Tag Archives: Society

The future is open. A farewell to the United Kingdom.

It was a strange defence of the Union. Over-scripted and wooden, Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, chastised Scotland’s nationalists for “playing politics with the future of our country.” Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, had just announced plans for a fresh independence referendum. London was apparently caught off-guard. But if the best that May can muster is that “politics is not a game”, then Scotland will soon be the world’s newest sovereign state.

Across the North Channel, talks are underway to form a new government in Northern Ireland. They are unlikely to be fruitful. The previous executive collapsed amid a major financial scandal, at one time lauded for being the result of ‘normal’ politics. Even before actual voting in the March 2nd election, politics had returned to tribal normality. Yet, in a shock result, Unionism lost its majority status in Northern Ireland for the first time.

Scotland and Northern Ireland share a deep cultural heritage. Ulster-Scots identity has forged much of what is recognisably ‘Northern Irish’. These bonds were cemented by Union. But the most prescient bond at present, that they are the two nations of the United Kingdom which voted to remain in the European Union, may mean the end of the Union.

Brexit has upended political calculations. Unionists and Brexiteers bat away any talk of danger for the Union. But they ignore three issues driving change.

First is the arrogance of a nativist nationalism which is condescending in its smugness. Second, negative divides abound: whether between people with different viewpoints or between regions, difference is framed in how bad the ‘other’ is. Third, and perhaps the most potent long-term force, is that young people want to live in an open, plural, outward looking society. The UK is no longer that.

In British terms, Melanie Philips gave the most recent example of national arrogance. She is but one in a long line of national chauvinists from Farage to Fox to Foster. Populist nationalists are now household names across Europe. Their success is built upon stressing a national strength which revels in turning away Syrian child refugees and ignores the irony of free trade as the answer to closing borders. It is an inhuman approach that puts greater value on native lives than human lives.

This world view, complimented by the left’s obsession with identity politics, is driving people further apart. People increasingly see the nationality or the ideology, not the person. Civil debate barely exists. As the Economist points out, Owen Jones’s decision to leave social media because of the abuse received is a depressing symptom of our inability to agree to disagree.

Furthermore, regionalism has driven a wedge into a British identity. Scotland is different from Lincolnshire, which is different from London. Past unity is no indicator of future prosperity. Without a positive vision for what the UK is, division will become ever more normal.

Which brings us to the ultimate divide of our times: that of open versus closed societies. Perhaps the greatest driver for the changes which are happening in Scotland and Northern Ireland is that, in the main, people under 40 want to live in places where people don’t care about skin colour or with whom you sleep.

Two decades ago it was easy to identify the UK as an open and progressive place. In a Northern Irish context, the Union worked. Irish society was defined by a national claustrophobia. That has changed fundamentally. Two years ago Irish people voted overwhelmingly to support same sex marriage. Thousands of people under the age of 40 returned home just to vote in an uncoordinated and hugely emotional expression of making sure that Ireland was on the right side of history. The cathartic impact of this cannot be properly expressed. And what was simply a moment in time has, with hindsight, become one of the defining moments of Ireland as a socially progressive, creative, and open society.

Scotland’s desire to remain part of the EU speaks to the embrace of being part of a bigger whole. The results of the Dutch elections, with a massive rise in support for liberal parties amongst educated millennial voters, is further evidence that the issue goes beyond the UK’s borders. But, it also highlights the divides between people who want to embrace the world and those who want to shut borders.

Chris Deering, writing before Sturgeon’s announcement, concluded in the Financial Times that “The UK may not see out the decade”. Writing about Northern Ireland’s election results, Fintan O’Toole declared in the Guardian that “a wide crack has opened in the foundations of the UK.” To survive, the Union needs a radical but realistically positive vision. People in Scotland and Northern Ireland need to have an emotional attachment to it. Otherwise, the crack won’t be papered over.

