New Decade, New Approach: New DNA?

Are there hopeful signs of change in the agreement that got Stormont up and running again? Maurice combs over some of the highlights.

New life up on the Hill?

The new decade has got underway with some huge international developments – the impeachment of President Trump, a dangerous collision between the US and Iran, and, at the end of this week, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Here in Northern Ireland, though, we too have our own developments to boast: our political institutions are at last up and running again at Stormont. But has the ‘New Decade, New Approach’, the document that sealed the deal, really injected New DNA into our body politic?

At first glance, not particularly, since it restores the institutions, and indeed largely the same MLAs, we had three years ago when it all came tumbling down. And as the document explicitly commits participants to the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement (GFA) that created the institutions in the first place, arguably we are going back even further.

But look a little closer and it becomes clear we are not merely returning to the status quo ante. Firstly, the context has changed. When the GFA was formulated, and right through until the elections of 2017, unionists of various stripes collectively took more than half the votes and seats. They could plausibly claim to represent ‘the majority community’ (though had I time and space I would critique that kind of use of the term community). Since 2017, that is no longer the case. Unionist parties command less than half the vote; so in effect we now have three minorities in terms of the designation in Stormont – unionist, nationalist, and other.

This is significant because the GFA was set up to share power out between the majority, unionists, and the minority, nationalists – ‘others’, significantly, literally did not count, when it came to votes requiring so-called ‘cross-community support’.  

But the GFA also ensured there would be no constitutional change unless a majority supported it. So, if nationalists, as before, are a minority, and now unionists are also a minority, then both groupings are going to need the ‘others’ to side with them if they are to get their way on the constitutional question. And you don’t do that by hectoring and bullying – heaven knows, both main traditional sides have tried.

The strength of the hand of the others may even be all the greater because of revisions in the Petition of Concern mechanism, recently used by the DUP, for instance, to block equal marriage even after a (narrow) majority had voted for it.

It should be harder (though not impossible) for parties to use this mechanism, originally intended to protect minorities not deny them equality, for such purposes. But of course, we didn’t need to await the reform of the POC mechanism to get equal marriage – that ship, happily, has now sailed, presumably off on a long-delayed and well deserved honeymoon.

Which brings us back to changing contexts. Three years have passed since the Executive and Assembly collapsed on the back of the just-emerging RHI scandal.

Since then, we have had the enquiry, innumerable news reports, and the publication of a best-seller exposing the failings and corruption that led to it. The DUP have returned to power, and are still the biggest party in the unionist camp, but it is clear they have been badly damaged by that scandal.

If RHI brought the institutions down, though, it was another issue – the Irish language – that kept them from resurfacing. Sinn Féin said they would return to power sharing if the language were protected in legislation; the DUP said they would not return if such an act were to be the price.

To circumvent the impasse, the New DNA agreement came up with a compromise of sorts: rather than full blown legislation, there would be one Commissioner for the Irish language, and one for Ulster Scots. Some voices, not unexpectedly, have been raised in complaint about this, but it seems to have proved sufficient to get both sides across the line.

Thus, we find ourselves with a devolved regional government again. There are at least two more pieces of context that have dramatically changed since the previous instalment, though, which may prove decisive in terms of the direction of politics in Northern Ireland.

The first can be summed up in one wearily over-familiar word: Brexit. How will power sharing work when such unwilling collaborators suddenly have to contend not only with a renewed focus on the border on the island, but also, apparently, some sort of border down the Irish Sea?  The details are anybody’s guess, but it would not take a particularly gifted soothsayer to predict turbulence ahead – especially if, as expected, increasing numbers of Scots begin agitating for an independence referendum in the near future.

Secondly, less obviously, but ultimately of profound significance, there is an inescapable broader context: we are all, of whatever political stripe, faced with the unfolding, intertwined crises of deepening inequality and unsustainability.

Here the New DNA document may in fact have brought something really new to the table, at least for Northern Irish politics. For example, from the start and throughout the document, there is some remarkably progressive language on social and fiscal issues – a shared commitment to “improving lives across Northern Ireland” involving extra funding for public services and infrastructure; a commitment to removing the historical debt of the Housing Executive and building social housing; extending welfare mitigations; a commitment to developing and implementing an Anti-poverty strategy. There is a section, would you believe, on Workers’ Rights.

It is almost as though reanimating the NI institutions has become possible only on the basis of an outright rejection of the politics of austerity – perhaps even on the basis of the adoption of a left-of-centre policies.

One welcome development is that a commitment to environmental measures is built into the agreement. One of the ‘priorities of the restored executive’ is to “tackle climate change head on with a strategy to address the immediate and longer term impacts of climate change. The Executive will introduce legislation and targets for reducing carbon emissions in line with the Paris Climate Change Accord”.

Indeed, the New DNA includes a proposal for a “new Energy Strategy [that] will set ambitious targets and actions for a fair and just transition to a zero carbon society”, as well as mentioning a Climate Act and a Green New Deal. The ‘just transition’, along with the Climate Act and the Green New Deal, are goals that activists and campaigners have long been calling for here; so to see them built into the New DNA as an aim of the NI Executive, even as aspirations, is quite something. It’s not that long, after all, since we had an Environment Minister who thought climate change was “not the disaster which the green lefties are getting hysterical about.”

Of course, politicians are not known for the frequency with which their deeds are found to match their words. So there remains much to be done. Nevertheless, the New DNA injected into our regional politics gives us a standard to which we can hold our elected representatives.

From now and for the remainder of this electoral cycle, we as an electorate must remind them that they have made a commitment to tackling poverty, inequality and the climate crisis – and we expect them to act on it.

Maurice Macartney

28 January 2019

Melancholy in the UK

In the wake of the general election, Stephen Baker is feeling his age… perhaps so is the United Kingdom, he argues.

If precedent and predictions are to be believed, the Conservative Party have a Parliamentary majority so big that Boris Johnson can look forward to two terms as UK Prime Minister. That means I’ll be in my 60s before there is any likelihood that he or his damnable party is removed from power: that’ll be 19 successive years of Tory led government between 2010 and 2029.

