Trusting the process

Tanya Jones sets out her vision of, and process for building, a sustainable, democratic society whose members treat one another with respect, justice, compassion and active non-violence, across the generations – but reminds us that “shortcuts signposted ‘Utopia’ lead, at best, to nowhere”

A Tanya Jones election poster goes up by the steeples of Fermanagh and South Tyrone

I was at the Glastonbury festival for the 2016 European Union referendum result.  I woke early and lay in my sleeping bag, huddled in foreboding. It took half an hour before I could bring myself to switch on my phone and confirm what the lump in my gut had already told me. But if there was such a thing as a good place to get the news, that was it.  The Left Field tent was crammed as Billy Bragg recalled his own political epiphany; the morning when, as a teenager, he had woken to the chilling double knowledge that Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and that he hadn’t voted.  This result, he prophesied, would be the spark that lit a new generation of passionate political creators.  It wasn’t a great consolation, but it was heartfelt and it was something. Visually, too, we were heartened.  One painted sign in particular caught my notice.  “Hold the vision; trust the process,” it read.  I wasn’t sure what it meant, but it coalesced some of the swirling emotion inside me, firmed it into a determination to keep on my small path, to face the worst, clear-eyed but without succumbing to despair. The phrase came back to me during the long night of November 8th, as the Radio 4 voices grew more sombre as the cold dawn approached, and the fears of the world were realised in President Trump. And again this month, as the Christmas reprieve was packed away with the tinsel, and the Stormont Executive, after a few short months, and the irony of the Fresh Start, collapsed in bitterness and recrimination.  The difference this time was that there was something I could do.

Standing for the Green Party in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Arlene Foster’s home constituency, is, I don’t mind confessing, something a little less than a cert.  But it will be the third time that my posters have had an airing, and I’m growing used to the oddness of it all.  Fermanagh and South Tyrone is a fascinating constituency; by a demographic quirk almost precisely divided between unionist and nationalist, the seat of Bobby Sands’ dying victory and the birth of Sinn Fein’s ballot box success. In 2010 Michelle Gildernew’s majority was four votes, with an inevitable court case following the multiple recounts.  By 2015, when I stood as the first ever Green Party candidate for the seat, the unionists were determined to defeat her, with not only the DUP, but also the TUV, UKIP, the Conservatives and any other vaguely red white and blue grouping declining to stand in favour of the Ulster Unionists’ Tom Elliott.  It worked – just, and I hope that they conclude it was worth it. The Assembly election of 2016 was only a little less exciting, with the count functioning as an imperial coronation for Mrs Foster and the playground for a squabble between Sinn Fein, who had accidentally selected too many candidates, and the SDLP, who managed to slip through and get a seat back. With all eyes upon Foster, and a reduction from six seats to five, this year’s contest will be no less fraught.  The main difference is that nobody wants it.

I’m standing for the eight hundred odd (some, no doubt, very odd) people who voted for me in 2015, and the 897 who gave me their first preference vote in 2016, for all the others who were grateful for an alternative option, and for the Green Party itself, which for the first time last year stood a candidate in every seat.  I’m standing in the hope that, even if I’m not here to see it, one day progressive politics will transform our sad and sectarian landscape.  And I’m standing because that phrase still resonates with all that I am and I do.  But what does it mean to stand in an election that the voters don’t want?  And what does the slogan mean anyway?

I searched the Internet for it, in the confident expectation that the phrase was the pithy encapsulation of a political philosophy I hadn’t previously encountered.  Whoever had said it, I thought, would have reams of further writing elucidating those two imperatives.  To my dismay, the only results I found were blogs about vaguely New Agey, gap year style individual self-discovery, all well-meaning and harmonious enough, but about as useful to political analysis as a set of Himalayan goatbells.  So, if I wanted to use it as a guide, I’d have to make up the meaning for myself.

The first part was easy enough.  I’ve been involved, on and off, in Green politics for a long time, certainly long enough to establish what I understand by it.  The vision, of facilitating a society whose members treat one another with respect, justice, compassion and active non-violence, where they can participate fully in decision making, where the natural world is respected and cared for and where resources can be accessed fairly both among the present generations and those of the future, is something that I have little difficulty in holding on to, however distant it sometimes seems.  I may, I hope I do, change my mind on particular issues and policies, when pertinent facts are pointed out, but the fundamental principles are just that, embedded in my spiritual as well as social beliefs.