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Filed under Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Politics, Politics, Society, UK Politics

Ruth Davidson and the power of change

Ruth Davidson doesn’t shy away from a fight. In 2011, at just 32, she became leader of the Scottish Conservative Party. For almost two decades the Tories have been an afterthought in Scottish politics. They’ve had one MP since 2001 and averaged the middle teens in numbers of seats in the Scottish Parliament until earlier this year. In May the party won 31 seats. Much of the credit lies with Davidson. It is only fitting that her party’s electoral performance has made her Leader of the Opposition in Scotland.

Davidson was in Belfast recently to deliver the annual Amnesty International Pride Lecture. Displaying undoubted charisma on stage, that intangible quality that politicians crave, she swept her audience along with her. They were an audience largely receptive to her message. But the qualities that have made Davidson talked about as a potential national figure for the Conservatives were all too apparent.

For some people, changing minds and attitudes is about believing they are right and the other side is just wrong. The problem, of course, is that the other side believes the same thing. The result is predictable. Davidson’s speech struck a chord for offering an alternative way to change minds: make it personal, be positive, and stop beating people over the head.

Her message has particular resonance in Northern Ireland. For a variety of reasons, the region’s civic conversations become stuck in issues relating to the past. While coffee shops and rooftop bars have replaced bombs and bullets, some things change more slowly. Belfast’s politics are still shaped by religion and by the conflicts of 800-years. Abortion is still illegal, bars still close at 1am, gay people still cannot marry.

A former broadcast journalist, Davidson knows the importance of language and imagery. Speaking about the campaign for same-sex marriage, she talked about herself, her faith, her family, and her identity. She made the abstract personal. It was a masterclass in securing social change. In a place obsessed by labels and identity, Davidson spoke of being a “practicing Christian…a protestant…a Unionist…engaged to a Catholic Irishwoman”. She positively spoke about how equal marriage doesn’t divide communities but is simply “about the people of Northern Ireland being afforded the same rights as everybody else”.

Much of the opposition to equal marriage in Northern Ireland comes from protestant churches and Unionists, those who favour being part of the UK. Davidson deployed her own faith and identity as a protestant, Presbyterian and Unionist to say that “Unionists and Presbyterians should feel they have moral permission to back equal marriage. Not just because it’s no threat to traditional marriage or freedom of religion, but also because we know that it has backing from all parts of society”.

But underlying everything Davidson spoke about was a confidence that change happens when the time is right. The first challenge for those who want change is to make the time right. For those who want it, change doesn’t come quickly enough, while for those opposed it often happens all too fast. Demographic change around the world has made equal marriage seem like a foregone conclusion. In Northern Ireland 70% of people are in favour; amongst 16-34 year olds that figure is 85%, dropping to 47% in favour amongst over 65s. It is a pattern borne out across the West, but it does not mean simply waiting for the fait accompli.

That Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK or Ireland where gay people cannot marry is a quirk of local politics. It is a victim of legislative chicanery rather than sweeping public opposition: petitions of concern, whereby cross-community majorities are needed, have been deployed in the local assembly on five occasions. A simple majority of assembly members voted in favour of equal marriage in November 2015 but only four Unionists voted for the measure. The Bill failed.

Making the time right means engaging with people who think differently. Some people will always fear change, even if time is not on their side. For some in Northern Ireland, equal marriage is a change which their fundamental beliefs cannot accommodate. For others, their opposition is about fearing that their world will be changed irrevocably. Breaking down that fear is the responsibility of anyone who wants to secure social change of any kind. It is about a reality where both sides respect their right to disagree but accept their responsibilities to wider society.

Ruth Davidson highlighted the example of Trevor Lunn. An assembly member who previously voted against equal marriage, Lunn changed his vote last November after listening to constituents. Lunn happened to be in the audience for her lecture. When asked afterwards if he was happy to be there, he replied simply, “yes, I’m comfortable here”. That’s what change sounds like.  

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Free speech should never be an option

Dissidents in the Soviet bloc fought for many freedoms between 1945 and the end of the 1980s. None was more important than the freedom to say or write what they wanted. They understood that free speech is the conduit to other freedoms. Without it oppression becomes the norm, and fear takes hold. Dissent, criticism and open debate are necessary in strong and mature societies. Yet, it appears as though people are increasingly unwilling to engage in debate. Instead, the default option is to shut down dissenting or contrary voices.

