Thursday, 19 October 2017

Irish Language Act threatens a cultural carve-up

In the recent past, there was a common idea among academics who thought and wrote about unionists, that there were broadly two types of unionism in Northern Ireland. ‘Cultural unionism’ concentrated on defending a way of life regarded as specific to Protestants in Ulster and it was most closely associated with the DUP, while ‘liberal’ or ‘British unionism’ was focussed on the UK as a whole and influenced some quarters of the UUP.

People’s attitudes and motivations can rarely be put into categories so neatly, but there was some truth to the distinction. A common Ulster Unionist jibe asserted that the DUP was an “Ulster nationalist” party with little time for UK politics or modern British society, and scarcely deserved to be called ‘unionist’ at all.

From the perspective of late 2017, it’s a lot more difficult to sustain that claim.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of Brexit, the DUP threw itself into a nationwide campaign and argued the case for the whole UK to leave the EU. Then, after the last general election, its MPs found themselves holding the ‘balance of power’ at Westminster. The party brokered a deal to support the government in key votes and established a meaningful relationship with the Conservatives.

This new emphasis on UK politics happened partly by accident - because Sinn Fein had collapsed the power-sharing executive at Stormont and left Democratic Unionists without their local political platform - but it also reflected how unionism has realigned, as voters and activists deserted the UUP.

Unfortunately, there are some ominous signs that, in order to get the Assembly up and running again, the DUP might be tempted to return to its old habits and accept a sectarian carve-up on the Irish language.   

Although the party has sent out conflicting signals, some of its representatives encourage the idea that it may back legislation to formally support Irish, if the Ulster Scots ‘language’ is included in an act as well. It’s a dangerous notion, that could change Northern Ireland considerably, on the flimsy pretext of securing equivalent money for a culture that interests a tiny majority of enthusiasts.

An Irish Language Act could mean almost anything, but campaigners most frequently cite legislation in Wales, where a much larger community speaks the native tongue and English and Welsh are legally on an “equal footing”. Sinn Fein wants the act to centre on its own paper, compiled by former culture minister Caral Ni Chuilin, which proposes ‘affirmative action’ to boost the number of Gaelic speakers in the public sector.      

Even less wide-ranging legislation could deepen divisions in our society and encourage ongoing efforts to ‘mark out’ areas with Irish street signs and other indicators of cultural ownership. Add Ulster Scots to this equation and public money may as well be used to fund a kerb-painting scheme to show exactly who lays claims to which parts of the province.

This kind of thinking reflects very accurately how power-sharing has operated in Northern Ireland since 2007. Government here has often come down to divvying up taxpayers’ money to one or other of our perceived ‘communities’, and the biggest parties’ role is to fight for their share of the spoils.

The Irish language is certainly a unique and irreplaceable part of the heritage of the British Isles. It deserves support and protection, just like many other aspects of our culture. However, Sinn Fein barely attempts to disguise the fact that it wants legislation in order to promote the “Irish national identity” because Northern Ireland “is not British”, as Michelle O’Neill claimed at the Conservative Party Conference.      

A language act, or even a wider culture act, will focus on things that divide people in Northern Ireland, rather than things that bring us together. It will take money that could be spent on services for everyone and spend it on a tiny minority whose idea of culture is making a big deal about national identity, often with transparently political motives.

If the DUP is really starting to think about politics differently, and if it aspires to keep the support of the broadest section of unionism, it should leave this legislation well alone.

This article was published first in the News Letter.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

EU's Brexit position on Ireland is contradictory

Last month the government published its Brexit position paper on ‘Northern Ireland and Ireland’ (by which it meant the Irish Republic). It was hardly a scintillating document, but at least it tried to imagine how a ‘seamless and frictionless’ border might work in practice.

In response, the EU Commission issued a set of truculent and unhelpful ‘Guiding principles for the dialogue on Ireland / Northern Ireland’. Like the British paper, it filled a great deal of space referencing the Good Friday Agreement and emphasised the importance of the peace process, but it pointedly refused to ‘put forward solutions for the Irish border’. ‘The onus to propose solutions’, it said, lies squarely with the UK.