But “trusting the process”; how does that work?  Electoral processes that have given us a looming Brexit that only 27 per cent of those eligible to vote asked for, the inauguration of a US President who lost the popular vote, and the bizarre failures of representation brought about by first-past-the vote races are scarcely confidence-builders.  And that’s even before we look at the power-sharing system of Stormont which ironically rewards exactly the binary sectarianism which prevents it from working effectively.   We have to operate within the electoral processes which we have, but need constantly also to be analysing how they might become fairer, more representational and accessible.  To assume that they will necessarily, unreformed, produce a beneficial outcome is positively Pollyannaish in its complacency.

The mindful bloggers seem to use the phrase to mean “trusting God”, which begs far more questions than it answers, or “trusting the universe”, an entity which, though reassuringly vast, has no particular discernible interest in the progress of Northern Ireland’s politics.  So what was I left with?  Over a series of bus and train journeys and a sleepless night I realised that what I was really thinking about were our own processes, as progressive activists, candidates, parties and movements, the ways in which we act in pursuance of our goals.

Trusting the process, in this sense, means acting consistently with our vision, so that each action is not only a step towards, but also a minor enactment of it. “Be the change you want to see in the world” is an exhortation usually addressed to individuals, but it is equally true of groups.

The Christian tradition, to which I, with many caveats, broadly belong, has been obsessed for centuries with orthodoxy, or right belief.  Its effects have been toxic, sometimes horrifically so.  Now some of the most interesting contemporary Christian thinkers, such as Brian McClaren, have sought to undermine its poisonous legacy by talking instead about ‘orthopraxis’, or right action: the Gospel imperatives to feed the hungry, heal the sick and liberate the oppressed.  It is not only a perspective which echoes Jesus’s impatience with Pharisaic quibbling, but one which makes practical sense.

By contrast, an end which justifies inconsistent means is itself distorted and ultimately destroyed by those means. The greatest horrors of history have not always been violence, exploitation and corruption in themselves but their use as intended shortcuts to objectives which were originally benign. But the shortcuts signposted ‘Utopia’ lead, at best, to nowhere.

The scandal, fiasco, call it what you will, which has led us to this election is itself a parochial example of the phenomenon.  The big vision behind renewable heat incentive schemes, which are not, of course, particular to Northern Ireland, is to avert catastrophic climate change.  The specific, closer objective is to help those who burn large quantities of hydrocarbons for heating to cease doing so, specifically by enabling them to switch to a more sustainable fuel source.  If the big vision had consistently informed the process here, then the mess would never have arisen.  If combating climate change had been the prize upon which the relevant eyes were fixed, it would have been clear that the flagrant waste of energy, even energy with the lower carbon footprint of wood pellet burners, was entirely incompatible with the purpose.  However, to put it at its most charitable, the desire to make the scheme itself the focus, and to ensure maximum participation and reward, defeated the original object, or at least tarnished it to such an extent that it was no longer discernible.

What does all this mean for a candidate in an unwanted election?  How should she proceed, other than, as the punchline says, with caution?  I’m still, with my local colleagues, working that out.  What I am sure of is that the key elements of the Green political vision: respect, non-violence, participation and justice have to be equally key to our practice. The reason that Green parties refuse donations from those whose tax affairs are not transparently unblemished isn’t puritanism but an understanding that you can’t work towards fair access to resources by using those unfairly obtained or retained along the way.  Similarly, as Maurice Macartney has pointed out on this site, violence is no path by which to achieve non-violence, and humiliation no effective remedy to a lack of respect.

“At this rate,” a few, mostly older, people have said to me, “we won’t see you Greens getting very far in our lifetimes.”  It’s meant as a counsel of despair.  But I’m increasingly aware that each of our lifetimes is not very long.  I’m, not content, but prepared to accept that change in Northern Ireland does take time.  Much has already been achieved, but every stride forwards is followed by a little shuffle back.  I’m unlikely to see all that I hope for, but that doesn’t invalidate either the hope or the journey towards realising it.  When every staging-post is itself a shelter, it’s all right to be taking the long way home.