The conflict in Gaza elicits strong passions. These passions are shaped by whether Israel or Hamas is viewed as the aggressor. There will likely never be agreement on the roots of the conflict or the ‘truth’ of particular actions. But there is a difference between debating the roots of a conflict and the merits of policy. The former is for historians whilst the latter can be deadly.

Israelis are overwhelmingly in favour of government policy: nine in ten support the strategy and tactics of the Israeli Defence Forces. But there are critics. People such as Gideon Levy, and the organisation B’tselem. Many have been vilified and attacked for questioning the war in Gaza. Peace rallies have been openly attacked and abused for undermining national unity. Outside Israel, those critical of how it has waged war on Hamas are often accused of anti-Semitism. There has been a deplorable and unforgivable rise in attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions, especially in Europe. Anti-Semitism, however, should not be conflated with criticism of Israeli policy; to do so risks shutting down debate.

Some voices are particularly ugly. George Galloway, an MP, is one such ugly voice. He recently declared his Bradford constituency “an Israel-free zone.” With opinions on most topics, and a knack for stoking controversy, Galloway is much in demand as a pundit and speaker. He is due to speak soon in Belfast. A city councillor from the Democratic Unionist Party tried to prevent Galloway from speaking in Council owned property. He failed. The publicity around the incident has ensured a sold-out ‘show’.

That competing voices are undervalued, whether in Israel, Northern Ireland, Egypt or the US, is dangerous. Three reasons are feeding this danger.

First, the public is less engaged in the big issues of the world. An obsession with the banal crowds out the meaningful. Policy debates, such as they are, are not about substance but about process. And even when a celebrity’s latest irrelevancy is not the main headline, any engagement is myopic: people listen to, watch, or read media that express a view of the world with which they already agree. Those who express a different viewpoint are dismissed.

Second, it is a cliché to say that social media is to blame, but it undoubtedly feeds the symptoms by being reductive. 140 characters does not allow for a nuanced discussion. Its reactive nature feeds emotions.

Third, and perhaps most significantly, emotion trumps logic. Public debate and discussion regularly degenerate into who is right and wrong rather than an objective working out of solutions.

Fundamentally, the vilification of critics of Israel’s policy or the DUP’s stance in calling for George Galloway to be prevented from speaking demonstrates a lack of confidence. Rather than challenging the content there is a desire to shut down the voices.

But free speech is of absolute importance. Rather than seeking to shut down or intimidate dissent, a mature and confident society should encourage it. That includes voices we think are vile and abhorrent, like Galloway, or those we think are questioning national unity. There are those who will say that it is not possible to have a mature debate with Galloway. That may be so. His views are repugnant and verge on being racist. He is a demagogue, unwilling to engage in reasonable debate. But it is still incumbent on society to let him have his say. Otherwise, one day, someone might tell you or me what we can or cannot say.

Therein lies a dilemma. How do we challenge people who abuse the responsibilities that come with the right of free speech? The answer is not to silence voices. That is the tactic of dictators. Instead, those voices need challenged on the content and substance of what they say. To do so requires an engaged citizenry, sharp minds, and a confidence in one’s views that is rooted in logic, not tribalism or emotion. Rather than use emotion as an argument, it should be deployed as a tactic.

Above all, heed the advice of my A-level politics teacher to read things that you disagree with on a regular basis. It mitigates against lazy thinking. Critically, it highlights the most difficult issue for those who hold strong beliefs whilst illustrating the surest sign of a mature society: that values or principles do not have to change but differing opinions must be debated and discussed with openness and tolerance. 

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Jean, tear down that wall – a shared society in Northern Ireland is not enough…

It has been a while since I put fingers to keyboard. My inspiration returned after the NI Community Relations Council’s annual conference.

Let me start by saying that one of my dreams is for a prosperous, stable, confident, creative, mature, diverse and successful society in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland must be a place where peoples’ backgrounds have no bearing on how others perceive them, on what job they fulfil, or on where they live, go to school, or spend their leisure time. This can be achieved when people in Northern Ireland not only wish but work for this to happen.

