Take the high road?
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.