Tanya Jones

26 January 2017


Northern Ireland deserves better

Jenny Muir looks at the problems of governance that have dogged attempts to run a power sharing government at Stormont – and the consequent failure to get to grips with the real problems faced by the people of Northern Ireland

Chartist poster demanding democracy, 1840s

Eight months after the last election, the Assembly will be dissolved on 26 January and new elections held on 2 March. Although the still unfolding Renewable Heat Incentive scandal was the catalyst, it was clear that the two main parties of government did not enjoy a happy working relationship. The introduction of an official Opposition, currently the UUP and the SDLP, was a laudable move towards the longer term goal of a freely negotiated system of government. However, it has had the unintended consequence of exposing faultlines between the DUP and Sinn Féin. In addition, the Opposition parties have taken a while to work their way into their new role and have not made the most of their opportunities to hold Ministers to account.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the Executive is struggling, given the continued existence of the Petition of Concern, which has prevented agreement on issues such as equal marriage, abortion reform and censure of individual MLAs. A new voluntary protocol on its use as part of the Stormont House Agreement has made no difference. When one Executive party can veto a proposal of the other in the Assembly, there remains a substantial obstacle to true shared responsibility in coalition government.

But Northern Ireland’s governance problems run deeper. Our Assembly has only been in place since the end of 1999, with several suspensions including one between October 2002 and May 2007, (although government departments did continue to operate under Direct Rule in the interim periods). Thus our MLAs have a maximum of just over eleven years’ experience of the institution, although many of them have substantially less. Some have previous experience as local councillors, however local government in Northern Ireland has a more restricted range of responsibilities than in the rest of the UK – even after the 2015 reforms which reduced the number of councils and slightly increased their powers.

Therefore we have inexperienced politicians with a tendency to resort to clientelism rather than keeping a strategic focus; and a civil service that has had to adjust to a more interventionist approach from local politicians than they had under direct rule. The RHI scandal tells us that the working relationship between politicians, political adviser and civil servant leaves much to be desired.

The fall of the Assembly leaves Northern Ireland without a final Programme for Government; and without the ability to move forward on a plan to reform our health service. Legislation on abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality will be delayed. A new anti-poverty strategy will have to wait. And no doubt there is much more. Although all Ministers except the First and deputy First Ministers continue to have responsibility for their departments until the election, senior civil servants will have more power over spending. And of course we don’t know what will happen after the election, in the subsequent weeks of negotiation to form a new government.

Under the circumstances it is not surprisingly that public confidence is waning. The NI Life and Times Survey has asked How much has the N Ireland Assembly achieved? over many years. In 2002, 26 per cent said ‘a lot’ and 51 per cent ‘a little’. In 2015 the equivalent responses were received from 11 per cent and 48 per cent of the population. In 2002 only 18 per cent thought the Assembly had achieved ‘nothing at all’, even though it had only had two years of meaningful operation. In 2015 this figure was 31 per cent.

Disillusion is also evident in reduced voter turnout. In June 1998, 70 per cent voted in the first Assembly elections, dropping to 63 per cent in November 2003, 62 per cent in March 2007, 56 per cent in May 2011 and 54 per cent in May 2016.

Northern Ireland deserves better. We need good governance to ensure public confidence in our institutions as we continue the slow emergence from conflict. We need politicians and civil servants who will do their utmost to make a difference to the sort of problems mentioned in the previous post, which include:

But we also need good governance because it is the essence of democracy. The public deserves to have confidence in its elected representatives. Society is less secure if that confidence is absent. A good start would be to remind our representatives to reflect occasionally on the seven Nolan Principles of Public Life (no, not that one, although sometimes it does seem as if he is the only one holding powerful people to account). The Nolan Principles are incorporated into the codes of conduct for MLAs and for local councillors. To conclude, they are worth repeating here in full:

  1. Selflessness: Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other benefits for themselves, their family or their friends;
  2. Integrity: Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties;
  3. Objectivity: In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit;
  4. Accountability: Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office;
  5. Openness: Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands it;
  6. Honesty: Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest; and
  7. Leadership: Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.

Some of our politicians have fallen very far short of these exemplary principles. We should bear this in mind when we vote on 2 March. We should not stay at home and hope the problem will go away – it will not. We should vote differently, in order to get a different outcome.

Jenny Muir

22 January 2017

Storm at Stormont

If “anger is an energy, then let’s make it a clean energy, and channel it towards overcoming our problems together”. Maurice Macartney argues that we must rigorously oppose violence and the politics of hostility even when there is plenty to be angry about. 

