Monthly Archives: June 2013

Names, parties and hashtags: politics in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland got a new political party on June 6th. NI21 was born. It comes amid fevered discussion on social media of the prospects for a new style of politics in the region. A hashtag – #freshpolitics – sums up the hopes and aspirations of many.

I was underwhelmed, not at the idea of fresh politics. But because the name, NI21, is absent any vision or ambition. My first reaction on hearing it was not positive. It has the feel of something that middle-aged men, hoping to tap into the youth vote, might think is hip or modern. Instead, it seems stuck in 1997. Others have compared it to a strain of bird flu.

Names, one Twitter user pointed out, do not define everything. Those critical of the name were told to cast off the old politics. Wait for the policies, was the call.

The new party’s policies (of which there are none yet announced) will be more important than the name. But it does not inspire confidence. It smacks of a three second strategy session where, having announced that they needed something that said Northern Ireland in the 21st Century, they ended the discussion there.

Some 45% of Northern Ireland’s residents describe themselves as neither Unionist nor Nationalist, according to the latest NI Life and Times Survey. Fresh politics supporters point to the possibilities for change if these people can be engaged.

The tiny region’s politics are deplorable. A mandatory coalition holds power, the result of an agreement to settle nearly 30 years of violence. Of 108 members of the local assembly, 103 represent parties in government. Clientelism, parochialism, and tribalism are rife. Assembly members must declare a tribal allegiance upon election. Without opposition, the DUP and Sinn Fein, the two largest parties, increasingly concentrate power in their own hands.

Entire communities feel disenfranchised. Last December, Belfast City Council reduced the number of days on which the Union Flag will fly at City Hall. Working-class Protestant communities held a series of protests. Many were peaceful, but some were violent. Political parties struggled to connect with the protestors, who simply ignored the political process. They blame it for giving too much to Nationalists.

Young people feel especially alienated. The Troubles are history to them. Opportunities are lacking. A stagnant economy, dependent on the public sector, does not help. Belfast’s economy, once based on big industry, now seems based on call-centres. The answer for many is simply to leave.

NI21’s founders, Basil McCrea and John McCallister, are vocal and moderate. They tapped a reservoir of public apathy when they resigned from the Ulster Unionist Party in February. Fearing centrist voices were being undermined within the UUP their resignations came when it and the bigger, more strident Democratic Unionist Party fielded a joint Unionist candidate in a bye-election.

NI21’s roots are in seeking to challenge an unresponsive political system, not in Northern Ireland’s constitutional position. In his first speech as the new party’s leader, McCrea said, “[the current system] denies you that most fundamental of rights in any democracy: choice.” McCallister sought to lead his old party on a platform of taking it into opposition. Many had thought that they might join the centrist Alliance Party. But Alliance, the tiny opposition force in earlier Assemblies, entered government in 2010. It also undermines its liberal values through a lack of party discipline.

Supporters of fresh politics want to see a political system that is accountable, that delivers a competitive and prosperous Northern Ireland, and that treats Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as a peripheral concern. Those hoping for fresh politics may have to wait a while longer. It is intriguing that the new party’s leaders sought to define it using old politics. McCrea and McCallister have been clear that NI21 will be pro-Union in outlook.

And therein lies the difficulty for two such established politicians seeking to be changemakers. New faces were much in evidence at the launch, but the men at the top are well-known entities in Northern Ireland. A vigorous challenge to the status-quo will require more than establishing a liberal alternative and hoping and aspiring. It will require a societal demand for change, led by people who have no political baggage.

The liberal values espoused by NI21 – reformist, socially progressive and economically liberal – are much in need in Northern Ireland. An opposition force is also sorely needed. Achieving them will require intellectual rigour and political discipline.

Choosing NI21 as a name and the insipid “Aspire to Better” as a tag-line is not an inspiring start. Policies will be more critical to its success than a poor choice of name, but the lack of any policies, after four months of development, is inexplicable.

And those who support fresh politics should not confuse criticism of a lacklustre name with criticism of goals. They should realise, more simply, that messaging is king.


