A little local difficulty

Maurice reflects on the row over leaflets distributed by a DUP Councillor

It appears to have been too much even for the DUP: Councillor Graham Craig has been told by his party to stop distributing election flyers with a message that has widely been seen as racist.

As is always the way in these cases, there have been those (for instance on the Nolan Show the day the story broke) who argue that calling for “local houses for local people”, as the leaflet does, is not necessarily racist.

That’s an argument that becomes harder to sustain when the very next point in the leaflet reads: “Taking back control of immigration”. Immigration – does this need to be pointed out? – is not a Council matter; and it seems to me there is only one reason a message like that is put into a local Council leaflet.

We could point to other uses of phrases like ‘locals only’ to show that they are usually accompanied by or embodied in acts of vandalism, sometimes with a more explicitly racist context. But that would be to take the protestations too seriously. No one can be in any doubt – not even Councillor Craig – that he intended to signal, by these phrases, he would work to keep ‘others’ (‘them’ versus ‘us’) out of the houses in the area. It is virtually a dictionary definition example of xenophobia.

Look at the other phrases on the leaflet though: “As your local Unionist Councillor”, he begins – and the underlining is in the original. As though the DUP header, with its red-white-and-blue lion weren’t enough, he is at pains to emphasise that he is a Unionist, or rather Unionist.

He then lists the issues he will continue to focus his efforts on, including the issue of local homes for local people, and controlling immigration. Here is the rest of the list of his priorities:

  • Delivering more alley gates
  • More funding for Loyalist areas in need
  • Defending Unionism at City Hall

And here is the issue that concerns me: by the time he has finished this list, and says “As your local Councillor I will continue to work on your behalf” I already know he is not talking to me. The ‘your’ of “your behalf” refers to Unionists, Loyalists. A ‘local’ Councillor for a local, loyal people, a people Councillor Craig will continue to defend.

The dynamics Councillor Craig is appealing to here are the same that led to the rise of Donald Trump in the US and to Brexit in the UK. People voted Leave in order to ‘take back control’ – to create the ultimate ‘alley gate’, so to speak.

Many people who voted Leave had been led to believe ‘foreigners’ were coming in and jumping the queue – getting access to scarce resources ahead of ‘local’ people in need. And it is true that many ‘local people’, whatever that means, were in need, were struggling with money worries, saw their children struggle with over-filled classrooms, or older children struggle to get on the housing ladder.

But those who sold Brexit as the solution, I would argue, misdiagnosed the underlying condition. They made it binary, and they made it existential. They said ‘foreigners are to blame’ – whether those famous, faceless bureaucrats in Brussels, or those who had moved to the UK to live and work. And it is a zero-sum game: if they win, we lose.

No; the real forces and dynamics which underlay the discontent that led to Brexit, and the rise of Donald Trump, and other right-wing populists, go back much further than our membership of the European Union, as I will try to show in the next film in our video series.

The problem is, there is no alley gate (or Wall, Mr Trump) big enough to keep out the forces that are making your community feel insecure and suddenly relatively powerless in the first place, because the problem is not ‘foreigners’, not ‘others’, not ‘them’. It is ‘us’, and how you define ‘us’.

It is the act of dividing the world into ‘them’ and ‘us’ along national, or ethnic, or racial, or sectarian lines. It is the act of attempting to purify the identity of your ‘locale’ (as though the idea of ‘locals only’ did not call up an endless inquiry into what ‘local’ means).

The problems of Northern Ireland (to take only the most ‘local’ example) are not being caused by one or other side of a binary divide, but by the smooth functioning of the binary reduction machinery that keeps getting routinely wheeled out, as though if we only go at it hard enough ‘we’ will eventually beat ‘them’.

The appeal to one side, the attempt to shore up the support of a narrowly defined community of identity is doomed to failure, because that sort of self-contained identity depends on opposition to the other – that is, depends on the other. No ‘us’ without ‘them’, however hard we crank.

There is another possible approach to building a community. It is to take on, as the key, essential political task, the work of building a community of others, a community in which we – you and I – recognise that we do not share an identity, but commit nonetheless to learning how to live together as nonviolently as possible, for all our differences, on this our one planet, and in this our own wee corner of it.

And the sooner we get to that task, the sooner we will be able to get down to solving the real roots of the problem of scarce resources in our neighbourhoods.

Maurice Macartney

8 March 2019

For a more extensive and academic treatment of these themes, see my article ‘Denominations and Combinations’ in the current edition of Irish Political Studies.