Stormclouds gather over Belfast

“One can already hear” mused political analyst Rick Wilford recently, “the sound of sectarian trenches being dug in anticipation of the poll”.

The poll he was talking about was the then probable snap election to the Stormont Assembly resulting from the resignation of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. Given the joint nature of the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, when the DFM stepped down, the FM, Arlene Foster, had to step down too, thus bringing the devolved Assembly to a juddering halt.

This resignation itself came in the context of an ongoing dispute not over the border, nor of any of our traditional denominational p, but of the mishandling of a now notorious ‘Renewable Heat Incentive’ (RHI) scheme, mentioned in Stephen Baker’s previous post on this site.

This scheme, it turns out, was practically all ‘incentive’ and almost no ‘renewable’, given that the subsidies provided were well above the cost of the wood pellets you were supposed to buy with them. People were heating empty barns, and being paid good public money to do so.

If there was one sliver of a silver lining, for what it’s worth, the whole fiasco led to probably the best political joke in recent Northern Irish history, with one group of wags reviving certain plastic, potato-waving martians taking the cash-for-ash scandal into outer space.

Jokes aside, though, there was precious little else to laugh at in the situation. The RHI scheme appears set to prove massively costly, at a time when our public services, in common with those in the rest of the UK, are already reeling from cuts and reorganisations.

At the time of writing, therefore, the people of Northern Ireland are suddenly facing the prospect of an election they didn’t want, less than a year since the last, during tense negotiations over an exit from Europe that most of them opposed.

Anger at the stubbornness on top of arrogance on top of incompetence of those entrusted with the highest office in the land is understandable.

Understandable, but on its own, too easy.  Too easy to fall to digging those sectarian trenches Rick Wilford mentioned; too easy to revert to violent responses of all sorts, especially on-line, where it seems – only seems, mind you – to cost us so little.

Hostility tends to expand to fill whatever space it can find. Rage at the genuinely outrageous can all too easily start to draw in other issues, appropriating the inappropriate. We need to learn to disentangle these matters.

After she complained about some of the online abuse she had received, for instance, Mrs Foster was criticised for ‘playing the misogyny card’.  Now, it is true that she has missed many chances to show commitment to overcoming that particular problem. But she has certainly been subjected to threats of violence, and there can be no doubt that, like pretty much all women in public life, she has been subjected to misogynist abuse. So rather than dismissing this as a smoke-screen, we should have no hesitation in condemning such misogyny, on or off line, regardless of whether or not we agree with Foster’s politics or other actions. Indeed, it is essential that we condemn such abuse even when it is directed at political opponents, even as we offer strong opposition to their policies and actions as office holders.

If there is one thing we have seen in Northern Ireland, it is that anger, if not handled carefully, if not given a clear, positive, and above all nonviolent channel, seeps into the soil of our political life, as a friend rather aptly put it, like ‘chemicals from a fracking well in a forest’. The consequences could be uncontrollable and, literally, life-threatening.

Instead, we must channel our energies into overcoming ongoing high levels of poverty, low pay, austerity cuts aimed at the most vulnerable, and a whole range of issues, to be addressed in a forthcoming post on this site, that require detailed and sustained effort. Anything else is a distraction, possibly a fatal one. So let’s make this an election not about this or that individual, and not about reinforcing the dominance of a ‘two-community’ vision of Northern Ireland, but about the waste of public money and the wasted opportunity that the RHI fiasco represents.

Of course, this is a time of great and growing hostility in global as well as local politics. But to be true to progressive principles of democracy and equality, we must meet and overcome the politics of hostility with a committed, powerful politics of nonviolence – which is more difficult, and in fact takes more honesty and courage than a politics of violence.

We have seen Mr Trump use racism, sexism, falsehoods and half-truths to win power; we have seen Mr Farage unleash xenophobia to win a referendum. There is a temptation to say, ‘if they have taken the gloves off, if they refuse to play by the rules, the left must do so too’.

We must rigorously resist that temptation.

Adopt a politics of ‘counter-hostility’ and you have reinforced that which you set out to oppose. Trump wins.

The real scandal, locally and globally, is the failure to address those problems mentioned above – the poverty, food insecurity, homelessness, exclusion, environmental destruction – and a dozen others. Our representatives should be addressing these, at root, here in Northern Ireland, and indeed throughout the UK and the wider world.

