Ambiguity breeds uncertainty, and muddle.

Episode 16 looks at the destructive effect of ambiguity on effective messaging around two major aspects of policy – Brexit and Covid19. Also available on principle podcast services for subscription/download – quick links at end of post.

The UK Government has got itself into a muddle over its response to the outworking of the Northern Ireland Protocol in respect of the internal market of the UK. Maybe it is obvious the deep contradiction between the EU Single Market demanding some aspect of ‘customs’ to function and the  UK believing the Protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement means that Northern Ireland remains within the UK Customs territory and there should be no barriers to trade within the UK or UK Free Trade partners as deals (such as Japan) come on line.

That ambiguity was well explained in a recent The Critic article which wondered whether the wording of the Protocol was by accident or design; the podcast explores some more. Owen certainly has had plenty to say recently on the muddle that the Government has managed to create for itself, talking about how the proposed Internal Market Bill is a necessary step to minimising impact on Northern Ireland business by ‘clarifying’ and noting the hysteria around the Bill has little to with practicalities:

There is one thing for sure — the people who are defending the Withdrawal Agreement most adamantly, as opposed to those worried purely by the possibility that the UK may knowingly break international law, are not interested in protecting the Belfast Agreement. They are concerned only with maximising the protocol’s potential to damage Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. And, for them, that’s always what an Irish Sea border has been about.

We pick up on another aspect of the reaction to the Internal Market Bill that Owen also challenges; that of “Irish America”. Noting that the loudest voices are of a generation that still thinks ‘Irish America” is a meaningful voting constituency outside Congress, the bigger question is why the British Government has been so poor at explaining itself – Pelosi’s Office gives impression that the only voices it ever hears are those of the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Sinn Fein.

Efforts, however, would be of little value in the USA if the UK Government remains so hapless at home as discussed in the previous post on this site. Brandon Lewis’s answers on matters relating to the IMB in the House of Commons seems only to have generated more questions, and a hostage to fortune in respect of future policy in any field.

That same ambiguity, uncertainty and discontinuity seems to be prevalent across all aspects of Government communications at present – though admittedly there is little but Brexit and Covid19 breaking into the news cycles. Northern Ireland has its own particular challenges on messaging.

The podcast was recorded at the end of last week, and before the scenes of pitch invasions

 

and street parties arising from a Gaelic Athletic match over the weekend

Though we did record following a week of reports from the Holylands area of Belfast

where the lack of leadership and ‘never apologise’ attitude of Sinn Fein makes the attitudes of nationalist youth unsurprising – rules are something others are expected to follow…

Clear messaging is needed in actions and not just words. But ambiguity avoiding honest practical steps based on a realistic and clear assessment of the situation seems to be absent from just about all Governments’ communication. A reset is needed, sooner rather than later. Muddled messaging is only the outworking of muddle thinking.

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Was Government messaging wrong, or just rubbish?

It is reasonable to presume that Brandon Lewis’s response to the ‘Urgent Question’ from Sir Bob Neill in the House of Commons was pre-prepared. It used a very specific phraseology, and an example of something done before was even on hand. It may not be a good example, but it was there and hardly an off-the-cuff recollection.

A planted question is a common means for governments to gain an opportunity to make a pre-prepared response. It is hard to believe this particular government would cue-up Sir Bob, viewed as an arch pro-EU lawyer, to ask a question on the EU. That the minister’s response was on hand does, however, raise a number of questions, not least “why”?

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All in the message; future, present, past

Four topics in the latest episode of Political OD, in conversation with @3000Versts episode, with the common thread of messaging running through each topic.

First mixed messaging of Covid in NI. At the end of last week the morning Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster entertained the listeners with the message of doom from the Health Minister on an uptick in positive tests for Covid-19. Without downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic is the unchanged message imbuing a sense of panic from the Health Minister what we need while the Education Minster is trying to reassure parents of the safety of young people attending school? Especially when at the start of this week we have the more measured approach from the Health Department:

A health service source said peaks and troughs in the figures are “not unexpected” and demonstrate that Northern Ireland’s Test Trace Protect system is working efficiently.

Then there is the messaging on exam results which appears to have largely tripped up Education Ministers nationally and regionally. Perhaps more to do with a lack of political decision making in the mistaken believe that arms-length bodies somehow shift the blame of lack of political foresight onto bureaucrats? How did that work out?

Moving from matters of day to day Government we looked at the recent article by @3000Versts in the News Letter on what is needed to support a positive message for the Union. We discuss the three basic points he suggests as guidelines for thought and action going forward;

1. to strengthen the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And to maintain and consolidate Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

2. To ensure that Northern Ireland plays as full a role as possible in the social, political and economic life of the (British) nation.

3. To encourage positive relationships with our neighbours across the island of Ireland. And to make Northern Ireland a happy and prosperous home for people of all backgrounds.