What the commission didn’t say directly, but its negotiator Michel Barnier acknowledged in a press conference, was that the UK did propose solutions, which the EU rejected out of hand. The British paper made it clear that the government sees no need for a so-called ‘hard border’ from its perspective, and that attitude makes a lot of sense.

If the UK hopes to trade freely across the world after Brexit, there are persuasive arguments for dismantling barriers to commerce as comprehensively as possible. That’s before we consider the political sensitivities around placing customs posts and other checkpoints at the Irish border.

Whatever Mr Barnier might claim, the government is responsible only for arrangements on its side of the border. If the EU insists that elaborate infrastructure is needed in the Republic of Ireland, to protect the customs union or the single market, then that is its responsibility. Brexit supporters will point to another example of the type of bureaucratic inflexibility that justified the ‘leave’ campaign in the first place.

Of course, the two sides are engaged in a negotiation and the two papers on Ireland can’t be untangled easily from the broader strategies that both the UK and the EU 27 are pursuing.

Britain’s document was a rather clever attempt to pin responsibility for any hard border on Brussels as early as it could. If there are customs checks and physical barriers, it will be thanks to the EU rather than the UK, is the implied message. The commission’s ‘guiding principles’ try to refute that suggestion, but a lack of counter-proposals mean that its argument is less convincing.

There are probably other factors influencing the stroppy tone of Brussels’ document too.

Its negotiators are desperate to force the UK to accept a substantial bill, as part of the process of leaving the EU. Depending upon whose interpretation you accept, this is either a settling up of accounts to which Britain was previously committed, or a punitive and unreasonable bribe.        

In an attempt to strengthen their position, EU negotiators have insisted that they will not discuss a possible post-Brexit trade deal until the UK promises to pay. And although the Northern Ireland peace process is supposed to stand above this haggling over cash, most of the issues around the border are connected intimately with customs and commerce. Brussels is not prepared to resolve the more practical problems presented by Ireland, until the talks move on to a trade deal, but it doesn’t wish to say this outright.

The EU’s vague references to a “unique solution” for the island are calculated to sound like the “special status” within the European Union that nationalists have been demanding for Northern Ireland. Usually, this status is described as a way of keeping the province inside the single market and the customs union, by completing border checks on routes between Northern Ireland and Britain, rather than Northern Ireland and the Republic.

If the EU is alluding to that type of arrangement, which is flagrantly unacceptable to unionists, it could be chiefly a manoeuvre, designed to persuade Britain to accept preconditions around trade negotiations. It may also be a way of expressing solidarity with the Dublin government, which has responded to Brexit by reopening the ‘national question’ rather than addressing practical threats confronting the Republic’s economy.

If the “unique solution” is actually a genuine bid to pick apart the UK’s mandate to leave the EU and keep Northern Ireland within the single market, it’s a spectacularly ill-conceived and irresponsible strategy. A power-grab that might put trade barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, in order to prioritise a closer relationship with the Republic, would obliterate the constitutional settlement formalised through the Belfast Agreement.

Certainly, Guy Verhofstadt, the EU Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, encouraged the idea that Northern Ireland could stay in the customs union and the single market after Brexit, during his visit to Belfast this week. He even suggested that voters in the province could elect MEPs through the Republic of Ireland’s electoral system. Unless he is particularly badly informed about the peace process, he must know that this type of intervention is insensitive at best and at worst looks like an attempt to stoke separatism in the UK.

Next month, the EU 27 will meet in Brussels to decide whether there has been sufficient progress during the first tranche of negotiations to open talks on future trading arrangements. Perhaps, if the two sides come closer to agreeing about money, then their discussions on Ireland will start to flow more freely. For the time being, the EU has taken the contradictory position that the border is an issue for ‘phase 1’, yet it refuses to discuss any of the critical matters around trade or customs that are affected by ‘phase 2’.

It’s reasonable to urge the UK to be ‘flexible and imaginative’ about the Irish border, but the UK doesn’t have a responsibility to accommodate endless inflexibility and lack of imagination from the EU.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Conservatism: Ideas in Profile - review

In Roger Scruton’s view, “conservatism is what its name says it is: the attempt to conserve the community that we have…. in all matters that ensure our community’s long-term survival”. In a new book about the topic, the philosopher explores how modern conservative ideas have developed and describes a rich tradition that should help Tories examine the current state of their party critically, as well as inspiring unionists who wish to preserve Northern Ireland’s place within the United KIngdom.

