Puerto Rican Taxi Drivers’ Association” in New York – a means whereby new, Spanish-speaking arrivals in the metropolis could find both community and employment.

The problem is, however, that there comes a time when you have to move beyond that “community”; when in fact that community is limiting you. We are absolutely at that stage on either side of the “Peace Walls” and in other inner-city areas, as noted yesterday. It is understandable – up to a point at least – why people would come together to demand public services, community space and even cultural expression. None of that, however, especially when cast in a single-identity manner, actually moves the community forward. At best, it retains a status quo which suits politicians and other “community leaders” who are elected (or, well, appointed) on the back of it, but does not actually suit the community when looked at even vaguely rationally; at worst, it marginalises the community completely, making its members unable to take any of the opportunities available in the wider (diverse) society beyond the walls. This is exactly the same as the obvious point that there comes a time when a resident of New York aspires to more than speaking only Spanish socially to people dreaming of a distant island while driving taxis to get by; there comes a time when you realise you need to socialise in the main language of the city and to engage in knowledge and cultural exchange with a much wider group of people in order to get a better paid career – and thus, despite its initial value, the “Puerto Rican Taxi Drivers’ Association” becomes not a key to pulling you up, but a chain holding you down.

However, even all that is theory. After all, I or anyone else can write all we like about why the Peace Walls are a bad idea. Maybe it even serves to alleviate our Middle Class Guilt. However, actually doing the bridge-building at the interfaces is extraordinarily gruelling and largely thankless work, swimming in most cases against the local political and representative tide. It is not something I could do. I doubt it is something the authors of these wonderful books and academic papers could do either. The one thing we do need to do is to recognise that our external work will make not a jot of difference.

If they are to have any value at all, we need academics and civic actors to do much more than talk about how good an idea something would be; we need them to show us how it can be made to happen. Sadly, I see decreasing evidence of people even being prepared to take on that challenge, far less deliver on it.

“The community” isn’t always right

One of the things politicians often say to justify a position is that “the community wants [or does not want] it”. This is perhaps particularly so in Northern Ireland.

However, there is a problem with this. “The community” isn’t always right.

I could come up with no end of historical examples of where “communities” were wrong – often brutally and appallingly. However, let us just give three areas where “communities” are often fearful of change, even where that change is clearly for the long-term good, and are therefore “wrong”.

Firstly, in Health. Try to reform the system by re-allocating resources and facilities, and you will immediately find a “grass-roots” campaign backed by the “local community” to keep things as they are. It will be backed by politicians and presented as “saving” whatever the local resource or facility is. However, such campaigns are almost invariably flawed – causing vast amounts of money to be allocated to buildings which cannot possibly all host all the necessary health expertise. Rationalisation is necessary and wise – yet “the community” does not want to be necessary or wise… the community is wrong.

Second, in Education. Try introducing a new educational facility into an inner-city area, and you will find often find it rejected – even to the extent that children in existing facilities are taken out of their education to protest about a facility which would not be built anyway by the time they had left school. Again, this will be presented as “protecting” local schools – when in fact those schools suffer declining rolls, are increasingly dilapidated, and sometimes cannot even produce adequate numbers for sports lessons or such like. New, merged schools with the most up-to-date facilities (not least in IT) – particularly those which integrated people from different backgrounds to get them prepared in early life for the diverse society in which they will have to live – are hugely sensible. Even more than this, tackling educational underachievement through such facilities is vital to ending the intergenerational poverty trap – yet “the community” (backed by politicians who claim to care about it) apparently does not want to tackle the intergenerational poverty trap (far less prepared for the reality of a diverse society)… the community is wrong.

Thirdly, in Regeneration. Try introducing a new social development which brings people together, provides an economic hub, and promised to revitalise the local area by providing a place in which people would consider investing, and watch the sectarian fear take over. It is, after all, much easier for an inward-looking “community” to pretend that there is some bogey man out there trying to deprive it of opportunities, than to reform and regeneration into an outward-looking “community” in which opportunities would arise. The “community” thus looks inward and rejects progress, backed by local politicians – ensuring its own decline as the rest of the world moves on… the community is wrong.