Think about that.

A party composed of rogues and scoundrels, that exists purely to secure and increase power and wealth in the hands of the rich; that has already spent the last ten years imposing grinding austerity; that has been inert in the face of the climate emergency; and that instigated a deeply divisive constitutional crisis in a bid to save itself, has just been returned to power with a landslide election victory. I find it almost unbearable to contemplate.

I’ve lived most of my life under Tory governments of one stripe or another. The first general election I remember was in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher defeated Labour’s James Callaghan. I was 11 years old and relatively unperturbed by the result at the time, but as teenager I grew to loath the Conservative Party for its socially illiberal politics, its casual racism and its appetite for wrecking industries, working class communities and underfunding public services.

After Thatcher’s election in 1979, the Tories went on to win three more general elections in a reign that lasted 17 years before Tony Blair led Labour back to power in 1997. If the Tories win the next election in 2024, the memory of that New Labour government will seem a mere intermission in a lifetime of otherwise uninterrupted Tory rule.

With hindsight, I suspect Labour was only given access to Number 10 because Blair broke bread with the ruling class and offered assurances that there would be no significant deviation from the agenda set by Thatcher. Ruling class acquiescence to Labour’s assent to power was signaled to all throughout the land when Rupert Murdoch’s influential Sun newspaper declared its support for Blair in March 1997. Sure enough, the three Labour governments – elected in 1997, 2001, and 2005 – kept faith with marketisation and privatisation, and just as Thatcher had her military adventure in the Falklands, so Blair had his in Iraq and Afghanistan.

All those years of free market zealotry and post-imperial melancholia – with potentially 10 more years of it to come. It all takes its toll on a mind and a body; as it does on a nation and a union.

Living in Northern Ireland, as I have done all my life, I’ve never voted for any of the UK’s governing parties. Labour doesn’t stand here and I’ve never, nor will I ever, vote Tory. Instead I regularly participate in elections that reduce politics to sectarian head-counting and proxy border polls, and at the end of each I get a unionist MP. This means that I’ve never been represented by anyone I’ve actually voted for.

Never. Not once.

As if that’s not bad enough, the politics I believe in are rarely given a fair hearing; either ignored in mainstream debate or raised only to be knocked down like a fairground Aunt Sally in the flow of dominant opinion. Forty odd years of watching BBC’s Question Time, or Newsnight, or listening to Radio 4’s Today, or reading the Guardian, only to have it confirmed time and time again that I exist on the lunatic fringe because I believe in public ownership and oppose imperialist wars.

As Jeremy Corbyn’s youthful supporters have discovered, if you espouse anything so radical (and necessary) as a green industrial revolution, or if you refuse to press the nuclear button and send the world and humanity to oblivion, you’ll be presented by the ruling class’s flunkeys in the media as a dangerous subversive. If you’re lucky, they’ll cast you as a mere harmless eccentric.

And maybe such opinions are eccentric in a country that is effectively a one-party state, with its soap-opera of a monarchy and its unelected second chamber; where politicians welcome the opening of foodbanks to feed the ‘left behind’ and working poor; where thousands of lives can be sacrificed in the pursuit of ideologically driven austerity while banks receive bailouts; where the likes of Jimmy Savile and Ian Duncan Smith get honoured; where an antediluvian rent-a-ghost like Jacob Rees Mogg is elevated from backbench obscurity to Leader of the House of Commons; where the political ambitions of a liar are abetted by a compliant media and public service broadcaster to boot.

Frankly, I want none of this, but I can’t see any effective way of speaking out against it, let alone changing it; certainly not under the UK’s withered democratic system, underscored, as it is, by a media that is driven by ideological and commercial imperatives at the expense of democratic ones.

That’s why the last election feels like a decisive moment to me. I am now middle aged, staring into a future of continuous English Tory government, confronted with the awful realisation that I am politically insignificant. Neither my opinions nor my vote matters one iota.

Why should I care? I have, after all, as my Granny might have said, an arse in my trousers. I could probably see out my life in relative domestic comfort, despite the feeling of political impotence. But where is the dignity in that? As the veteran actor Michael Caine said when asked about the potential economic downside of Brexit: “I’d rather be a poor master of my own fate than a rich servant of someone else’s.” Who wants to be a well-kept vassal?

That’s why I never resented people who voted to leave the EU, even though I voted to remain. Brexit’s simple message (some would say simplistic proclamation) to “Take back control” resonated with me too. Of course, it was an empty signifier, capable of appealing to the politically and economically disenfranchised, just as much as those who wanted a return to empire’s imaginary glory.

I confess I was even quietly delighted at the evident shock among some of my fellow Remainers: their tantrums and their tears as they accused their opponents of racism and stupidity. I looked at employers, pundits and politicians in their convulsions and thought, “Hell slap it into ya!” In all their inglorious arrogance, complacency and greed they were in my eyes the progenitors of Brexit and its attendant turmoil: they can own it. Perhaps not the most nuanced or considered analysis, but it’s how I felt then. That’s how I still feel, if I’m honest.

Consequently, I am in the market for wholesale constitutional reform. I suspect I’m not the only one. I have, as outlined above, my own grievances, but a sizeable chunk of the Scottish electorate also look (oven)ready for constitutional change – 1,617,989 (44.7%) of them at last count, in the independence referendum of 2014. That figure looks like it is going to rise, prompting former UK PM Gordon Brown to warn this week that “Unless the regions and nations feel they have a voice that is respected in the United Kingdom, the UK’s three hundred year old history may at some point soon be over.”

Scotland’s First Minister Nichola Sturgeon has demanded a second referendum in the wake of the SNP’s landslide election victory in Scotland. Legally it is for Westminster to decide if and when another referendum takes place, and with Boris Johnson having enjoyed a landslide of his own in England, a second Scottish independence referendum might not happen anytime soon. Indeed, there are rumours that after Brexit the government will focus on strengthening the Union. To this end, a senior Government source is reported as saying that, “Scotland is going to see a lot more of Boris and his ministers in 2020.”