I’m tired of hearing about a shared society in Northern Ireland. I want more than a shared society. I want us to be more ambitious. I want a visionary, creative and successful society. So I’m not going to settle for a shared society. Nowhere else in the Western world would settle for a shared society. Equally, I understand where the desire for a shared society comes from. I just don’t want to settle for it or for mediocrity.

As part of the conference we were asked a series of questions, and the audiences’ responses were partially analysed afterwards. Soft questions, predictable answers and woolly analysis assured my frustration.

One question asked about the role and voice of young people in the peace process. A more critical question in my mind would be to ask young people what they think of the peace process. Cue blank stares wondering why this ‘old’ guy with greying hair is asking them about dinosaurs. Young people do not have a place in the peace process because the peace process is over. It was over years ago and no matter how many circular conversations are had amongst people of a certain age, it now needs to be put to rest. We need to move beyond thinking about the peace process to thinking about how we make Northern Ireland a successful, creative society based on our visions of the future. It must not be about cementing the divisions of the past. Someone once said to me that anyone over 35 feels like they missed out on ‘normality’ because of the Troubles and they need their turn to try and fix ‘it’ for younger generations. You can’t fix something by clinging to a flawed vision though.

Another question asked whether or not a deadline should be set for taking down the peace walls – 20-odd foot walls dotted around Belfast to keep Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods separated and built at the request of communities. Initially surprised that the majority of people said no, I quickly realised that self-interest did not have to be declared through anonymous answers. Then to Jean, who offered her analysis of why she had voted no. Jean was adamant that no deadline should be set because her community of 700 Protestant people in Suffolk was surrounded by tens of thousands of Catholics in west Belfast and needed the peace wall to ensure they felt safe in their homes. In one line Jean blew apart the shared society.

Jean assured us that most of us had never lived in an interface area (the term used for the dividing lines between Catholic and Protestant areas) and that we could not know what it was like for people who do. Jean assured us that there was a lot of positive community dialogue between the Suffolk and Lenadoon communities. Jean assured us that one day she wanted to see the peace wall come down but not until the Suffolk community was ready. I predict that if a shared society remains the height of our ambition in Northern Ireland, that peace wall between Suffolk and Lenadoon will never come down.

Later, I was asked on Twitter if, on the basis of having no time for the shared society concept, I wanted “a divided, sectarian, racist society” instead. Having tweeted that the Millenial generation in Northern Ireland wants an “ambitious, prosperous, creative society” more, my response was something along the lines of “Oh please.” Of course I want a shared society, just not as it has been defined as the ultimate goal for Northern Ireland.

My earlier frustrations from the day were reinforced at the second Kennedy Memorial Lecture in Belfast, delivered by Professor Robert Dallek. Within seconds of hearing some of JFK’s famous quotes, it struck me that Jack Kennedy would never have settled for a shared society. It would have been much too small for him. He asked Americans what they were going to do for their country. He challenged them to see that the path they were on was not going to deliver what they wanted.

A “shared society”, as the peak of our ambition, feeds the status quo. It fails to challenge the notion that there are only two communities in Northern Ireland. It fails to acknowledge that a shared society is held together by a plaster and that the spoils have to be shared around in equal measure. It fails to acknowledge that outside of this tiny region, no one cares about our divisions and if we want to attract investment and talent to Northern Ireland then we have to grow up and become a shared society in the way that ‘normal’ societies have.

In his opening remarks, Tony Kennedy of the Community Relations Council referenced Richard Florida and his work on successful places being those places that respect diversity. To my mind, Tony should have gone the step further in Florida’s thesis that the hallmarks of a successful city are tolerance of strangers and intolerance of mediocrity. A successful society is premised on the idea that to move beyond our divisions, we need a bigger vision for the future. It argues that a different Northern Ireland will only come when we combine our talents, ideas and creativity and recognise that a shared society just is not enough. And Jean, tear down that wall.

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Filed under Ambition, Belfast, Future, Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Politics, Society