For all the discussion about welfare and such like, this is the real reason the NI Assembly has been doomed to collapse from the outset. It is populated by politicians who believe only in protecting their (short-term) “community” interests, not by those who think and feel for society as a whole. That is what has to change.

“Living Wage” a meaningless term

I don’t like George Osborne, but he is a cunning operator. In the recent Budget, he stole the Left’s clothes by introducing a “National Living Wage”. Brilliant.

Introducing it was not the cunning move, of course. Redefining it was. Instead of the academically agreed figure of £7.80, he put it at £7.20. He then said he’d raise it to £9, more than Labour. Furthermore, he restricted it to age 25+.

His opponents inevitably struggled because actually here were the Conservatives shifting responsibility for subsidising low pay from the taxpayer to Tesco’s.

And then they fell into the real trap. “Ah, but given what he has done to tax credits, the real living wage is now £12″, screamed some.

Hold on.

Not everyone qualified for tax credits, and they come in different forms in varying amounts depending on age, income and dependants. In other words, tying the level of the “Living Wage” to tax credits is an admission that it too depends heavily on circumstances. And if it depends heavily on circumstances, it varies from individual to individual and from time to time, rendering the whole concept (at least when expressed as an hourly figure) meaningless.

This may be no bad realisation. Low pay is a huge economic scourge. The “Living Wage” was presented as a magic bullet when it isn’t. The real issue is low productivity (30% below Germany’s) resulting inevitably in low wages. Sorting that needs not a magic bullet, but a more fundamental structural change.

Greek listening lessons for Unionists too

The Belfast Telegraph rightly ran a few articles over the past week (I am sure others did too, but those were the ones I happened to see) noting that Syriza’s embarrassment at negotiations following its “anti-austerity” referendum contained “harsh lessons” for Sinn Fein.

This is true. Syriza ran a referendum asking its people to endorse its view (at that of its Neo-Nazi coalition partners, a lot of liberal lefties seemed to forget…) that it should be allowed to spend as much German, Slovak and Latvian (and, ahem, Irish) money as it liked without penalty. The Greeks endorsed this wholeheartedly of course (who wouldn’t?), but forgot to note that the Germans, Slovaks and Latvians (and, ahem, at least some Irish) might not be quite so keen on the idea.

The Greek Ministers (and people, frankly) made many mistakes but the core one was to believe that, in a group of 19 countries, only their own interests counted. They enjoyed taking to Twitter and CNN to tell us all about how they and their people saw it – but they forgot to consider even remotely about how the other 18 might see it…

The practical result was that the Greek Prime Minister was taken into a room and humiliated. He signed a deal which was worse that the one on offer before the referendum, which will break apart his own party, and which he will never be able to implement anyway. Having taken over a growing Greek economy on the road to recovery, he has merely succeeded in taking it in a distinct lurch south, in every sense.

The lessons for Sinn Fein on both sides of the border are obvious; but there are lessons for Unionists too. As with the Greek Ministers (and people), it is a notable feature of Unionist political comment that they discuss at length who they are, what they want, and how they feel. However, they take almost no time to consider anyone else.

Unionists represent, at best, 1.5% of the population of the UK; as I have written many times before, those ticking both “British” and “Protestant” in the census were just 48% in 2011, a minority of Northern Ireland’s population – and I was among them. Unionists have every right to tell us who they are, what they want and how they feel – but they have no more right to dictate to the rest of us than Greece had to dictate to 18 other fellow Eurozone members. Not just that, but Unionists (like the Greeks) would do rather better if they spent more time considering who others are, what others want and how others feel before making their fanciful demands from a minority position.

In other words, the Greek mistake was not just that they made ludicrous demands from a position of numerical and economic weakness; it was that they considered only their own position and objectives, not anyone else’s. There are obvious lessons there for Sinn Fein on both sides of the Irish border – but also, broadly, for Unionists in Northern Ireland.

Unionist leaders neither truly British nor truly Protestant

If Unionists are world champions at anything, it is manufactured rage.

Of course, the presence of paramilitary trappings at a funeral is outrageous. But then, the presence of paramilitary trappings on public property or at war memorials is outrageous. How about some consistency? Ah no, you see, it’s one rule for “usuns” and one rule for “themmuns”.