Scotland can only shudder in anticipation of such visitations!

However, it is hard to imagine that a Westminster government would try to keep Scotland in the UK against its will.

All the momentum is with nationalism. But not just Scottish nationalism. As the DUP discovered too late, Brexit is less a project to “make Britain great again” than an expression of English self-determination, which begs the question: is there anyone interested in, or even capable of making the unionist case?

The empire has gone. The post-war social democratic settlement is repealed. The welfare state is withering away. A convivial multicultural society is beset by a hostile environment. The things that once made the United Kingdom imaginable and attractive to many have been jettisoned since that election in 1979 that brought Margaret Thatcher to power. As the eminent Scottish historian, Tom Devine, explained back in 2014 during the independence referendum campaign:

I come from a Labour background that includes my grandfather, mother and father and I was very much anti-independence at the start of the campaign. For me, the catalyst for change has been how threadbare the union has become since the early 1980s and linked to that is the transformation of Scotland. I wouldn’t have voted for this in the Scotland of the 1970s or 80s. It’s the Scotland that has evolved since the late 80s and 90s that is fuelling my Yes vote. It now seems to me to be in a fit condition to run a successful economy. There is a list of reasons for this. 

There has been a Scottish parliament which has demonstrated competent government and that parliament has also indicated, by the electoral response to it, that the Scottish people seem to be wedded to a social democratic agenda and the kind of political values which sustained and were embedded in the welfare state of the 1950s. In fact, you could argue that it is the Scots who have tried to preserve the idea of Britishness in terms of state support and intervention, and that it is England that has chosen to go on a separate journey since the 1980s.

The UK now faces a Tory Brexit withdrawal bill that the Scottish Parliament has just voted to reject by a margin of 92 MSPs to 29, the Northern Ireland Assembly has rejected unanimously, with the Welsh Assembly rejecting it as I write. This is all to no avail. The Brexit bill will be passed in Westminster anyway.

The imbalance of power between the constituent parts of the UK is obvious. It was clear during the general election campaign, which in the end boiled down to one thing: what mattered most to English voters? Was it getting Brexit done? Or was it the NHS, the climate emergency and even the United Kingdom itself? Well, now we know the answer. It seems that the vote to leave the EU wasn’t just some splenetic eruption at the injustices of austerity, although that may have played into it. It represents a genuine desire for English national self-determination. People in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland need now to consider what a more assertive, self-conscious Englishness will entail; an Englishness that has found its political expression in Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party.

Stephen Baker

22 January 2020

Why Labour Lost

In a guest post, Jenny Muir looks at some of the reasons Labour lost on 12 December, and asks: what happens next?

What next?

We knew it was going to be bad, but not that bad. The stats are easy to remember: 365 Tory MPs, one for each day of the year; 80 majority, a not at all nice round number. Labour lost badly: to the Tories in England and Wales, and to the SNP in Scotland. Labour didn’t lose in Northern Ireland because they give zero fucks about the place: they don’t stand candidates and their manifesto content was anodyne.

After some reflection I think there are three reasons why Labour lost: the current state of the Labour Party; the Tories ran a well organised campaign; and some voters, particularly in England, were gullible (which is not the same as stupid).

The state of the Labour Party

It’s important to remember that the Labour Party is always in a state. It’s a mass party, a broad church, a party that aspires to real power in which people have jobs and political careers as well as giving up their time voluntarily. There are always ideological struggles going on, and many of them get into the media so those of us who are not involved can keep up.

The past week has involved a great deal of heart-searching amongst Labour members and supporters. For example:  the position on Brexit was wrong (I don’t believe the policy itself was unclear); Corbyn failed to gain the trust of the public; the Manifesto wasn’t credible; antisemitism continued to be an issue; there was media bias; and Labour candidates could have stood aside in some seats to support a Remain candidate from another party.

As yet, however, the conclusions from this outpouring remain polarised, more so than it seemed from the first couple of days after the election result. For every one on one side, there’s someone else with a different opinion. A week after the result I detect an inclination not to ditch the best of Corbyn’s policies under the new leader, for example this early contribution from Keir Starmer.

The Tory campaign

Not enough consideration has been given to the fact that the Tories ran a well organised campaign – which doesn’t mean it was a principled one. They knew just how much they could get away with. The Irish Times explored the mechanics: recruiting experts from Australia and New Zealand; a strategy meeting at 5.40am every day; the identification of 50 marginal seats to capture and 50 others to defend; and perhaps most crucially “intensive polling and focus groups in these seats”. The slogan “Get Brexit Done” came from focus groups. Although the Irish Times don’t mention this, I assume the campaign team knew Johnson’s absence from TV interviews and panels wouldn’t impact on votes.

Contrast this with the Labour campaign, as analysed in the Guardian: confused messaging, poor organisation and an unclear chain of command:

An exasperated party veteran said that while watching a Conservative press conference from Labour’s Southside HQ, a young press officer was heard to remark: “These Tories are so boring: they say the same thing over and over again.”  


…. intense frustration, even among diehard Corbyn loyalists, about the lack of organisation that left them unable to answer the most straightforward questions about Labour’s plans for the days ahead, or what its key messages would be.

Gullible voters

The general public has got off very lightly in election analysis and I don’t really understand why. Yes, it’s not a good look for politicians to claim their electorate is stupid – in fact, nowadays it’s a matter for m’learned friends. Journalists may be wary of the charge in case it prejudices future interviews.

However it seems legitimate to me to question whether some voters, particularly in England, were gullible, which is not the same as stupid. We are gullible when we are tricked into taking action that is not in our interest; perhaps not questioning the premise sufficiently because  we want to believe in it. “Get Brexit Done” falls into this category. Brexit doesn’t as yet impact on everyday life for most people, unlike delayed trains, overcrowded schools, expensive utilities and long hospital waiting lists. It was easy to convince voters that all these could be tackled after 31 January 2020, which of course is nonsense because trade deals will take a long time to negotiate and the process will be complex and expensive. But I would have lost most of them about halfway through that sentence.