Sir Roger Scruton is one of the Right’s leading contemporary thinkers and he has a rare gift for explaining complicated concepts in clear, elegant language. That talent is particularly useful in Conservatism, which is part of the ‘Ideas in Profile’ series that aims to provide ‘small introductions to big topics’.

From the ‘pre-history’ of conservative thought and its origins in the philosophy of Aristotle, the author traces a modern way of thinking that develops and qualifies theories outlined by Hobbes, Locke and Hume, which underpin the modern, democratic state. Modern conservatism emerged as a means of checking the individualism that characterised classical liberal ideas and identified a vital extra component - ‘responsibility’ - that binds together functioning societies.

Scruton says that liberals believe the state should protect personal freedoms, socialists think it ought to command the economy and redistribute wealth, while conservatives add that it should enforce responsibilities that allow communities to flourish and enable people to enjoy their liberties. Conservatism sees intrinsic virtue in institutions and traditions, which accrue over time a store of combined wisdom that would be impossible for governments or individuals to replicate by other methods.

And rather than focus exclusively on political and economic themes, Scruton examines cultural and literary ideas, because they are what “unite human beings in mutual attachment”. He describes the impact that writers like Coleridge, Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot had on the development of conservative thought, as well as movements that sought to preserve important traditions, like the Gothic Revival and the National Trust. 

In his closing chapter, Scruton looks at the state of conservative thought now. In the United Kingdom, he maintains that conservatives are a beleaguered and maligned group, particularly in academia. He detects hostility to conservatism in, “a world where free speech and free opinion are comprehensively threatened, where laughter is dangerous and where the fundamental assumptions of secular government are no longer shared by all those who enjoy its benefits”.

Yet, for that reason, conservative thought can make a vital contribution to modern politics. "In the battle with socialism", Scruton says, and he implies that the struggle is also now with a virulent form of Islam that is hostile to democratic values, "the classical liberal and the conservative stand side by side". 

In contrast to socialism and liberalism, it can be difficult to define the core tenets of conservatism precisely because conservatives are often suspicious of ideologies and dogma. Scruton’s service to conservatism is that he takes it seriously as a tradition of thought and a philosophy. His book will be helpful to anyone who wants to form clearer ideas about conserving the worthwhile things we enjoy as a society.

In Northern Ireland unionist parties value the benefits that flow from maintaining the UK - stability, prosperity and democratic liberties - more highly than the theoretical assets of a united Ireland. Irrespective of the different views on economics it encompasses, the core priorities of unionism are conservative in nature.            

To clarify their aims, and pursue them more coherently, unionists, like conservatives everywhere, would do well to start with Scruton’s new book and then read everything else that he has written.

A version of this article was printed first in the News Letter, 15 September 2017.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Unionism's reasons to be cheerful

We don’t yet know how Brexit will affect Northern Ireland exactly, but the referendum result certainly revived the nationalist trope that Irish unity is ‘inevitable’.

The Republic’s national parliament recently published plans for a forum “to achieve the peaceful reunification of Ireland”, Sinn Fein blithely assure unionists that the “British identity” will be protected in a thirty-two county state and newspaper columnists rush to tell readers that the fourth green field will soon “bloom again”. One particularly excitable author, Kevin Meagher, a former special adviser to Shaun Woodward, (remind me again why unionists didn’t trust that former secretary of state), even called his book “A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable”.
In response, unionists have challenged nationalism’s “self-regarding, single certainty” in a series of astute articles.

At the dissenter blog, a leading academic took apart the question of a “United Ireland, inevitability and Brexit” in a comprehensive essay. The economist, Dr Esmond Birnie, frisked nationalists’ economic arguments thoroughly at Think Scotland. And the website This Union published a review that tried gamely (but in vain) to find any persuasive evidence in Mr Meagher’s book that backed up his claims.

The arguments that a united Ireland is not inevitable are clear and varied. They range from the philosophical point that the path of history is not pre-determined, to more practical considerations around the economy and proof of continued public support for Northern Ireland’s membership of the United Kingdom.