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Istanbul’s anger at autocratic Erdogan

tumblr_mnu268GCHw1ste7qoo1_1280Anger at political leaders is not new in İstanbul. In 532, rival groups in the then Constantinople united in anger at the Emperor, Justinian. 30,000 people died and half the city burned to the ground in the Nika riots. Justinian, needing a stern word from his wife, Theodora, only regained control by bribing one of the groups.

Justinian had few worries about democratic rights. Modern-day Turkey’s leaders have plenty. On May 28th, much of the country exploded in a paroxysm of anger. The focus was the increasing authoritarianism and paternalism of the Prime Minister, Racep Tayyip Erdoğan.

In power since 2003, Erdoğan has led Turkey at a time of huge change. After many years of political paralysis and economic turmoil during the 1990s, his time in office has brought stability and economic transformation. Average incomes grew from $2,800 in 2001 to around $10,000 in 2011.

That economic transformation has brought a development boom to İstanbul. More than $80bn of state-supported development include plans for the world’s largest airport, a new super-port and the construction of a third bridge across the Bosphorus.

But, rapid growth has a price. That price, at Gezi Park in the heart of Istanbul, was deemed too high by some. Tucked at the back of fume-filled Taksım Square, the tiny park, just nine acres, is earmarked to be redeveloped. The proposals, firmly supported by Erdoğan, are to build a replica of the former Ottoman-era barracks that once sat where the park is now. Contained within will be a shopping centre.

Research has demonstrated the psychological benefits of access to green spaces. In a city where only 1.5% of the land mass is green space, it is unsurprising that some people want to protect what little there is. 70 or so people gathered to stop the bulldozers from razing trees. They were met by riot police firing tear gas. Thousands quickly poured onto İstanbul’s streets, angry at the government’s handling of the situation. Erdoğan’s reaction to legitimate protest served to underline the reason for the anger.

The national venting of frustration now includes a two-day strike. It is rooted in his autocratic style and a not-so-subtle moralising. Those, for example, who opposed new restrictions on the sale of alcohol were “alcoholics.” Such attitudes caused the protests to spread quickly. By June 2nd, 1,700 people had been arrested in 67 cities.

Protestors charged Erdoğan with being a dictator. Bemused, he dismissed those who oppose him for simply wanting to do what is best for Turkey. He triumphantly declared that the redevelopment of Gezi Park would continue. He dismissed the protests as undemocratic, blaming them on the opposition and extremists. He declared that if the protestors massed 100,000 people on the streets, he would gather one million.

Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is a dominant force in Turkish politics. It won just under 50% of the popular vote in 2011, increasing its support from both 2002 and 2007. The opposition is ineffective and divided. Demands for the Prime Minister’s resignation began on the streets. The very lack of an effective opposition has increased Erdoğan’s hubris, much the same way as happened with Margaret Thatcher over the Poll Tax during her final years in power.

Public anger also mounted at the Turkish media. Often controlled by business groups with close links to the government, the media largely chose to ignore the first days of protests. Social media became the focus for information. This allowed Erdoğan to decry the medium as a “curse” and a vehicle for lies.

“Turkey’s democracy is maturing and civil society has taken root,” declared The Economist. Protestors may actually have to thank Erdoğan for this. Reforms since 2002 have curtailed the power of the military. In previous generations, the army may well have stepped in by now and simply removed the AKP from power. Citizens are, instead, choosing to defend their rights.

Some early commentary compared Taksım Square with Tahrir Square, and the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, in 2011. Others said that was overblown. After all, they said, Turkey is a democracy. But, as Stephen Cook, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Michael Koplow of the Israel Institute, as well as protestors on the streets of İstanbul and Ankara, point out, successful democracy is about more than elections.

President Gül, after five days of protests, told the people on the streets that their concerns had been heard. Erdoğan promptly flew to North Africa. Yet, two of his dearest wishes might require some humility on his part. He does not hide his desire to be the next President, a post which he hopes will have increased powers under a new Constitution. A more conciliatory tone might be needed to secure both.

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Filed under International Relations, Middle East