This July, as ever, has seen courageous public servants injured by mobs; an arranged fight between (ahem, female) kids in a busy shopping street; and even the export of paramilitarism by a Bangor man to Alice Springs where he plans to “tar and feather” Aboriginals. All of these hint that parts of Northern Irish society are fundamentally uncivilised – yet they drew scant comment from Unionist leaders who could do something about it.

As a British Protestant, I am fed up with seeing my national flag besmirched by its placing on public property alongside paramilitary flags; and I am fed up with seeing my religion besmirched with the ludicrous notion that burning an image of the mother of Christ or forcing co-religionists out of their homes is my “culture”.

The fact that Unionist leaders choose, at best, to do nothing about these things says more to their own lack of real understanding or both Britishness and Protestantism. This lack of understanding of what it is to be a responsible British citizen and compassionate follower of the reformed faith has much to answer for.

There was simply no point in voting Unionist

Unionist political leaders don’t care to admit it, but the last census proved they are a minority. Only 48% of the population ticked “British” and only 48% ticked “Protestant”. Therefore only a minority of people are likely to be attracted to a party emphasising “British identity” and prioritising “(Protestant) marching”.

Unionism picked up two seats at last month’s General Election but the trend is, of course, one of further decline. A decade or so from now, we will be discussing results of a census which show more “Catholics” than “Protestants”; and of Elections at which even Unionist pacts cannot secure more than half the seats. Despite the curious decline in Nationalist turnout, these facts are not disputed.

This does not point towards a majority for a “United Ireland”. Still less than a third of people in Northern Ireland regard themselves as “(All-)Irish” and there is no reason that will change; and many “Nationalist” voters will continue to hint that perhaps now is not quite the time for a Border Poll.

Therefore, people with an interest in keeping the UK together (in “defending the Union” to use the siege parlance) have a decision to make – either “the Union” is in danger, or it isn’t.

If we accept that even a Catholic majority would have no interest in risking the financial status quo, then “the Union” is in no danger – in which case there is no point in voting Unionist.

If we accept that actually a Catholic-and-Other majority may seek to change the constitutional status quo, it is in the interests of those who support the status quo to reach out to that majority rather than circle the wagons around flag-waving British people and marching Protestants – in which case there is no point in voting Unionist.

It does not matter, therefore, what your constitutional position is. There is, on the basis of simple demographics, simply no point in voting Unionist.

NI needs to stop prioritising low-value business sectors

There is currently a vociferous and well organised lobby to reduce VAT for the hospitality sector in Northern Ireland. There has even been an Assembly motion, which in fairness was reasonably designed to suggest the idea should be looked at. Yet the whole prioritisation of the hospitality sector demonstrates all that is wrong with Northern Ireland’s economy policy prioritisation – for it is actually low value, and hence low paid.

Where are the most successful economies and most prosperous societies in the European Union? Perhaps Scandinavia, Benelux and parts of Germany? Tell me, how much do they prioritise their hospitality sector?

Not a lot, actually. Denmark, which has typically had the highest GDP/capita in the EU (excluding tiny Luxembourg) since it joined in 1973, does not attempt to prioritise it at all. Its VAT rate, already a hefty 25%, applies equally across the entire hospitality sector. Others make some effort, but it is relatively insignificant and, where any reductions apply, they are often made up for by additional municipal taxes (or are designed not to help the hospitality sector itself but to help encourage other business). None of those countries – Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, Netherlands or Germany – is renowned for its tourist or dining industry (with the arguable temporary exception of Denmark in the latter case, and even then only at the very high end of fine dining), nor particularly for great leisure opportunities. In other words, a strong hospitality sector does not a functioning economy make – indeed, it is not even necessary.

This is because hospitality is low value. There is very little real money to be made out of it. It relies often on one-off visitors paying a slight premium for something in which there are few margins to start with. As a consequence, it is extremely low paid. Even in Belfast, it is noteworthy that most waiters and receptionists in hotels and restaurants are foreign, prepared to accept lower wages than the locals. There is of course no harm in promoting Northern Ireland as a golf mecca, or a conflict resolution conference host, or the home of film tourism – but we need not rely on this to deliver high-paid employment and exciting careers in business.

Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany are trading nations; they export real goods and real services of real value. That is how they make their money – not hospitality. The hospitality sector likes to promote itself as “bringing in” millions to the economy, but actually most of this is merely circulating; it is only when you begin exporting high-value products and services – like cars, or wind turbines, or shipping services, or medicines, or engineering equipment and know-how – that you bring in real money and thus create well paid employment. With that trade will, of course, arise hospitality opportunities – but we need to be clear it is that way around. The odd tourist will not create the type of employment skilled graduates want; but the odd trader in high-end knowledge and equipment will.

Focusing on hospitality, therefore, is like focusing on call centres. Those types of starter jobs have their place, of course, and they are not to be knocked – but after the starter, there has to be a main course…

Derry roads priorities

Why should the A6 (to Belfast) be prioritised ahead of the A5 (to Dublin)?

Frankly, we all know this is an essentially sectarian question. Nationalists quite fancy the A5 because it links to the “national capital” after all. They will, therefore, make the evidence suit that case.

It doesn’t, though. Well, not really.

Firstly, we need to note this isn’t an “either/or”. In fact, upgrading each road occurs in sections. You could upgrade a section of one, and then a section of the other. In fact, that is what you should do.

Then, we need to look at the individual sections. I would be inclined to prioritise them as follows (using sections which Transport NI seems now to base its plans on):

– first, A6 M22-Castledawson (often referred to as “Moneynick”, but actually the contract includes the section over the county boundary to the west of the Toome Bypass too);

– second, A6 Dungiven Bypass (to the south);

– third, A5 Ballygawley-Omagh;

– fourth, A6 Derry-Dungiven;

– fifth, A5 Derry-Strabane.

That is as far as I would plan for now. Here is why.

Firstly, the worst stretch on the entire A5/A6 is the “Moneynick” section. This is because, by the late ’60s, the Stormont administration had given up on a more northern route to Derry but not on extending the M22 to Castledawson; it thus invested in improving the A6 beyond Castledawson but assumed it would be replaced before it. With the partial exception of the Toome Bypass, however, the section is the only stretch of main A6 still as it was in the ’50s (other than in Dungiven, see below). Hence it is heavily congested at some times and plain dangerous the rest of the time. So it is far and away top priority for that alone. Throw in usage and economic benefit (as the stretch serves Mid Ulster as well as the North West), and this just becomes even clearer.

The battle for second priority is tighter for me, but the A6 Dungiven Bypass just edges it ahead of A5 Ballygawley-Omagh. This is for much the same reason as Moneynick – assuming a Dungiven Bypass was coming, even in the ’60s, the road was left alone temporarily (“temporarily” came to mean half a century). Add to that the significant journey time saving (not only is the route slowed by passing through Dungiven but also by the fact it is significantly diverted to do so) and pollution levels (raised in fact by Sinn Féin), and there is an urgent economic and health case.

Ballygawley-Omagh is the priority section of A5 for me partly because it serves a double purpose (connecting the North West to the south but also the West of Ulster to Belfast), and partly because it is dangerous. As with the new A4 expressway to which it connects, it would clearly save lives.

I would put the Derry-Dungiven A6 section next not least because it diverts traffic away from the east and south of the city in preparation for increased traffic on the subsequent A5. The A5 expressway stops south of Derry, near Newbuildings, and all the traffic on it is then assigned to an urban single carriageway – an obvious bottleneck as far as the Craigavon Bridge. Any traffic which can be diverted away from this area therefore should be – and the A6 plans help (though do not entirely solve) the problem by moving traffic exiting Derry eastbound to a bypass north of Drumahoe (meeting the existing Derry-Coleraine road north of the Foyle Bridge, taking the Craigavon Bridge out of the equation for traffic on this route to and from the Cityside and North Donegal).

To be very clear, I’d like to see all these projects completed and many beyond them. However, not least given the current financial circumstances (and our determination not to have toll roads), there is a need to prioritise which sections will be done first. If anyone has any other thoughts, I’m listening!