The reason the ability to be taken in was more prevalent in England and Wales was because other parties and agendas were not evident as they were in Scotland and Northern Ireland (Welsh nationalism has very little influence). In England it was all about Brexit:

[Guardian interview in Southampton] “I want Brexit. I want that done,” says a woman who goes on to talk at length about her problems accessing benefits and mental health services.

Jesus wept. Someone on benefits and dependent on mental health care is voting Tory. That can’t be allowed to pass without comment. (The series of Guardian reports Anywhere But Westminster includes more gobsmacking exchanges.)

What next?

What Labour does next matters to all of us, whether or not we voted for them and wherever we live in the UK. We need an effective opposition at Westminster as well as a political party that really does speak for the many and not for the profiteering few.

Whoever is in charge, the main challenge is going to be keeping the best of the Corbyn policy agenda rather than veering back towards being a cover for neoliberalism. Labour needs to get better at following the money. Who benefits from privatisation of public services, paid for by poverty wages and zero hours contracts? Who makes money from fossil fuels? Who doesn’t pay tax? Labour needs to make a solid case for a more equal and sustainable economic system including maintaining employment rights that stand to be eroded under Brexit. The party needs to stand up for a decent and dignified social security (not “welfare”) system and face off allegations about scroungers. Likewise with immigration and asylum, health services, housing and education.

But being an effective champion of a fairer economy requires a fundamental change in approach. Corbyn’s leadership has been based on vanguardism: a secretive small group with high turnover and a lack of involvement of others. This led to the chaos of the election campaign. It is an inappropriate way of running a mass party and it is certainly not the way to win public confidence. The Labour Left should ditch vanguardism in favour of working on what Gramsci calls the war of position: essentially, gaining popular support for a particular world view. This requires working more collaboratively within Labour and also with a broad civil society coalition of other parties and organisations who share these values, as Maurice has suggested. Many of us are up for that.

Jenny Muir

26 December 2019

Shopping around

Sunset or dawn over Northern Ireland?

In the second of a double bill on the election, Tanya Jones argues we have to overcome an engrained consumer-culture and TV-ratings approach to politics if we are to rise to the challenges we face.

There is no single explanation for the Conservative’s electoral success in England and Wales last week.  The narrative of Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘unelectibility’ presented, with indecent haste, by centrists both inside and outside the Labour Party, is almost certainly wrong, and equally likely to become the commonsense, canonical version.  Unlike Johnson’s Brexit deal, this takeaway really was oven-ready: bland, packed with preservatives, easily digestible and available to reheat at a moment’s notice.

The reality is much chewier and more interesting.  As interesting, in fact, as Amitav Ghosh’s book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable[1] which I have been reading over the election week.  It isn’t about UK politics or elections or Brexit, but its thoughtful, wide-ranging and beautifully written analysis provides an oblique way to sidle up to what has been going on.

Ghosh’s book is divided into three parts: Stories, History and Politics.  In the first he writes that the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture ‘and thus of the imagination’.  He identifies the increasing self-reflexivity of art, and in particular the so-called ‘realist’ novel, which largely ignores the communal events of history, politics and nature, until the ‘very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real’. Such narratives are, with honourable exceptions, entirely incapable of equipping us with the imaginative resources which we need to face the climate crisis. 

Similarly, our contemporary culture gives us little or nothing with which to grasp or interrogate alternative futures.  Much has been written, rightly, about the effects of social media bubbles, of ‘fake news’ and the uncritical relaying of anonymously sourced claims.  But perhaps equally pernicious is the low-key, apparently non-political background of ‘reality’ TV, costume drama, documentary, advertisement and all their unaccountable hybrid forms.  When voting is something you do to keep the ratings-friendly narcissists in for the next episode, when aristocrats are eccentric but ultimately wise and superior, when environmental crisis can be overcome by avoiding plastic straws, is it any wonder that Johnson and Rees-Mogg are awarded another series?  When actual politics is absorbed into the flow, it is even worse: the most momentous achievement of the cosy ‘they’re all a joke’ satire of Have I Got News for You is perhaps the embedding of the comic Boris persona in the national psyche. 

I went to the cinema twice last week, escape to a darkened room feeling like a therapeutic option (Knives Out and The Biggest Little Farm, both hitting the precise spot) and the biggest adverts were for the supermarkets.  The Tesco epic pushed every national (English) button.  A company delivery driver finds himself travelling through time, treating Dickensian orphans (poverty + over a century = smugly picturesque), undermining wartime rationing with a hamper for the benevolent ‘Winston’ (as self-identified by Johnson) and – oops – almost interrupting the young Queen’s Christmas broadcast. If the Tory Central Office had put it out, it couldn’t have done better. Politics is a consumer choice as much as deciding where to buy the turkey, and warm fuzzy feelings are the most trustworthy indicators. 

The major argument of Ghosh’s History section is that empire and imperialism have been as important as capitalism in driving both fossil fuel exploitation and contemporary climate discourse.  Insofar as the newly purged Conservative Party is, as has been suggested, an English nationalist enterprise, it is an imperialist past from which it draws its emotive force.  England as a self-sufficient entity, without piracy, conquest, a subjugated empire or US charity has not been tried within the past millennium.  It is unlikely that our new government has any intention of attempting it, but for electoral purposes that hasn’t mattered.  Brexit looms so large as a supposedly (in Johnson’s narrative, malevolently) jammed door, the possibility that it might not be a portal to the glorious past can easily be dismissed. 

Another central insight of Ghosh’s is that not all fossil fuel development is the same.  

“The materiality of oil is very different from that of coal: its extraction does not require large numbers of workers, and since it can be piped over great distances, it does not need a vast workforce for its transportation and distribution.  This is probably why its effects, politically speaking, have been the opposite of those of coal.  That this might be the case was well understood by Winston Churchill and other leaders of the British and American political elites … indeed, fear of working-class militancy was one of the reasons why a large part of the Marshall Plan’s funds went toward effecting the switch from coal to oil”.

