This is the basis of a presentation at the Royal Irish Academy, 27 February, at a roundtable hosted by Institute for British Irish Studies at University College Dublin on ‘Community Relations in Northern Ireland after the Flags Protest. Another summary of the presentations was posted on SluggerOToole.
The ARK Research Report, “The Long View of Community Relations in Northern Ireland: 1989-2012”, was sitting on the table when a friend visited recently. He lifted it, flicked the pages and just said ‘bullshit in, brains out’: apparently an old army term meaning the larger and more detailed the document the less likely you are to find anything useful past the Executive summary, and then only what the author wants you to know. In this age we are often familiar with reports written to confirm what seems to be obvious, or reports which ‘independently’ justify or endorse a particular decision or preferred course of action of a Department or Minister.
From an institutional perspective it may be easy to be sceptical about yet another report based on information already in the public domain, and commented upon in our newspapers. To a business mind, however, such data and broad summaries of the indicators offer a mine of information. What the individual must do is dig for the golden nuggets that lie within the texts and graphs. Duncan Morrow, in his presentation of the Report, noted the need to understand the information in context. It is ‘context’ which this paper addresses.
Rather than try to make sense of where we are today in Northern Ireland by looking inwardly, this paper looks elsewhere for understanding, by simple analogy; the process of change in Northern Ireland is not unique. It concludes with a question, or perhaps a broad challenge around, “what’s next?”
There is a bi-annual get-together on Lake Como, where a party (of politicians, bureaucrats and business people) talk about European and other politics/economics and whatever ‘big topic’ is current. In 2010, one of the number, a Swiss Banker, made a presentation on the future of the Euro.
The Banker presented a graph that showed the spread of bond yields for countries entering the Euro; before the launch of the Euro, the period from launch to the financial crisis of 2007/08, and yields after that point.
In the years to the introduction of the Euro most of the national bond yields reflected the ability/likelihood of a country being able to pay back the money borrowed – the more likely, the lower the yield, the less likely the higher the yield. This is a topic with which we have all become very familiar in recent years.
In 1999, when the Euro was introduced, from a previously wide range, the yields of those countries in the Euro pretty much converged, bouncing along and around a low range.
Our Swiss banker friend was most adamant that this convergence was peculiar. The markets seemed to imbue some magical power on the Euro which instilled a faith in the market-makers (and Governments and the people) that all the quite divergent economies within the Euro zone were equally good for their money: that the good times would roll on for years to come; that Greece would be able to pay back on its bonds as easily as Germany, that the Irish were as fiscally prudent as the Dutch.
This story, of course, doesn’t end well. In the global financial crisis, those converging lines blew apart. Yields separated as markets recognised the reality of the health of individual economies, and treated each accordingly.
Stepping back to the point at which the Euro arrived and the convergence of faith presumed and sustained by the markets; there was a belief that all was well.
At that time, anyone who questioned the power of the Euro to bring stability, growth, and to make Europe a better place was a naysayer – a prophet of doom. This (the Euro) was the future for the next generation of young Europeans, a legacy finally from the adversity of the past to which we could never wish to return.
It was a faith, a belief; not based on any rational analysis of what was happening underneath the headlines, and certainly not based on economic realities.
People may want to point to ‘light’ regulation of the banks etc as underscoring the crisis, but the regulation of the banks that existed was good enough to flag up any difficulties (in ALL markets) had there been an interest on the part of Governments to look diligently. No-one, it seemed, wanted to keep too close an eye on the ball.
It is also true that without control of interest rates, and an ability to influence your own currency, then the tools which any Government has at its disposal to stop the market from overheating are limited – and politically unpalatable – presenting huge difficulties for many countries (Governments) in the Euro. The reason why those ‘difficulties’ exist is in the very construction of the Euro. However, how do you raise the issue of ‘difficulties’ in the Euro’s construction without questioning the fundamentals of the entire Euro project?
In the end, no-one wanted to talk about resolving the inherent difficulties of herding massively differing economies into the one currency pen – unless behind closed doors.
All this sounds familiar.
There are echoes of the Euro tale in the manner to which the 1998 Good Friday Belfast Agreement has been heralded, before and since. There has been absolute faith in “the peace process”, a veritable and blessed political convergence towards a better future. There were some rocky seas at the outset; there was even a ‘new treaty’, not a big one, a bit of tidying up perhaps, in the middle.
