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Take the high road?

December 4, 2012 by · 18 Comments
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.




An ambition for peace?

June 20, 2011 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Politics, The RSA 

We don’t tend to associate the pursuit of community cohesion and peace with individual ambition but perhaps we should. In the long run, golfing genius Rory McIlroy may do more to overcome sectarianism than many a well-meaning community initiative.   

I am off to Northern Ireland this evening and tomorrow am a guest speaker to the Belfast City Council Good Relations Unit, an invitation which is partly the result of the efforts of our growing RSA Ireland chapter.  As an outsider, it is daunting to speak on an issue which is so much a part of the lives (and tragic pasts) of the audience. But it is also inspiring to be engaging with issues of community and social change in such a vivid context.

I still haven’t decided exactly what I am going to say, but I think tomorrow may see the re-emergence of a theme which used to be more prominent on this site – cultural theory. As loyal readers (by the way, how was your holiday mum?) may recall, this theory suggests there are four distinct ways of approaching organisational and social change: the egalitarian, which is about bottom-up, solidaristic, values-based change; the individualistic, which is about change driven by the pursuit of individual striving and ambition (for example through markets); the hierarchical, which is about top-down change led by experts and leaders; and the fatalistic which sees change as being unlikely, random and probably unsuccessful.

Cultural theorists advocate what they call ‘clumsy solutions’ which include all the three active modes of change, and recognition that many – if not most – people will be fatalists. Tomorrow I will suggest that most of the thinking, spending and action on overcoming segregation and hostility between the communities in Northern Ireland relates to initiatives which are either egalitarian or hierarchical in mode. What can we do to engage the power of individualism?

This is where the new US Open Golf champion comes in. Among the very many things we will hear about the amazing Mr McIlroy there are two particularly worth noting. The first is the dedication shown by Rory and his father in making him into the golfer he is now. My old friend Mick Fealty (of Slugger O’Toole fame) tells me of meeting up with McIlroy senior and his ten year old prodigy a few years ago. They were our playing a practice round having only just got off the airplane from having ‘a holiday’ in Florida. The US trip had been dedicated to Rory getting to know the course on which he was a few weeks later to play a world junior tournament. In a country where history, tribalism and fatalism seem so ubiquitous, stories of personal striving and success are powerfully needed.

A second relevant fact is that although McIlroy is a Catholic he has apparently gained the ire of some in the nationalist community by his willingness to – literally – drape himself in the flag of Northern Ireland. This is not I am told because he is political but rather the reverse; he isn’t interested in making a point either way.

Successful sportspeople with professional managers are strongly advised to avoid anything which might make them figures of political controversy and which could alienate potential fans. With Wimbledon starting today it is, perhaps, interesting to recall Andy Murray’s flirtation with Scottish nationalism a few years ago. This seems to have been put on the back burner more or less as soon as he became a ‘British’ hero in SW19. Wise move Andy. 

Strong visionary leadership, good urban policy and the hard graft of community work are all important to start to overcome the divisions in Northern Ireland, but so are role models whose pursuit of individual ambition leaves no space for politics or tribalism.

I will come back to some of these issues tomorrow, in particular floating my idea for a star studded Good Community Awards Night to make integration as exciting and inspiring in Northern Ireland as are the rich cultures of loyalism republicanism.  

But – I hear you all clamouring – how have you managed to link such serious matters to your pledge every day to make up a new rubbish joke for your blog…

The last time I went to Belfast I was having breakfast in the hotel when the man next to me asked the waiter for ‘your most popular fruit juice, a jar of marmalade and glass of Cointreau’

A few minutes later the waiter reappeared wearing a bowler hat, carrying a drum and holding a bag of satsumas.

’What on earth are you doing?’ said the surprised hotel guest

‘Oh’ said the waiter ’I’m part of the orange order’