Ghosh, The Great Derangement, p. 7

Gas, is, of course, as fluid as oil, and as attractive to neoliberal governments in Westminster and Stormont in both production and supply.  I shall be surprised if the so-called fracking ban (in reality only a policy announcement) in England and Wales survives the new majority.  Meanwhile the favoured interviewees for vox pops on Friday were middle-aged and elderly ex-miners or their relatives confirming their ‘unprecedented’ Tory votes.  The fact that the ‘hard left’ policies which they now repudiated with horror were the centrist status quo of the 1970s did not occur either to them or their interviewers. 

In the final section of the book, Ghosh identifies contemporary politics as ‘for many, a search for personal authenticity, a journey of self-discovery’, facilitated by the ‘Protestantism without a God [which] commits its votaries to believing in perfectibility, individual redemption, and a never-ending journey to a shining city on a hill – constructed, in this instance, not by a deity but by democracy’. If he is right, this has two effects: on politicians themselves and on voters.  Politicians fail, of course, to be perfect, but the extent of their shortfall gradually ceases to be measured.  There is no such thing as political disgrace, only a brief sojourn in the well-rewarded sin bin.  Meanwhile, for voters, the search for authenticity may take them down long and tortuous paths, into activism and personal sacrifice.  But the cities which shine the brightest are built not by democracy but by commerce.  The identity which is reflected back by every one of those gleaming surfaces, and especially in December, is that of the consumer.  Any other, such as that of the former miners, is, for present purposes, irrelevant. Given the choice between the jolly Ghost of Christmas Past, laden with mince pies and bonhomie, and the accusing spectres of Present and To Come, what sensible shopper would choose the latter? 

It isn’t, of course, the full story.  Millions of people resisted the narrative, especially the young, and others for whom identification as a consumer would be a hollow joke.  And the contexts in both Northern Ireland and Scotland were completely different, with correspondingly different results.  But the current House of Commons, UK-wide and therefore dominated by the largest country, with its first-past-the-post electoral system, gives huge influence to a small number of voters.  Those voters, ‘swing’, ‘floating’, whatever we call them, are those most susceptible to media messaging, both overt slogans like ‘Get Brexit Done’ and the quiet whispers of comfort and conformity.   What the next five years will do to that comfort, we don’t know.

Meanwhile, as Maurice has written, there is much that we can do, both within and outside party politics, making the case for a fairer and better functioning electoral system, supporting regional and local initiatives for a better future and campaigning for justice, compassion and effective action in the overlapping crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, exclusion and inequality.  And, as Ghosh and others have reminded us, we need to do all this not only on a political level, but by rooting deep and branching wide, including story, art, history and every other activity by which we define and celebrate our shared identity, not as mere consumers, but as human beings.

Tanya Jones

15 December 2019

[1] University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Festina Lente: why we need to hurry slowly to learn the lessons of the election

A machine-gun nest in the town square, Newtownards, the day after the election

In the first of a double bill of posts reflecting on the general election, Maurice argues that we need to take time to think carefully about the implications of the results, but, paradoxically, that we have to do so quickly.

As I set out to the shops in Newtownards yestrday morning, I came across a machine gun nest in the town square – “Already?” I thought, before realising it was a recruitment exercise by the Royal Irish Regiment.

But make no mistake, the guns will be out, metaphorically speaking at least, and potentially even literally, here in Northern Ireland, for reasons we’ll come to.

The general election result – let’s face it, a major victory for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, even if won by probably the most deceitful campaign of my living memory – will inevitably call forth much soul searching and recrimination on the left. The former would be much better than the latter, but the metaphorical machine guns are already blazing, with some commentators interpreting the result as a rejection not just of Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, but of Corbynism, which they take to mean his whole suite of policy positions.

It’s inevitable, but it’s still a mistake. To be sure, the bold policies set out in the Labour manifesto were not universally popular, but many of them – nationalising the railways, investing in the health service – enjoyed widespread public support. So rather than use the election result as an opportunity to eject the whole lot, Labour should take some time to think carefully about what sort of policies are essential for the wellbeing of the people of the UK, and make the case for them. I’d bet quite a few of them are already pretty well worked out in the Labour manifestos of 2017 and 2019.

Constitutionally, we are in for some change. There is little to hinder a newly invigorated Boris Johnson from reversing the moves towards greater effective Parliamentary sovereignty; it won’t be long before the Scottish start to prepare for another IndyRef; and of course, there is the little matter of Brexit.

At the end of January, the UK will leave the EU on the terms set out in Boris Johnson’s deal. From a progressive perspective, this does not look good: the protections for workers and the environment we have long called for are moved out of the binding part of the agreement and into an annex; so there is every likelihood PM Johnson will be tempted to ditch them in the course of negotiating trade deals with the likes of Donald Trump.

That gives us our first post-election progressive aim: to fight to uphold those protections, to build momentum towards making it unthinkable that such protections would be ditched in favour of chlorinated chicken and higher drug prices.

But before getting into that, back to those guns, and the implications of the results for Northern Ireland. Loyalists must find themselves in a bit of a conflicted state this morning. Johnson’s victory assures them that Brexit, something they adamantly demanded, will go through. But given the deal effectively puts a border down the Irish sea, so that Northern Ireland will be in some ways more closely aligned with the Republic of Ireland than Great Britain, it is far from the form of Brexit they wanted. Indeed, on a wall near where I write this, the phrase “Smash the Bretrayal Act” is emblazoned. Incidentally, at first I thought the extra ‘r’ in ‘bretrayal’ was a mistake, but it might just be a smart double portmanteau of ‘betrayal’ and ‘Brexit’. Or perhaps not. In any case, the ‘Bretrayal Act’ in question was, of course, Johnson’s Brexit plan.

