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

The Combination

Launched in January 2017, the Combination aims to think through politics, locally and globally, from a progressive viewpoint.

The Combination is so named in tribute those who combined, over the last few centuries, to demand democratic empowerment, social justice, and an equitable share in the economy. The values informing our thought include social justice, equality, democracy, nonviolence and sustainability.
Our goal is not to provide a set of ready answers, a blueprint for Utopia. It is to address a question:

How do we learn to live together, for all our differences, as nonviolently as possible, on this our one world and in this our corner of it?

It is the conviction of the Combination that our two era-defining problems – environmental destruction and egregious inequality – both spring from the same source. We set out, in this website, to get to grips with the mechanisms and the logic of that source, and to explore practicable ways to overcome these problems, locally and globally.

Maurice Macartney
25 December 2016