Let’s make our local election about that. Let’s make all our elections about that.

Get out and find a campaign to support; join a trade union; help get out the vote for a party that addresses those issues without taking the easy route of the politics of hatred and hostility. Eschew the easy pitch to nationalisms of one sort or another, to this or that denomination. Reject the easy appeals – ‘Make America Great Again’, ‘Take Back Control’ – where these draw their emotional charge from xenophobia. Address the causes of grievance rather than pander to people’s anger at the symptoms. Win over those you can, to the extent you can; build common ground and engage constructively even with those you don’t necessarily agree with on every element.

Those you can’t win over, those who fall back into the trenches, who espouse xenophobia? Well, take a stand against their ideology, organisations and actions, but set yourself as nonviolently towards them as people as you can manage. You don’t overcome xenophobia by hating ‘them’ (whoever ‘they’ are).

Above all, rigorously oppose the structural violence built into a system that divides to rule, and that cranks up inequality and unsustainability.

If, as John Lydon once said, anger is an energy, then let’s make it a clean energy, and channel it towards overcoming our problems together.

Maurice Macartney

19 January 2017

Our greatest natural resource

Stephen Baker challenges the dominant discourse of Northern Ireland’s governing politicians and commentators, who appear almost uniformly set on ‘rebalancing’ the local economy by channelling public resources towards private corporations, with scant regard for the broader common good. What if, instead, we began to see the government’s job as facilitating and unleashing the creative potential of the citizens of this ‘wee country’ – our greatest natural resource?

What does our economic future hold?

The Renewable Heating Initiative (RHI) scandal that has engulfed Northern Ireland’s politics is a sign that we should be thinking about the region beyond its notoriety for sectarian violence or even as an exemplar of a post-conflict society. These days Northern Ireland is largely just one of many economically and politically peripheral regions in the world, where policy makers and business people concern themselves primarily with the banal administration of capitalism. I say “banal” because incompetence, corruption and systemic failure are no strangers to capitalism – the crash of 2008 demonstrated that, spectacularly.

Yet the system’s proponents might prefer to focus on its apparent reputation for innovation and wealth generation. Even here, the claims made on capitalism’s behalf need qualifying, since it is often the state and public funding that enables creative genius when the private money proves risk averse. As Mariana Mazzucato argues, corporations have been adept at capitalising on the work of government funded designs. The smart phone that you are perhaps reading this on is an example of that.

Neither has the private sector been slow to tap into rich veins of public money. Even if we ignore the bail-outs to banks considered ‘too big to fail’, the transfer of public wealth into private hands was already well established with the privatisation of public utilities, the outsourcing of public services, as well as the PFI schemes. In Northern Ireland, the Stormont executive has lavished millions of pounds of public money on corporations and businesses via Invest NI in an effort to stimulate economic rejuvenation, attract inward investment and project the region onto the global stage. For instance, an investigation by The Detail revealed that between 2011 and 2014, the agency gave £64 million pounds to Northern Ireland Screen, which promotes the region as a film location, often attracting media corporations to Northern Ireland with financial incentives worth millions.

The economic impact of this expenditure is unclear, although sometimes fantastic claims are made for it. However, there is definitely a question mark over its effectiveness as a means of job creation. Over the past two years Northern Ireland has haemorrhaged manufacturing jobs. There are huge job losses in the public sector. While recently both Northern Ireland’s two universities have cut hundreds of jobs and student places, despite being key beneficiaries of Invest NI largesse – £42 million between 2011 and 2014, on top of £180 million from the Department of Employment and Learning in 2014/15.

As Northern Ireland enters the new year the prognostication for future employment prospects looks gloomy. Despite this, local commentators berate the region for its ‘welfare dependency’ and ‘bloated’ public sector. In the wake of the crash in 2008, the expectation of a ‘peace dividend’ was replaced by determined talk about the need to ‘rebalance the economy’; that is, end Northern Ireland’s long standing dependency on a subvention from the British treasury. The debate has been revisited in light of the RHI scandal, which the Conservative Owen Polley argues is indicative of a broader “cavalier” attitude to tax-payers’ money and tendency to see welfare as an economic stimulant. Meanwhile Newton Emerson has called for Northern Ireland to be more ‘self-reliant’.