And then there is that point, not one that simply arrived overnight, not one that can be pinned down with any exactitude, but a point where reality strikes, the graph frays and, while “there is no going back”, the political classes have nothing new to offer in going forward. You can play with the order of things, you can create Commissions, new regulatory bodies, new regulation, but fundamentally nothing is presented that addresses fundamental issues.
In respect of the Euro, the big elephant in the room is fiscal transfer – a European Barnett formula? In Northern Ireland, addressing the fundamental means having to challenge the success of political violence – from the vandalism of missiles over peace walls to the guns and bombs available to paramilitary organised crime.
There has been too great a tolerance of political violence and the organised crime which sustains paramilitarism in Northern Ireland. Through the parades’ protest activity in Belfast and elsewhere, there has been an official rewarding of violence with a curtailment of freedom of expression; so as not to embarrass republicans feeling the need to break the place up. If rioting is a successful recruiting ground for more violent acts, then since 2007, and Ardoyne shop fronts in particular, there has been a massive failure of public policy in this regard.
On organised crime; how many people have been in court for fuel laundering? There has been plenty of media reporting, but where are the criminal prosecutions? At the end of February 2014 there was another report of a huge fuel plant found near the border, yet no prosecutions pending. When, just last year, the IRA placed explosives on a border road to warn the police (both sides of the border) to stop disruption to the IRA’s criminal activity in the area, other a report in the Irish Independent, where is the outrage or the consequence?
Since 1998, because it has suited different parties for different reasons, but as one, the political class has abandoned what are described as ‘working class’ areas. Into a political vacuum, public bodies have poured resource into funded places in community schemes/programmes and promote such activities as a great step forward. Yet most areas have seen little improvement in their sense of community or safety: the peace walls remain, and more are added.
What chance, what hope, have ordinary people in such areas to step out of poverty, disengagement, and brutality, if those very conditions are required to sustain/justify funded programmes. How often are the ‘needs’ of a community deftly matched to the pots of available funding? Cui bono?
A recent blog, a new blog, from a collective known as vixenswithconvictions.com sums it up well:
“There can be no form of control greater than that exerted internally over communities. Those who complained about being oppressed ultimately became the oppressor, and those who were discriminated against masterfully practiced the art of discrimination. And ordinary people suffered as a result. Good people. People who deserve better. People who were vilified collectively, labelled “savages” and “animals”, people who were, and who were not republican minded, all paying a heavy price now for the neglect which their community suffered while the IRA furthered its own aims.”
In that quote, for IRA, fill in the appropriate paramilitary acronym for any given area. This statement could apply to all communities, and until the fundamental of that statement is accepted and addressed, that violence and crime are no longer tolerated, things won’t change: referenced in the ARK Report at Chapter 7(ii), page 161.
The fundamental in this is a person’s sense of security: personal, family, home, and community. Disconnect, which is a common topic of media and political discourse, is inevitable where the ability (or unwillingness) of the political class to make a difference on the ground appears distant.
For the middle-classes, of which in Northern Ireland a far too large part is engaged or funded through the public sector, it is considered best to keep the head down; don’t rock the boat. Personal or community safety may be less (though not absent) from middle class concerns, but high on the agenda is the political class’s apparent inability to demonstrate competence in offering a secure future for the family; in education or health as two significant areas. Disengagement is the result of that overarching sense of insecurity in the future (family future more than political future), and the competence of our politicians to address day-to-day policy issues in a mature and intelligent manner.
Disconnect and disengagement from a self-serving political class is hardly peculiar to Northern Ireland, though one would have hoped a situation in which street violence was a less likely consequence than in other parts of the world.
Creating fundamental security of the person and community, setting boundaries for behaviour in pursuit of political objectives, is an essential starting point. There must be zero tolerance of political violence; we need to excise the cancer that is undermining the Rule of Law, corrupting society, and stifling any effort to move forward. Only then will there be the space for attention to be paid to securing improved health, education and pursuing policy that will make a difference to the everyday lives of people who strive to build a better future for themselves and their families, whatever their class.
No answers from the ARK Research Report, “The Long View of Community Relations in Northern Ireland: 1989-2012”, though plenty to consider.