If the more militant Loyalists are angry this morning, then their political stablemates in the DUP are likely to be pretty gloomy. Perhaps it’s too much to ask that the gloom will be lightened by a little glimmer of self-awareness, as some of them realise what a monumental own-goal their stance on Europe (and indeed many other matters) has been. *

Nevertheless, in electoral terms, they have not only lost two MPs, Emma Little Pengelly in Belfast South, and Nigel Dodds in Belfast North, but they also failed to take the seat vacated by Lady Sylvia Hermon in North Down. The latter went to the Alliance Party, who had a great night, with their vote rising across the board. Indeed they pulled in over 134,000 votes in total – the lion’s share of a whopping 144,000 votes gained by avowedly non-nationalist and non-unionist parties representing what I have elsewhere called the ‘community of others’ (COO).

In contrast, both the DUP and Sinn Féin’s vote went down. Unionism as a whole is now sitting at about 43 percent of the vote, and Irish nationalism at about 39 percent, with the COO coming in at about 18 percent. We are well past the dominance of a reductive, binary-denomination model – as I have already argued here and here. Now that we roughly fall into three minorities, it could be argued that if the two traditional denominational political movements are to achieve their goals, they are going to need to win the support of the community of others. That gives the latter – not a community of identity, or denominational community, but a rainbow coalition of different people – power greater than its size might indicate. Perhaps even the DUP will realise that trying to make Northern Ireland into a place that’s good for DUP supporters is a less productive strategy than trying to make it a place that’s great for everybody. Something progressive voices have been calling for forever.

So there is room for some cautious, carefully tempered optimism in the progressive movement in Northern Ireland. Cautious and tempered, of course, because the odds are still stacked heavily against us, not least because of that thumping Conservative majority in the House of Commons.

Still, here we are. And to work out how we get from here to there, we need to sit down and think carefully about how to map out this new territory.

If it were up to me, I would therefore call everyone even vaguely progressive (and remember, this is a relative term) together into a town-hall style meeting and try to thrash out a way we could temporarily set aside some of our differences, committing to work together towards a set of agreed goals, and rising to the major challenges of our time – deepening inequality, ongoing austerity, underfunded public services and of course, the climate emergency. This is something we have argued for before – here and here.

To an extent this has already started. The Greens (and to declare an interest, I’m a member), stood aside in North Down and Belfast South with a view to maximising the chances of returning pro-EU candidates. It worked, of course (not least in North Down, where the re-directed support of almost 3,000 habitual Green voters made up the bulk of Stephen Farry’s eventual majority over the DUP). But the Brexit ship has now sailed, and we, like it or not, are among the passengers.

All the more reason for us to get together and start hammering out a plan for our destination. Where do we want to land? What sort of Northern Ireland, UK, Europe, world do we need to start working towards? What does our Utopia look like, and how do we take it out of the realm of unachievable fantasy, and begin to build, here and now, a place where inequality is reducing, not growing, where people are being lifted out of poverty, not cast onto the mercies of the food bank, where successful corporations can’t dodge their taxes to enrich a few wealthy shareholders, where racism is dying out rather than being fanned by the powerful, and where our ten-year plan to bring about a global green revolution in the economy gets kick-started.

All of that needs to be discussed in a level-headed way, without falling into momentum-killing recrimination and finger-pointing. In other words, let’s not jump to judge each other: we need to take our time to talk this over in a democratic way; but at the same time, we need to get our skates on. Some matters, not least the climate emergency, will not wait for us to win each and every one of our little ideological partisan battles.

So let’s take our time and talk, but let’s do it quickly.

Festina Lente, everyone (…and a happy New Year!

*Update, 17 December: not long after I posted this I noticed a Tweet featuring Sammy Wilson of the DUP, who was calling on Boris Johnson to invest in a bridge from Northern Ireland to Scotland in order to ‘win back the trust’ of unionists. Not much of a glimmer there, then. Wilson does not seem to have noticed that the Tories no longer need the ‘trust’ of unionists. He would be much better advised to remind his fellow unionists that they need, at the very least, 51 percent support of people in in Northern Ireland if they are to achieve their goal of securing the union; and that won’t happen by riling up the base, all 43 percent of them. The DUP will have to shift from demanding that Northern Ireland is built in a way that best suits the unionist base to working with others to make Northern Ireland the sort of place most people want to live. In other words, the bridges they will have to build aren’t to Scotland, but are those to the rest of the people right here – bridges they have spent the last few decades burning.

Maurice Macartney

15 December 2019

Emergency treatment needed for our health care system itself

Showing support for our NHS staff in Ards

I stopped to chat with some of the strikers outside Ards hospital yesterday evening (Friday 6 December). After talking to Barry and Gillian (pictured left and right above) I am firmly convinced that they are absolutely right to raise urgent concerns over the state of our health service.

The media tend to focus on the issue of equal pay – and to be sure that is important; but it is only the start of a whole sequence of problems that tend to feed back and amplify each other.

So let’s start with pay. A qualified nurse in Northern Ireland starts on £22,795, whereas in Scotland they start on £24,670. Could that be one reason we are struggling to fill nursing vacancies?

And if you struggle to fill vacancies, then you end up turning more and more to agencies to supply temporary contractors. Now, the bill for contractors in the NHS in Northern Ireland was £76m in 2014-15. That rose to £134m by 2016-17, then £156m in 2017-18, then £200m. And this year the total is expected to reach £230m.

Does anyone notice a pattern?

Putting all that public money into agency staff is a bad investment. Only some of it goes to the nurses and other staff themselves – the rest goes to the agency, to cover costs and to generate profit. So as the bill rises, more and more of our public funds are going straight into subsidising somebody’s private business. That’s money that is no longer available for investing in recruiting and retaining full time, permanent NHS staff – another self-reinforcing, negative feedback loop: the more you put into external agencies the less you have for recruiting and retaining permanent staff; the fewer staff you recruit, the more vacancies you need to use agencies to fill.

To put figures on it, one nurse reckons we need an extra 3,000 nurses. How much would that cost? At the Scottish starting salary, something like £74m. In other words, the £230m we are going to spend this year would fill those posts three times over. But not a penny of it will go to nurses (or any of the other categories of staff) directly employed by the NHS.