Nationalists have been excited by the idea that Brexit may shift public opinion in favour of Irish unity and that has strengthened their predisposition to assume that a thirty-two county state is ‘inevitable’. They’ve received encouragement from disgruntled ‘remainers’, like the Alliance Party, who are willing to support a special status for Northern Ireland within the EU, which prioritises closer links with the Republic at the risk of distancing the province constitutionally from the rest of the UK.  

Yet opinion polling shows that there has not been a significant increase in support for a united Ireland in the aftermath of the EU referendum. In addition, the largest Northern Irish unionist party recovered from an underwhelming Assembly election result earlier in the year to deliver a decisive victory at the 2017 general election and the DUP now holds the balance of power in the UK parliament, with all the opportunities and dangers that that entails.

If Brexit has added ‘uncertainty’ to Northern Ireland’s politics, it’s not necessarily uncertainty that will benefit nationalism and disadvantage unionism.

Opportunities and threats for unionism

For thoughtful unionists, it’s easy to poke fun at people who believe in the ‘destiny’ of their perceived nation to achieve ‘independence’ or unite with another state. Karl Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism is often quoted to add intellectual weight when we remind nationalists that one cannot predict the course of human history. It’s also a useful retort to the gloom-mongers within unionism who sometimes seem resigned to the breakup of the UK.                  

Still, if it is not inevitable that nationalists will prise apart our state successfully, neither can it be taken for granted that the Union will survive in perpetuity. Economic circumstances can change and, in any case, voters have other motivations besides the economy.

It’s important for unionists, in Northern Ireland and beyond, to think always about how the Union can be strengthened and, at the very least, to ensure that they do it no harm. I’m thinking in particular of the DUP and the Conservative government, with which it is now working in partnership.

Democratic Unionists will certainly be tempted to use their position to secure short-term benefits for Northern Ireland and demonstrate an influence on social issues to potential voters back home. The party has a grave responsibility to balance its electoral interests with a broader commitment to preserve the Union and protect the UK.

It might seem obvious to say so, but unionists have an advantage over nationalists in Northern Ireland, because the constitutional arrangements they wish to maintain are already in place. Unionism values the benefits that flow from maintaining the United Kingdom - stability, prosperity and democratic liberties - more highly than the theoretical assets of a united Ireland.

In his new book about the subject, Roger Scruton says that conservatism is “what its name says it is: the attempt to conserve the community that we have”. Though he adds “not in every particular, since, as Edmund Burke  put it, ‘we must reform in order to conserve’”. And that is an important point for the DUP, whose conservatism can sometimes look like an instinctive, visceral aversion to the modern world.

Know what you want and when you’re winning

If unionism in Northern Ireland were to articulate its priorities, what would they be?

While different types of unionist emphasise different goals and tactics, most would at least profess to wish to 1) protect the Union and Northern Ireland’s place within it 2) improve the social and material wellbeing of people in the province and 3) amplify Northern Ireland’s voice in the political affairs of the United Kingdom.

Sometimes the debate between parties on the pro-Union side obscures the fact that they share these broad aims, rhetorically at least, even if they disagree on how success should be measured.  Remember how the DUP attacked their Ulster Unionist rivals repeatedly when the UUP formed an electoral pact with the Conservatives.

Now that the Democratic Unionists are closely linked to the Tories, some figures within the party admit that they were worried by UCUNF precisely because they recognised its potential to resonate with voters. That potential was a consequence of the pact’s promise to deliver a voice for Northern Ireland in national politics.   

The DUP is much less susceptible than the UUP to attacks on its association with the Conservatives by critics from the unionist side, but it has an influence on the Westminster government that did not materialise for the Ulster Unionists. It also has the capacity to provoke enormous anger and resentment toward Northern Ireland, if it is portrayed as oblivious to the welfare of people in England, Scotland and Wales, or is seen to oppose changing attitudes that have generally been accepted across British society.  

The party could get snarled up with resisting same-sex marriage and defending “bonfire unionism” or it could put Northern Ireland at the centre of national debates that will define the future of the UK state.