But how exactly are 1.8 million people inhabiting 14,130 km² of land, with few discernible natural resources and a recent history of civil violence, supposed to achieve ‘self-reliance’? How should a six county entity ‘position’ itself in the context of EU turmoil, a disintegrating UK and a version of globalisation that favours metropolitan centres?

I’m presuming that there is nothing inherently wrong with the people in Northern Ireland that would render them useless or predispose them to ‘welfare dependency.’ After all, their grandparents en masse, produced linen and built great ships, and some gave their lives for King and country. But the region is now stripped of its heavy industries. The empire it served has gone. And the region’s new found consociational status and incorporation into the global free market has coincided with world wide economic turmoil and the rise of nativist nationalism in the US and across Europe.

So this article is a plea for understanding. But most of all for some fresh thinking on the future prospects of this region. What are its people going to do? What will they make? What is Northern Ireland going to sell? What service will it provide, and to whom? These are harder questions than the ones typically posed by a sometimes impetuous and condescending commentariat, for whom Northern Ireland’s maladies can be explained with reference to pathological sectarianism, self-sabotaging impulses and a proclivity to economic dependency.

As Maurice Macartney proposes elsewhere on The Combination, we must begin “to grapple with the logic of the system dynamics” that have produced the world we live in and our small corner of it. Such a systemic understanding of Northern Ireland’s place in the world is important because there may be no obvious answers to the questions posed above – what will this ‘wee country’ do, make, sell and service? Certainly there are no answers currently to those questions that don’t look like a sure-fire route to the immiseration and alienation of many people who live here.

The conclusion that Northern Ireland’s policy makers seem to have reached is that, in large part, the region’s economic development depends upon transferring its limited public financial resources into corporate hands. The RHI is just the latest example of this. But the proposed reduction in corporation tax works upon the same hopelessly optimistic trickle-down principle. In this respect, Northern Ireland’s political leadership resembles nothing so much as a lumpen-bourgeoisie – in other words, a weak political leadership, reduced to aiding and abetting the corporate exploitation of the region or nation they presume to govern, without any serious commitment to the common good. The controversy over the exploratory drill for oil at Woodburn Forest offers another depressing example of this sort of plunder.

When in 2016 Northern Ireland Water allowed InfraStrata to drill for oil just 380m uphill from a major reservoir and within a catchment area, local residents and environmental activist protested, fearful that the drill would pollute their water supply. Even if the protestors’ fears were unproven, the behaviour of local politicians was a master class in lumpen-government – as self-serving as it was parochial and myopic. In order to facilitate corporate interests, leading politicians showed a willingness to overrule locals, flout planning regulations, shirk democratic accountability and ignore broader environmental considerations about the contribution of fossil fuels to global warming – this in the wake of the Paris climate agreement signed in 2015 by 194 countries, including the UK and Ireland.

What all this demonstrated is how urgently Northern Ireland needs to think afresh, and start a new conversation about its future. For instance, what if we didn’t succumb to the interminable, terrible logic of the market that says everything has a price and nothing is sacred, not even clean drinking water? What if we didn’t assume that the region’s citizens were simply predisposed to social division and economic inactivity? What if elected representatives didn’t reduce their constituents to mere human resources to be delivered into corporate servitude? What if they saw those people as the region’s greatest natural resource, and that unleashing and facilitating the creative genius of those people was the work of government? What would that mean for education, health and welfare policy? What sort of public infrastructure would be required to enable the enterprising energies of the region’s people? Indeed, talking of energy, is it conceivable that on a small, island surrounded by waves and swept by wind, that we could be self-reliant in affordable, renewable energy – surely a huge boon for any economy?

I began this article combatively, taking aim at the pretensions of the private sector. I did it in reaction to the relentless attacks from right-wing politicians and commentators on the values of public service, cooperativeness and the commons. But I end with one final question: is it possible that we could bring the curtain down on this tedious, binary argument about the perceived virtues or demerits of public and private sectors? It is a dispute that supposes entrepreneurial dynamism belongs exclusively to the private sector, and bumbling bureaucracy is the preserve of public servants. Is this a useful way to conceive of an economy? After all, in Northern Ireland, there is a growing appreciation that binary thinking about questions of identity and national allegiance just leads to an intellectual and political logjam. Maybe the spheres of human work, life and experience are richer and more complex than our current reductive conversation about ‘the economy’ allows.