And of course, it is not just about nurses. You need a whole team, from porters to maintenance staff, to cooks, the whole gamut of people into whose hands we entrust the health – the lives – of our children, our parents, and we ourselves.

As someone who went in for an operation (minor, thankfully) only a fortnight ago I cannot emphasise enough how courteous, professional and caring all of the staff were. What’s more, they would have given anyone the same first class treatment, from the poorest to the wealthiest, from the youngest to the oldest, regardless of gender, ethnic background, religion, sexual orientation and so on, for all of us, for all our diversity, free at the point of treatment.

That is a national treasure not to be squandered. And it is imperative that we invest urgently, to halt the wasteful spiral of outsourced spending we are currently witnessing. The longer we put this off the worse the situation will get – exponentially so.

So I urge you: remember this on Thursday, 12 December, in the privacy of the polling booth. Vote for a party that recognises the urgent situation our health services are in, and will invest in emergency treatment, before it is too late.

Maurice Macartney

7 December 2019

Vote to change the system

A brief word from Maurice on the forthcoming election.

The decision to set up a dripping block of ice to stand in for the current Prime Minister of the UK on a national leaders debate was a great coup de theatre.

Not only did it draw attention to the main issue at hand – the climate emergency – but with its drip-drip-drip it also neatly symbolised the watery response of some of our biggest mainstream politicians to both the climate crisis and to the other huge issue of our lives, deepening inequality.

Conservatives of the big and small ‘c’ variety, and on both sides of the Atlantic, have either done their best to make things worse, or have offered woefully inadeqate tinkering instead of a real solution.

If we are to rise to the major, interconnected challenges of our time it will require more than making a few adjustments around the edges. But if the problems are interconnected, the solutions are too, so there’s everything to fight for! We have had decades, arguably centuries, of a political and economic model that says ‘extract as much as you can from workers and living planet alike, and crank it upwards, towards the wealthy, who know how to run things’. It was an often violent process, both towards people and towards the living world itself.

Well, that model has run out of road. We’re starting to pay the costs of having extracted resources faster than the earth can replenish them, and those costs will only mount higher – unless we stop turning the crank, and re-organise the forces in our political economy so that wealth and power flows not vertically but horizontally, out to ordinary citizens, circulating in and around our own neighbourhoods, and being invested back into the living planet.

The fight for social justice and equality is intimately linked with the fight for a better, more equitable and sustainable economic system. So make your voice heard on Thursday, 12 December; vote for a party that will offer solutions big enough for the situation, and send a signal on 12 December that you are part of the movement!

Maurice Macartney

30 November 2019

There is no end in sight. We’re only getting started

Stephen Baker considers the current state of unrest in the UK and beyond.

Nothing to see here? A revealing Tweet from the media…

This election will resolve nothing. Nothing will be brought to a head. The job will not be ‘got done’.

Whichever party or coalition wins, the UK will still have to figure out its future relationship with its European neighbours.

The divisions opened up by the Brexit debate will mark British politics for at least a generation.

Scottish independence will not somehow magically drop off the political agenda, nor will the question of the border in Ireland.

The climate emergency will still need facing up to and growing inequality will still need tackling.

It will still be imperative that we find an alternative economic model to our present one, lest we trash the planet and subject people to further impoverishment and demoralisation.

At the other side of this election will lie one almighty struggle to safeguard workers’ rights and the environment, as well as a redoubling of our efforts in the fight against racism. That’s if Boris Johnson wins.

Alternatively, we will witness the privileged and the powerful throw everything they’ve got, through all the offices available to them, at a Corbyn led government.

At the other side of this election, politics will go on, red in tooth and claw.

This will be to the apparent consternation of the politicians, pundits and journalists who have maintained a narrative about how voters are tired of it all and just want politicians to “get on with the job,” whatever that may be.

This is predicated on the notion that people are essentially politically uninterested: the “ordinary Joe”; “the man on the Clapham omnibus”; “the dogs in the street”; the typical voter: those souls vox-popped on some commerce-forsaken provincial High Street and given a few seconds in which to condense their political opinions.

They are seldom invited to elaborate. Given just enough time to express disappointment or exasperation or acquiescence. A shake of the fist; a nod of the head; a thumbs up; a ‘like’. Politics reduced to an emoji.

But political apathy isn’t natural; it takes training. It takes the cultivation of disenchantment and the placing of impossible demands upon people’s time.

You must be too busy to think for yourself. You must be bamboozled by technocratic political language. You must not dare to dream on this side of the grave.

When ‘ordinary people’ appear on our screens it is not for the purposes of information or a comment, but an instruction about your own truncated contribution to the affairs of the day.

Remember “Brenda from Bristol”? Apparently she spoke for the entire nation with her withering reaction to the Theresa May’s announcement of a general election in 2017. “You’re joking!” She exclaimed. “Not another one! … There’s too much politics going on at the moment.”

You must come to see even voting as an imposition.

It’s as if in 2016 the voters turned out in huge numbers, took part in a momentous referendum that has utterly transformed the UK’s politics, and then slunk off, back to their shite estates, dowdy towns and backwaters, to live out the rest of their lives in quiet anonymity and indifference. 

Except they didn’t. Many have continued to argue, march and campaign on the issue of Brexit. The Climate Strikes have brought hundreds of thousands onto the UK’s streets in protest: millions across the globe – and that’s before we consider the unrest in Hong Kong, Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, France, Iran, Lebanon, and so on.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Universities, Royal Mail and the NHS staff are about to take industrial action, and even the nurses in Northern Ireland have voted to strike.

The nation that Brenda is assumed to speak on behalf of is a newsroom fiction.

It exists to provide crumbs of ideological comfort to Westminster’s beleaguered and baffled professionals. It fits a view of the recent past in which the great lazy unwashed turned up in history, trashed the place, before returning to the shadows to sulk at the failure of the ‘elite’ to implement their poorly articulated will.

