Saturday, 25 September 2010

False idol?

Mike Nesbitt has made his contribution to the Union 2021 series. It has a number of odd elements. For example he begins by arguing:

"As a broadcast journalist, interviewing Ian Paisley and the other unionist leaders of the 1980s, I felt they were missing a trick. Had I been Paisley or Jim Molyneaux, I would have driven down to the Office of An Taoiseach, and offered Charlie Haughey a United Ireland there and then, on the simple condition the Republic match NI’s budgets for Health, Schools, Roads, and the rest. Would Haughey not have insisted on offering an armed Garda escort back to the border with a lifetime ban on a return visit? The Republican could not afford us then, any more than they can today."

The idea would have been pointless stunt politics that shows an inclination to headlines not narrative. Its underlying basis has two worrying elements. It presents Unionism as based on the rejection of something, Irish unity, rather than a belief in the Union and presents support for the Union as an accountant's calculation. (UPDATE Bobballs on Open Unionism defends the comment here. He argues it is a self-evident truth - the republic can't afford us - but that doesn't give any means to highlight it merit nor deal with its reductionism of Unionism to negativism and money.  Reductionism is something I have previously criticised in other contributions.).  A second oddity is a comment about churches:

"In 2010, our government endorses segregated housing, segregated education, segregated leisure spaces, and denominationally discrete churches."

Highlighting the issue of segregation is perfectly valid but why are churches on the list? How exactly does a government endorse discrete churches? What is being implied government should do about churches?

The third is a curiosity rather than an oddity. He continues the UUP obsession with the First Minister post calling for a referendum on the issue. Why this fixation? If the UUP is convinced it is electorally harmful then drawing attention to it could add to the harm rather than mitigating against it. If they try and fail to change it they look ineffectual. Neither do they seem to have thought more than one step ahead on the issue.  If they did somehow change it they'd probably face a backlash about not being able to do the same on NI's budget reinforcing a perception of being divorced from the day-to-day issues. Perhaps they hope a blame game will harm the DUP but can that be guaranteed? If they did succeed in convincing a voter of the DUP being at fault that doesn't necessarily lead to a desire to punish but the voter can opt to deal with the circumstances as they are now.

Nesbitt's, like many contributions to the Union 2021 series, has become too attracted to the idol of economics. His argument is barefaced in its economic determinism:

"In 2010, the Union remains an economic imperative, and that is not going to change by 2021."

Why is the economic case so heavily relied upon in a visioning exercise? The economy is particularly prevalent in peoples' minds right now. It is a case with lots of evidence to support it. It is also the more socially acceptable argument - why get involved in a debate around something trickier like identity at the dinner table when you can just invoke wallet?

However, the economics of the Union are nothing new. It has been a central plank of its case since the beginning. When the Ulster Liberals put their case to Gladstone against Home Rule he recognised its validity. Yet throughout that time it has failed to be an effective persuader for the Union among Irish nationalists. It may from polls look like it'll work in a referendum booth but it has not worked at election time.

Has it changed into Unionism's silver bullet now? The argument would be the increased wealth of the nationalist community has made them more appreciative of the economic case. However, throughout this growth in wealth the nationalist vote rose and ultimately plumped for the more virulent form. Therefore the immediate evidence offers little support. There is also the broader issue of emotion in someone's political choice and how the means to effect that choice is through narrative (even how belief is reinforced by error). How many good stories have been written with statistics?

So throughout the Union 2021 series have we made a false idol of economics?

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