While you can agree or disagree with the themes of its arguments, the DUP undeniably took part in the EU referendum at a level that was not purely parochial. Now that the Irish border is a major aspect of negotiations between the government and the European Commission, its most urgent priority should be to kill dead the idea that new trade barriers with the rest of Britain are less potentially damaging than customs posts at Newry or Londonderry.  

And rather than viewing its relationship with the Conservatives mainly as a means to bring extra money to Northern Ireland’s public sector, the DUP should be looking at its potential to rebalance our economy and make it viable. Otherwise the Tory deal could actually damage the Union (and Northern Ireland) in the longer term.

There are significant reasons for unionists to feel positive and secure at the current time. If Brexit has added an element of uncertainty, it is nothing to the potential social and economic chaos that would follow any substantive move toward a united Ireland. And if Ulster unionism’s current political representatives are sincere about wishing to have a constructive role in the political life of the nation, then there’s rarely been a better opportunity.   

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Transgender debate shows dangers of identity encroaching further into politics and law

If you’re interested in politics, particularly in Northern Ireland, it’s almost impossible to avoid grappling with that slippery concept, ‘identity’. Ordinarily, the word is used to describe how we see ourselves but, increasingly, it also specifies how we expect to be seen by the rest of the world.

I’ve written frequently about national identity, with all the complications that entails, and I’ve argued many times that national identities are not necessarily exclusive, simple categories. We’ve become used to the idea that some people call themselves British while others say they’re Irish. Many of us prefer to think that we’re both, and although that isn’t always accepted by nationalists, it’s not a difficult idea to understand.

You may view national identity as a legal fact, defined by citizenship of an existing state, or you may believe it’s decided by belonging to a cultural or political ‘nation’ that makes claims on its people’s allegiance. Either way, nationality is an abstract, invented notion and difficult to quantify or test by experiment.

Until recently we thought very differently about sex and gender. Sex generally described the biological differences between male and female, while gender referred to the sociological and cultural consequences that arose from this biology.

Scientists explained that different types of chromosomes, containing genetic information, combined and determined whether a baby would be born male or female. A tiny number of ‘intersex’ infants fell outside these two categories for complicated anatomical or hormonal reasons, but for most people sex (and gender) was a factual matter of XX or XY, one set of reproductive organs or the other.

A highly politicised campaign has challenged that view quite successfully, to the extent that the Conservative government is threatening to legislate in line with its orthodoxy.

The fashionable theory is that every individual has the right to choose his or her gender, determining whether the law and the rest of society should treat him or her as male, female or any one of a bewildering array of neologisms that supposedly describe something ‘in between’.   

The government proposes to allow people to alter the sex recorded on their birth certificates at will, without producing any medical evidence supporting the change. They may also designate their gender as ‘X’, which covers the entire smorgasbord of other alleged orientations.   

It’s true that, in the confines of university departments, sociologists frequently describe gender as a social ‘construct’ that differs from biological sex. That’s an academic distinction, but it has become a deeply political one. The new legislation threatens to sacrifice a matter of legal and scientific record to the modern cult of identity and the articulation of every grievance in the language of human rights.

A birth certificate is not a document of self-expression. The absurdities of the proposal and the disdain it shows for facts have been ridiculed highly effectively by columnists like the cantankerous Brendan O’Neill. Other commentators have examined the deeper political motivations of ‘trans’ activists, who they allege want to destroy a perceived male elite they call the ‘patriarchy’, by destroying distinctions of sex and gender entirely.

By this interpretation, the small number of intersex people and those with gender dysphoria - who feel they were born in the wrong body - are being exploited by ‘neo-Marxists’ whose ‘postmodern agenda’ is to break down ‘crucial pillars of society’. I don’t wish to speculate on whether this is a wild conspiracy theory but, read about the topic a little, particularly around the debate in universities or the US tech industry, and you will quickly fall down rabbit-holes of the densest, most nonsensical political jargon.

The transgender lobby is certainly deeply postmodern, in the sense that it attacks the idea that the medical profession can determine a person’s sex and claims that gender is purely a function of an individual’s experience. And although if focuses ostensibly on the individual’s feelings, it’s purpose is to create an ever greater number of classifications of people, all of which can claim ‘rights’ as a group.