Environment lobby needs to stop speaking Double Dutch

Of all the ludicrous decisions I have seen taken by governments and courts, one taken in the Netherlands last week comes very near the top of the list. After a campaign by environmentalists, a court ordered the Dutch Government to reduced emissions by 25% from 1990 levels – by 2020. This is crazy for three reasons.

Firstly, it cannot and will not be done. No doubt the Government will pay itself a hefty fine.

Secondly, it assumes, ludicrously, that all the emissions are under the control of the government. In fact, very few are. From corporations to individuals, responsibility for emissions is shared. The government cannot be held responsible in a remotely liberal society (and we are speaking here of a very liberal one of course) for all of its citizens and corporations’ actions. Punishing them for living their daily lives and running their daily business (necessary to achieve the target) but be crazy, would constitute an outrageous imposition, and would destroy the economy and living standards. Human rights, you say?

Thirdly, actions by the Dutch Government and even by the Dutch people collectively, taken alone, will make almost no difference to climate change. Here is something that will: globally, 50 new runways are being built in the next few decades, a third in China alone. Beijing’s new airport will be the size of Bermuda; Mexico City’s will be the largest in the Americas; Istanbul’s will be twice the size even of an expanded Heathrow. Even if tomorrow Europeans and North Americans stopped flying at all, the amount of global air traffic would double from today’s within the next 25 years. Not only will this, all other things being even, toss double (treble, actually, because of course we will continue to fly) the emissions into the air, most new air travel will be in developing countries to enable economic growth which will itself require more and more energy and more and more emissions.

Climate change, like social justice and many other things, is bizarrely causing us to look ever more inwards for local solutions (and, at best, appeals to Western-based morality) as if the growing middle classes in the Far East, South Asia and elsewhere are somehow not relevant actors. In fact what is required, again as with social justice, is a global solution to the global problem. But of course, again as with social justice, that will require restrictive and even punitive action in the West that no electorate there will actually tolerate…

Addendum (thanks to one regular correspondent):

Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his work on the psychology of human decision-making, says: ‘This is not what you might want to hear,’ he says, but ‘no amount of psychological awareness will overcome people’s reluctance to lower their standard of living.’

Stormont Budget: the way out

Cathy Gormley-Heenan and Newton Emerson are swiftly evolving into a BBC commentator dream team, because they both add genuine interest to the discourse and they actually disagree with each other! One thing they did agree on Thursday was that it is in all parties’ interests to help Sinn Fein out of the hole into which it has dug itself.

My own preference was outlined here a month ago – I believe strongly that devolving economic control would work politically and would be the best option in the longer term. It won’t happen, however.

Short of that, there is a simple route, hinted at in fact by Mike Nesbitt of all people on the same programme, which would have the effect of returning half a billion to the Assembly Budget over the average Assembly term – a “win” Sinn Fein could claim if it wished.

Simply, money that is not spent by the Northern Ireland departments should remain in Northern Ireland.

Currently, with some specific exceptions, money which is not spend from each Northern Ireland Department’s budget is returned to the UK Treasury. Usually, this is a very small amount, because as the end of the financial year approaches (in February and March), Departments off-load the extra – hence we see pavements dug up, short term employment training schemes run, and minor roadworks cunningly brought forward a few months. However, some of the money cannot be off-loaded so quickly, and back it goes. This averages £100m per year – 1% of the overall current resource budget.

Allowing the Northern Ireland Executive to maintain this money in a “Runover Fund” would therefore add £100m to the following year’s budget on average; furthermore, the value of that would be considerably greater because in fact Departments would not have to rush in February and March to off-load their money (being easily able to negotiate keeping it in the following year’s pot).

Added to my implicit proposal that Northern Ireland should only have to make up the difference of doing welfare or legal aid its own way (thus breaching “parity”) and not be inflicted with the whole bill, and that it should only be required to do this in the specific areas where its policy is different, and the total saving could in fact exceed £200m, with value considerably higher than that.

Convert this into £1b over an Assembly term, allow Sinn Fein to take the credit, and the Assembly has a reasonable chance of survival. Whether anyone would care is another matter completely, of course…

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