Stephen Baker
8 January 2017

Connections and Combinations: the view from Brussels, December 2016

If you had visited Brussels in December 2016, you would have found a city going about its business, a city preparing for the festive season.

Yet you might also have felt, for all the lights, for all the glitter, that there was something subdued about the atmosphere.

Perhaps that’s not so surprising. After all, Brussels was still recovering from the shock of the terrorist attacks that killed over 30 people earlier in the year. And of course 2016 was the year in which the UK delivered a shock, perhaps even a traditional British two-fingered gesture, by voting to leave the European Union.

So how do we come to terms with those twin shocks, those crises? How do we get an understanding of the roots of the problems, the better to address them? Do we look back to the crash of 2007-2008? Do we look back to the attacks in America in 2001? Yes, clearly; but we will have to look back a good deal further than that to get at the roots of these crises.

Brussels, in fact, is not a bad place to start. If, during your pre-Christmas visit to the city, you had stood beside the looming Palais de Justice, built on a hill to see and be seen by the townsfolk in the nineteenth century, you could have looked out over much of the north of the city. To your left, over the roofs, the area of Molenbeek. Somewhere to your right, and about the same distance away, though hidden behind intervening streets and buildings, the European Quarter – home of the European Parliament, the European Commission and so on.

Both regions have been in the news this year. For many people, the very name Brussels is a shorthand for the European institutions. The term is used as a symbol of political power, for good or ill.

Yet mere streets away, within this same powerful city, a city with, on average, one of the highest levels of wealth of any European region, there are pockets of high unemployment, poor conditions and marginalisation. Areas such as Molenbeek, a place known today, if at all, as the base from which some of those terrorists who struck in Paris and Brussels set out.

It wasn’t always known for that. Walk to Molenbeek from the Palais de Justice, and you will come to the Rue de Liverpool. Follow that and cross the canal, and you find yourself in the Rue de Manchester.

Why is there a Liverpool Street, a Manchester Street, in a marginalised quarter of Brussels? Why, indeed, was Molenbeek known, in the nineteenth century, as Little Manchester? What is the connection between that area of Brussels and the northern industrial towns of the UK?

Molenbeek was known as Little Manchester because the area had its own Industrial Revolution, modelled on, and indeed learning directly from the original industrial revolution that had just taken place largely in northern Britain. Just like Manchester, it grew on the back of thriving industries; it had access to coal, and thus to steam power; it had a canal, and could thus transport raw materials and finished goods; and it had access to a ready workforce. Workers were drawn in from other parts of the country, from across Europe, and eventually from other parts of the world.

Then, in the twentieth century, the industries began shut down, leaving behind densely populated, formerly industrious regions, with high levels of poverty, and, in some cases, a high proportion of people from minority ethnic communities.

So if we want to know how we got to where we are today, we could do worse than start by looking at these areas of poverty and power nestled alongside each other as neighbours in Brussels.

How did we arrive, in 2016, at a moment of crisis in liberal democracy, marked by the vote for Brexit here in the UK and by the rise of Donald Trump in the US? How did we arrive at the crisis marked by terrorist attacks in Europe and chaos across the Middle East and North Africa?

These crises seem set to deepen in the coming years – along with a third crisis that may yet come to dwarf the others: climate change.

But if all these are signs of an unsustainable system, then to understand the dynamics of that unsustainability, we’re going to have to dig deep down to the roots – the historical and material forces that were set in motion sometimes centuries ago: slavery and Empire, armed global trade, the birth of the coal age, but which are still playing out today, in this, our global neighbourhood. We’re going to have to grapple with the logic of the system dynamics that have produced inequality, environmental destruction, and conflict.

And that’s what we are going to do on this website.

We’re going to look at some of the factors that combined to produce the situation we find ourselves in today, and at some of the people who combined together, sometimes in the face of great resistance, in pursuit of greater democracy, equality and sustainability.

Because, it is in those connections and combinations that we can begin to understand not only how we got here, but, perhaps, what we need to do to make progress towards a more sustainable, more equitable, and less violent political and economic system. A new global neighbourhood, as it were, in which we learn to live together, for all our differences, as nonviolently as possible on this our one planet, and in this our corner of it.

Maurice Macartney
1 January 2017