Take the high road?

December 4, 2012 by
Filed under: Politics 

Thanks to all of you who entered Friday’s competition for phrases which are designed to mislead. Given my own experience of dealing with its property services and legal departments, I was very tempted by ‘Lambeth the co-operative council’ but in the end I plumped for Benjamin and ‘your call is important to us’. Having spent over twenty hours in the last month trying unsuccessfully to get through to Virgin broadband customer support, I dedicate the award to Sir Richard Branson. Benjamin, if you email Barbara ([email protected]) we can arrange for you to get the wine.

I am writing this paper before speaking at a conference organised by the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action and I thought I might share a modest insight that I plan to try out on my audience in a few minutes’ time.

My subject is the ‘social economy’ so I will start by explaining why economic policy cannot be simply about economic instruments. This is particularly important here as there is both a tendency to want to avoid talking about difficult social issues – particularly segregation – and a growing obsession with the demand for the freedom to lower Corporation Tax as a silver bullet which will solve all Northern Ireland’s deep economic problems (I have no inside knowledge but I am highly sceptical that the Westminster Government will grant this power, particularly with the Scottish devolution referendum on the horizon).

From this starting point I will urge a process of developing scenarios for Northern Ireland in 2020 or 2025. While strategies – and there are lots of those in Northern Ireland – tend to focus on one set of variables and treat the wider context as constant, scenario planning – as practiced by, among others, Adam Kahane – involves developing an holistic account of the the kind of futures which are available; not the future we merely want, nor the future we predict but the future we could build depending on the real choices within our power to make.

Scenario planning of this kind will often lead – and this is my insight – to three clusters of visions. The first explore breakdown and collapse, the second some form of muddling through and the third practical transformation. If deep and broad buy-in can be achieved for the transformational scenario, it can become a means to inspire people to face reality and accept change, and – crucially in the Northern Irish context – it can be a way of holding politicians to account: are their actions in line with the long term goal of transformation?

The striking thing about the debate in Northern Ireland is the discordancy between, on the one hand, the frankly bleak analysis of experts and opinion formers in relation to the current position and immediate prospects and, on the other, a fatalism about the possibility of radical change. The suggestion I will make in a few minutes is that this is because, in a country in the long shadow of the Troubles and where a huge and violent riot can break out over how many days in the year the town hall will fly a flag, the parameters of expectation lie between the breakdown scenario and the muddling through scenario.

The key observation about the debate over the flag is not who is right, nor even whether the unrest will last more than a few days, but its utter irrelevance to the issues that will really determine whether Northern Ireland has any chance of taking the high road to a better future. This is an obvious point but perhaps through a major high profile process of scenario development, Northern Irish civil society can reframe these debates so that it becomes harder and harder for mainstream politicians to get away with pandering to their political base at the expense of genuine leadership.





  • Carl Allen

    As a riot can break out so easily, then the potential for radical and beneficial change is huge.

    It is the right catalyst that has to be used.

  • http://cimota.com/blog Matt

    @Carl – the problem is that the rioters are utterly in support of the status quo. Our politicians are utterly invested in the status quo and it was our politicians encouraging their followers to demonstrate in the light of losing the democratic vote that caused over a dozen people to be injured and thousands of pounds of property damage.

    These are not revolutionaries. They’re not fighters for freedom and justice.

  • CP

    The assumption here is that Northern Ireland “civil society” has the desire or ability to reframe debates around structural issues. Since the start of the peace process there has emerged a “voluntary” elite who are served very well by the status quo. These elite will use finely tuned political antennae to pick up the signals sent to them by their departmental civil servant and political paymasters. Whatever way the political wind is blowing, you will see them huffing and puffing at the edges, legitimising the dominant political and economic discourses under the veil of reasoned and independent argument. The corporation tax debate and welfare reform are the two most noteworthy examples. For corporation tax we saw wishy-washy support. On welfare reform we have esoteric debates about how many bank accounts the payments should be made into. This is an important issue in and of itself, but their focus on these secondary issues is due to the fact that the sector likes to appear progressive by tinkering around the edges of policy in cahoots with our rightwing administration. Please, let’s get past this idealisation of “civil society”. To open up debate, we will have to bypass the current civil society structures, not put them in charge of it.

