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

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