It also runs counter to many of the themes normally thought to characterise the modern world and in particular, the modern western world. Our ability to distinguish clearly between nature and culture, the separation of public and private life and the idea that theories need to be tested against observable facts. Then there are the challenges to freedoms of conscience and expression, from a movement that, for example, wants to enforce the common courtesy of using ‘preferred pronouns’, through the law.

There are countless practical difficulties around allowing individuals to legally change their sex or gender at a whim and they’ve been discussed elsewhere. There’s also an important debate about how to assist those with genuine issues around gender and make them feel included and equal. On a broader principle, it’s dangerous to tell confused young people that society always has to bend to accommodate their idiosyncrasies, rather than helping them find a role in society.

Some parts of identity - language, job, pastimes, appearance, even name, sexuality and nationality - are fluid and personal. Other aspects of who we are - like sex at birth, species, ethnicity- are biological facts that we should have to live with, whether they make us feel uncomfortable or not.

Identity is an endlessly fascinating subject when it comes to understanding the human condition, but it is potentially damaging when it encroaches ever further into politics and the law. The idea that individuals should be able to regulate precisely how they are seen by the rest of society as well as how they see themselves, down to changing matters of fact on their birth certificate, is sinister and ultimately it won’t help anyone who currently struggles to feel included.   

Friday, 21 July 2017

'Shinner speak' hides where the hatred truly lies

This column appeared first in the News Letter, Friday 21st July 2017.

It’s a pungent irony that, in Northern Ireland, the political movement that tried to murder its way out of the UK uses words like ‘equality’, ‘rights’ and ‘respect’ incessantly. It’s even more ironic that Sinn Fein has been allowed to subvert these terms relatively unchallenged, while so many people, particularly the young and naive, have been taken in by its trickery.

When republicans talk about ‘equality’, they’re not demanding equal treatment under the law, or an equal opportunity to work, or equal access to benefits and a home, or even freedom from discrimination, because all those things are guaranteed already by some of the most stringent legislation in the western world.

Instead, Sinn Fein’s idea of equality is a pretext to attack Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

In Shinner-speak, any outward symbol of the province’s Britishness becomes a sign of inequality and the institutions and emblems of a nationalist Irish state deserve ‘parity of esteem’. This manoeuvre is designed to sidestep the ‘principle of consent’, which underpins the Belfast Agreement and establishes that our constitutional position will be determined by a majority of people here.

Similarly, when it refers to ‘rights’ Sinn Fein does not mean the type of universal entitlements to life, liberty and a fair trial that usually meet that description. The UK is a signatory to the European Convention, so Northern Ireland falls under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights and the freedoms it protects were incorporated directly into British law by the Human Rights Act, in 1998.

For republicans though, ‘rights’ are endlessly versatile and cover just about any aspiration - cultural, economic or political - that their movement proposes at a particular time. Just now, they include diverse aims like positive discrimination for Northern Ireland’s tiny population of Irish speakers, membership of the European single market and legal recognition for same-sex marriage. However, the list of ‘rights’ Sinn Fein espouses can change suddenly and without warning.  When its spokespeople talk about a ‘rights based society’, it's another way of saying that they want their demands to be accommodated constantly, without recourse to tiresome formalities like debate and democracy.

Meanwhile, ‘respect’ is something Sinn Fein demands repeatedly, but refuses to extend to its rivals. The party perceives a lack of ‘respect’ in situations that range from perfectly legitimate opposition to republican policies through to bringing up inconveniently the provisional movement’s violent past.

The word is a particular favourite of Mairtin O Muilleoir, who now styles himself an advocate of a diverse ‘new Belfast’, but previously sat on the city council while his more practically inclined colleagues blew its streets and citizens into smithereens.

Sinn Fein has been allowed without serious challenge to abuse language habitually and portray unionists as the only disrespectful, hate-filled bigots in our community. Its success highlights not only the party’s extreme chicanery, but also the extent to which ‘parochial stupidities’ have prevented unionism from modernising and articulating its own case effectively.

At the last election almost 30% of voters supported a movement that, just a generation ago, was engaged in a brutal campaign to murder their neighbours into a united Ireland. Rather than flags, or bonfires, or contentious music, that is the clearest symbol of hatred, tribalism and disrespect in Northern Ireland, and it is also, by some distance, the most damning indictment of our divided society.