  • Chris McCracken

    I have recently returned to Belfast after 13 years (last job Lambeth – sorry again about that Matthew) and it has changed a lot. Architectially astonishing £90million Titanic building, New Metropolitan Arts College, Refurbished Ulster Hall and Opera House, National Awards for redesigned High Street and public art (Rise at Westlink), Crumlin Rd jail is now a tourist attraction, academic excellence through the new Metropolitan College and proposed relocation of the University of Ulster. Ambitious growth plans via the new science park connect. And finally (my new role) the £150m City Investment Programme, which is as much about social transformation as physical development. We are still a divided city, but small steps are taking place everywhere. Stay longer next time and have a good look around.

  • Denis

    “Perhaps ….Northern Irish civil society can reframe these debates so that it becomes harder and harder for mainstream politicians to get away with pandering to their political base at the expense of genuine leadership.”

    Yes, Matthew, but only if these politicians feel forced to direct real effort towards desegregation of the population and combating division rather than confining their attention to the nuts and bolts of devolved government activity.

    The news just reaching me as I write this of vicious attacks on Alliance Party people, whose “crime” seems to consist of securing republican votes for at least limited display of the Union Flag, does not bode well especially as some “mainstream” Unionist politicians are making lame excuses for the rioters.

    The Good Friday agreement was a tremendous step forward but the political system it introduced is flawed in that it is based too much upon entrenchment of the Protestant/Catholic divide and attempting to divi-up the goodies between them. There has always been a potential dynamic in Ulstermen and women which will only be released when the main thrust of Stormont politics is steered towards uniting the community – including the all-important development of truly integrated education.

  • Robert Burns

    Interesting stuff gentlemen,

    seems to me that the people of Northern Ireland/Ulster are locked into a historical narrative with some much inertia behind it that there is no real possibility of a ‘solution’ in any realistically foreseeable future.

    Lest we forget these people were artificially brought together precisely for the purpose of maintaining an oppressive, apartheit status quo.

    The original creators of the Catholic/Protestant divide made a better job of it than they could possibly have imagined.

    Each side sees any political process as having directly opposed ultimate ends.

    For the majority of the politically ‘Catholic’ camp that end point is separation from the Union. For the politically ‘Protestant’ the end point is maintaining the Union.

    Much of the ‘Protestant’ identity is invested in the existence and maintenance of segregation and some rather nasty political and cultural habits.

    We all been subjected to anti-republican/IRA brainwashing, but the Republican Movement and the IRA are a reaction to the particularly unpleasant habits of thought of the agents of the Union and through which they experience membership of the Union.

    Some examples of this are the ‘Orangemen’ and their annual marches. These things need to be suppressed.

    Imagine if the BNP and NF ran an annual march though Brixton to celebrate the founding of the West indian slave colonies and threw pennies to the decendants of West Indian immigrants.

    Politically incorrect as this example is it captures the character of how many people who are ‘Catholic’ experience being in the Union.

    Could anyone really claim to be surprised if there was a violent reaction and political disaffection from people subject to such ongoing provocation?

  • Matt

    It’s wrong to associate national identity/political identifiers with religion. While there are broad demographics, most Catholics do not feel punished by being in the Union. They don’t even notice it. They, like most Protestants, are more concerned about making sure their kids have a good Christmas.

    We must remember that our governments do not have a mandate from the people. Their coalitions are power-sharing of the worst kind. Share the spoils but anything important gets thrown to the side. Our devolved government is an abject failure in the face of greedy tribalism.

  • http://cimota.com/blog Matt

    @Chris McCracken – what are you working on with the City Investment Programme? Would love to hear more about that? Is it SIB or BCC or ?