That discussion is particularly important going into 2021 and consideration of events around the 100th Anniversary of Northern Ireland becoming a distinct part of the United Kingdom as the 26 Counties of the Free State descended into civil war and separation from the Union. A second article by @3000Versts in the News Letter is useful to read alongside the first. 

Concluding the podcast is a discussion around the new publishing site Dissenting Voices which has launched with a look at the the current debate around ‘rewriting’ history, and whether that is actually a thing at all. Using the issue of Legacy in Northern Ireland the first paper on Dissenting Voices reviews the impact of recent history becoming what is described as a ‘Black Taxi tour’ of events, people and places; where mostly nationalist slogans have become received truth and accepted ‘narrative’ (story-telling) over and above established fact.

Bit longer than usual, big issues.

PS. A bit of “you heard it here first” with this mornings BBC report on infrastructure:

Just a reminder of the earlier post on thedissenter that points out the risk to economic development on a number of different issues awaiting political decisions…. and discussed on Political OD Episode 14 which is still available on download from Podbean, iTunes, Spotify etc.

 

 

History is complex. Legacy matters.

A newly published paper takes a look at the issue of ‘rewriting history’reformulating the past to present political agendas, and concludes that in respect of matters of Legacy in Northern Ireland this has resulted in a scandalous sanctioning of a narrative that ignores the entire purpose of which murder and bombing was a part, but not the whole story.

The paper suggests that the issue of the moment is not that ‘history’ is being ‘rewritten’. It is that the past (the recent past a nebulous idea of ‘memory’, the distant past a story of ‘oppression’) is being recruited to serve an agenda and historical thinking dismissed if it prevents one – and only one – moralising political whippet winning the race and becoming the undisputed champion.

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‘big picture’ and politicking

Yes to infrastructure, but foundations first before grand schemes…

In recent days the News Letter has picked up on a small piece of legislation being rushed through the Northern Ireland Assembly. The bit that has peaked interest is what seems a modest change that will have the effect of placing more power in the hands of Ministers to take action unilaterally, without reference to the Executive.

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Talk of economic transformation impossible without dealing with the fundamentals.

World Technology Background.

In recent years I’ve been involved in business discussions around the technology and infrastructure of optical fibre – the foundation of broadband connection to homes and businesses across the country.

Too much of investment in fibre upgrade is piecemeal; an approach wholly inadequate towards making a step change that would transform the potential of a region such as Northern Ireland.

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Positive steps on Legacy

The Government’s approach to legacy as outlined by Secretary of State, The Rt. Hon. Brandon Lewis on 18th March was a positive step in addressing legacy issues in Northern Ireland. The House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has posed a number of questions on the Government’s most recent proposals and has held a series of sessions to gather evidence, as well as accepting a number of written submissions.

The original Stormont House Agreement proposals on ‘legacy’ excluded any review of decades of terrorist destruction and consequent trauma, removing context and trying to write past conduct as if present reality.

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New Government. Same old approach.

Time will tell whether Micheal Martin is a new approach to relationships with the UK generally and Unionism in particular. He’d struggle to be worse than the Leo & Simon show.

There is a long on detail short on substance Programme for Government that has been agreed between the three Coalition Partners in Dublin, but time will tell if that is the basis of stability or a huge fallout in due course. The Greens are the newbies, with it often forgotten that there has been a relationship between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail for the past few years with Fianna Fail providing Confidence & Supply to Leo’s Government.

We explore what the new Government might mean for relationships North/South and East/West, but posturing on the EU/UK negotiations on Brexit is over. Ireland is just one of 27 and it has most to lose.

Of course the three Party coalition means that Sinn Fein become the Official Opposition in Dublin. Perhaps ‘opposition’ is what it does best as it is making a total mess of its role a principal (mandatory) coalition partner in Belfast, particularly with its performance in Belfast this past week around the funeral of dead terrorist Bobby Storey.

It is not as if there aren’t big issues to address within Government. Stories this past week on the Charity Commission and LandWeb have echoes of RHI, and raises issues of whether the public sector is capable of reform or just not fit for purpose. Given the state of the relationships within the Parties at Stormont at this point in time, is there any interest or imagination to bring in the scale of reform that is clearly required.

This week MLAs voted to take charge of their own expense regime. What could possibly go wrong?

Discussing all of this with @3000Versts

Ireland has a new Government, finally.

It has taken months. A new Government for the Republic of Ireland has been agreed among three principal coalition partners, with a detailed Programme for Government (PfG – 126 pages).

Each of the three Parties required their respective memberships to endorse the PfG Coalition. The approval could be fairly described as emphatic – 74% Fianna Fail (FF), 76% Greens, and 80% Fine Gael (FG). That is a conclusive enough endorsement to suggest that the PfG and Government might well hold for a good part of what remains of the five-year term.

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