It follows then than in Westminster ‘getting the job done,’ or simply stopping Brexit and ending the madness, is in reality about putting the genie of an awakened public back in the bottle before it does further damage to the grand order or things. Business as usual must prevail.

But politicians, pundits, journalists and everyone else should be under no illusions. There is no end in sight. We’re only getting started.

Stephen Baker

23 November 2019

School Strike. Week 57.

Greta Thunberg’s Tweet on Friday 20 September 2019.

It was certainly the biggest coordinated climate action ever – possibly the biggest globally coordinated demonstration of any kind in human history. And Greta Thunberg Tweets this.

School Strike. Week 57. New York City.

It is possible that years from now, people will ask each other: “Where were you on Week 57?” It is possible, just possible, that Friday’s action will become a generation defining moment, on a par with the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9-11.

Reaction in the press was mixed in the UK and US, with left of centre papers giving the story reasonable prominence. The conservative papers in the UK were, not unexpectedly, indifferent, if not actively hostile.

The Daily Telegraph website had almost nothing, then, far down the running order, a comment piece entitled: “The climate strikers’ hard-Left agenda would only make things worse”.

Yeah, and the corporate dominated, deregulated, growth at all costs, global crank economy has been doing a bang up job of getting a lid on the thing.

The website of the Daily Mail, for its part, ran story after story about what dresses were worn to some society wedding, a bit on the Epstein scandal and Prince Edward, and other such news. You had to scroll way down and down to find anything about the strikes, and then it concentrated on scolding Jeremy Corbyn for encouraging children to skip school.

It is a pity the billionaire owners and millionaire editors of the papers did not go along to the events with an open mind. They might have come away with an education.

Where were you on Week 57 – the question can be asked metaphorically, not just literally; that is, what was your position, where did you stand? Some, inevitably, poured scorn. The best response to this, in my view, came in a Tweet from Northern Ireland’s Claire Hanna, MLA:

“Nothing says ‘I’m an absolute wab’ quite like sneering at young people campaigning on climate change”.

I’m not even going to translate this for a non-Northern Irish audience, but you’ll get the idea.

Wabs aside, others, from virtually across the conventional political spectrum, and indeed from outside it, followed the lead of the young people. In Northern Ireland, mainstream unionism was absent, though John Kyle of the PUP characteristically joined the demonstration. But whatever their political stripe, thousands of ordinary citizens, young and old, marched through the streets to the City Hall in Belfast, just as they did cities in an estimated 163 countries around the world.

The view from the stage at City Hall, courtesy of Councillor Brian Smyth, Green Party in Northern Ireland

Am I exaggerating the importance of the day? Well, it remains to be seen. But one thing is sure. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of young people gave themselves a political education, organised and campaigned, spoke out against the inertia of the authorities, demanded an overhaul of the whole political economy, and went out and marched this year. On Monday, they will be watching when the world’s politicians gather in New York to talk climate. They will still be watching in the months to come, to see if the politicians’ promises are kept.

And next year, they will be old enough to vote.

Maurice Macartney

21 September 2019

Community of Others: What next?

With the results of the EU election now in, Maurice updates his post on the rise of the community of Others, and reflects on where we go next.

We now know that not only did the rise of the Community of Others continue after the local elections, but when all transfers were finally taken into account, they arguably (with caveats: see below) came out in greater numbers than either of the two traditional denominational communities (unionist and nationalist) in the EU elections.

After the transfers, Naomi Long of the Alliance Party ended up with 170,370 votes, to Diane Dodds’ (DUP ) 155,422 and Martina Anderson’s (SF) 152,436.

Of course, there are problems with this method of totting up support for the various camps. But even taking the more conservative approach, the first preference votes for the various positions are extraordinary.

All told, Unionists of various stripes took almost 246,000 first preferences; nationalists over 205,000, and ‘others’ just over 121,000. That’s some 21 percent to the Others.

Looking at the successful candidates alone, the DUP took around 125,000, SF 127,000, and Alliance an astonishing 106,000.

No Martian, looking at Northern Ireland’s election results for the first time, would come up with the phrase ‘the two communities’, or say ‘both communities’, and think that accurately described the NI socio-political map. Not even close.

The locally dominant paradigm – that Northern Ireland is divided into two (and only two) opposed denominational communities – must surely now be laid to rest. People may still try to work the binary reduction machine that pushes us back towards that model (by, for example, claiming that Alliance are ‘really’ soft unionists, or ‘really’ nationalists, both of which claims are currently circulating) but the mechanisms of the model are clearly breaking down.

Yet this is not enough. Everything depends on how we replace it. Alliance has done well – congratulations to them. But it is not clear that they will vigorously tackle the other dominant paradigm of our times, the globally dominant neoliberal economic model.

This is where the more progressive, left-leaning, and radical parties such as the Greens and People Before Profit (and perhaps more importantly the non-Party movements of ‘others’) come in. They – we – must now seize the moment and momentum and create a dynamic that pushes towards the democratic, grassroots redistribution of power.

While the binary reduction machine of NI politics was functioning smoothly, it was all the more difficult to address the arguably more important struggle against the crank economy.

The result of the local dominant paradigm was denominational conflict, including violence – unionist versus nationalist, Protestant versus Catholic. Now we must overcome the structural violence of inequality, austerity and poverty, the violence of misogyny, homophobia, racism, and, not least, the rapidly unfolding crisis of overconsumption in the living world – pollution, climate breakdown, extinctions, soil depletion and more.

If these global issues seem somewhat abstract (and they shouldn’t), there’s plenty of related issues for a local progressive and radical movement to get their teeth into. Not worried about the ‘global’ part of global warming? Then how about the amount of pollution fuming from the cars on our roads, the increasing number of kids packing inhalers with their school books, and, thanks to austerity cuts, closed clinics in which they cannot be treated…

In short, the rise of the ‘Others’ in recent elections opens new possibilities; but those Others should not – must not – settle into being some sort of vaguely liberal middle-ground. The stakes are far too high for that.

Maurice Macartney

30 May 2019