  • Chris McCracken
  • Robert Burns

    Thank you Matt,

    I think we can all deduce from your description of anti-flag rioters and your use of ‘they’ in your following post that you do not have any Catholic connections.

    This leads me to question your claimed insights into the thoughts and feelings of your Catholic peers and contemporaries.

    To be sure they will worry about the things you mentioned – and a good deal more besides.

    Your use of the word ‘punished’ is also interesting.

    Lastly, you completely side-stepped the issue of long standing and continuing institutional, publicly ritualised provocations of the Catholic community.

    I can’t help but feel you’re being just a little disingenuous.

  • Matt

    Hi Bob,

    I’ll answer these by point.

    1. I was raised a Catholic. While I am probably best described as an atheist/humanist, my Mums side of the family are all bona fide Nationalist Catholics. My fathers side are Unionist Presbyterians. We celebrated St Patricks Day with a day off school and the Twelfth by watching my uncle (he was a piper).

    2. You’re mixing up the Nationalist community with the Catholic community. It’s exactly the sort of problem I am describing but given your description of “Catholic” provocation, I can’t help but feel you’re describing this from a certain point of view. Going into a civic conversation with that sort of predisposition is unlikely to bring positive, equitable results.

    3. Modern moderate citizens are disengaged from Northern Ireland politics. And we are left with the worst kind of extremism, exacerbated by power-sharing.

    So, no, not disingenuous.

  • Robert Burns

    Hello Matt,

    thank you for answering so fully.

    Based on what you write you would seem to have special, first hand insight into the issues and what it is like actually living with them every day – something very rare here!

    Politicians and citizens not on the same wavelength: tell me about it!

    I stand corrected.

    With that said…….

    Open civic conversation is an excellent thing, but unless it can move on to expression in active political terms it will wither and die.

    Drawing from what you have written I conclude that the political apparatus is presently inhabited by people who do fit my description and are backed by people willing to use armed force in the event that a political process produces any real risk that Northern Ireland/Ulster starts moving on a trajectory other than the ‘correct’ one passed down to them.

    Now, there’s the rub and what to do about.

  • Matt

    You are absolutely right about the political apparatus.

    What to do about it? Well that is the very definition of the problem. And while “reasonable” people are excluded and disengaged, is there a way out?

    That’s why I’ve been working with RSA Ireland.

  • Robert Burns

    Sincerely wishing you every success – it is a thing worth hanging on for.

  • http://cimota.com/blog Matt

    I’ll be long dead. It’s my generation that needs to die off.

  • Robert Burns

    Just make sure that some of them take their ideas with them.

  • http://www.howtoadvisethepresident.wordpress.com Graham Rawlinson
  • Chris McCracken

    I am sure that all of us living in Northern Ireland have recently received concerned texts from UK, Irish Republic or overseas friends. However, although the flag protests show no sign of abating, I do not believe they represent the narrative for the Province, and we should not let the high profile coverage distract us from the genuine pathway that we are on.

    In terms of symbols let us not forgot the Queen laying a wreath on the memorial to Irish Republicans, or the Irish PM laying a wreath for the British war dead. That is more powerful and resonant than the current protests.

    The true future for Northern Ireland is on building on our world class education, recently ranked as the best primary level for English and Maths in the English speaking world:

    Or perhaps our cutting edge Tourist offer:
    The National Geographic Traveller’s editor-in-chief, Keith Bellows, wrote of Belfast: “It was great, the food, the incredible atmosphere. I felt that this place was a treasure that had sort of been preserved, it hadn’t been trampled on by the big foot of tourism and so I really loved its purity. You look at where the energy spots are in the world and this is Belfast’s time.”

    Or perhaps in job creation, ranked by Ernst & Young in 2011 as the most attractive UK destination for FDI (after London), and with a specific ambition to grow a ground breaking renewable sector: http://www.ukti.gov.uk/uktihome/media/pressRelease/124574.html

    Surely these achievements, in politics, education, culture and job creation represent the true narrative of our land.