The Blanket

Index: Current Articles

The problems that exist in the world can't be solved by the same type of thinking that caused them.
- Albert Einstein



Could a new economic model alone resolve Northern Ireland’s social woes?

Paul A. Fitzsimmons


Karen Lyden Cox’s recent article “The Op(posi)tion To The Status Quo” acknowledges correctly, to my mind, the importance and value of The Blanket in its helpfully facilitating analysis, debate, and discussion regarding Northern Ireland, in its bravely resisting censorship on that topic, and in its generously creating the space for a diversity of views.

Ms. Cox also suggests, perhaps accurately, that “The Blanket is open to all people who have opinions to voice, lengthy or brief, whatever they desire. The only prerequisite is a pen or a keyboard, and, hopefully, the understanding that thoughtful contributions are valued[.]”

Yet, while all men and women may indeed be created equal in the sight of God and all are equal, for various legal purposes, in the eyes of some civil societies, most assuredly all ideas are not created equal. Some ideas are good, some are bad, and some are so nebulous as to fall less into the category of “idea” than into the category of “vague aspiration or mere daydream.”

Perhaps in that last vein, Ms. Cox ends her article by opining:

The driving force to change is coming from outside governments and their allies, from within Ireland and outside of Ireland, making the debate of a 6 and 26 versus a 32-county republic secondary to the establishment of ethical economies which are democratic and answerable to their local communities, which provide people in communities with good working conditions and a decent livelihood, which award productive behavior and not massive production, and which function in balance with the natural world. Why? Simply because it has to.

Putting to one side, just for a moment, what these “democratic economy” ambitions actually and specifically entail, one might ask, could those ambitions be fulfilled - vis-à-vis “the Irish question” - within the current constitutional/political structures in Ireland and Britain?

If the answer is yes - as might be inferred from Ms. Cox’s “secondary” reference - one might next ask whether any constitutional/political change in that regard would ever be necessary. Perhaps the response would simply be: “Let’s first get a ‘democratic economy’ up and running, then we’ll worry about whether and/or how to change the constitutional/political status quo.” If that is the answer, then maybe all discussion about the specific form or forms of government in Ireland and Britain could appropriately be shunted aside, at least for the time being; perhaps whether people in the North of Ireland are republicans or royalists, voluntarily or involuntarily, is but a secondary concern. (Of course, this conclusion would ratify that “the war” should be over and would again suggest the question, “Why was the war ever fought?”)

However, that conclusion would put squarely into focus what these “democratic economy” ambitions in fact are and how they might help the overall situation. One could only be sympathetic to the notions of “provid[ing] people in communities with good working conditions and a decent livelihood,” “award[ing] productive behavior,” and “function[ing] in balance with the natural world,” but what does all that mean in concrete terms? What actual and specific elements does Ms. Cox endorse for “ethical” and “democratic” economies?

In this regard, one might seriously consider and wonder whether - short of a social movement of the magnitude of the revolutions of early 1900’s Russia and mid-1900’s China - the general notion of “democratic economies” would hold much sway outside the ivy-covered halls and ivory towers of university economics departments (if even there) or could ever have much effect in the real world.

A comparison in the general area of social studies might be in order.

Structures of government - who makes laws and how, who administers those laws and how, who adjudges those laws and how - are quite important matters, but such structures can be and have been implemented and operated for thousands of years in human society, in various forms and fashions and to various (and, now, rather predictable) extents of failure or success. The science of government is not terra incognito to humankind.

Economics, on the other hand, and somewhat surprisingly, remains far less predictable, even in theses enlightened times.

As but one example thereof, two men were awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1997 for developing a new method to determine the value of derivatives in financial markets. Before the end of that millennium, those men managed to bring the world to the brink of general economic collapse by actually using their prize-winning economic tool. (See, e.g., PBS’s “Trillion Dollar Bet.”)

In an obviously larger historical example, the Russians - for a quite similar reason (i.e., because their new economic model did not work in actual practice) - admitted defeat in their concerted, decades-long effort to establish and maintain a communist-based economic order in their country.

Economics manifestly provides no sanctuary from Mr. Burns’ timeless message: “The best laid schemes o’Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley, An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, For promis’d joy!”

Certainly none of this discussion is intended to disparage the notion of seeking justice within our respective societies, including not least justice in economic matters.

However, an enormously heavy burden would rightly and inevitably rest upon any person who purports to argue that some grand economic model - especially an untested economic model - will or might provide a panacea to pervasive and intractable social ills.

At a bare minimum, that person must be in a position to spell out in detail what that economic model is and how it would operate after its implementation. Next, that person would have to be able to demonstrate that the model is in fact susceptible of implementation, whether by ordinary legislation through existing governmental structures, by all-out street revolution, or otherwise. Thereafter, someone would actually have to get that implementation ball rolling, else all is mere speculation.

In the long run, it is rightly said, we’re all dead anyway. However, to me, the aptness of that saying in no way answers whether it constitutes a morally defensible position to pass off intentionally, to later generations, those social questions we find difficult; my own feeling is that the answer to that question is an emphatic “no.” Thus, when people speculate that demographic changes in one, two, or more generations will put to rest “the Irish question,” I tend to feel strongly that that speculation masks, at best, a moral supineness (a) if the current constitutional order is continuing to engender social conflict, as seems to be the case in Northern Ireland, and (b) if helpful changes might rather more swiftly be made to that social order, as may be the case. Any position must be regarded as suspect which in essence states: “We can’t solve this critical social problem today or even in the next few years but, by taking a certain course of action, that problem will doubtless be solved a decade or two after we sages have reached the bone yard.”

Similarly, if anyone were to say, “Economic changes can be fashioned and implemented over the course of the next generation or two which can greatly increase the social harmony in Northern Ireland,” I would also tend to think that position to be, in all candor, lackadaisical at best if, as seems to be the case, the conflicts thereby sought to be remedied are conflicts yet grievously rending Northern Ireland’s society.

Still worse would be any unreassuring assertion along these lines: “Don’t worry. Grassroots activists around the world are hard at work, at this very moment, trying to resolve Northern Ireland’s socio-economic difficulties. We just need to wait for a period to see what novel approaches they come up with.” At least arguably, it verges on irresponsible to try to “dop[e] the majority of the work force” into passively believing that the solution to their social woes is just about to materialize as a phantasm of some twenty-first century global group-consciousness encounter.

The most “radical” non-militant approach aimed at resolving the Northern Ireland question since the time of power-sharing was first tried and failed has been another governmental (not an economic) approach: power-sharing Mark II, the Good Friday Agreement scheme. However, along with a significant measure of generally admired devolved governmental power, that scheme has brought to Northern Ireland several less admirable conditions:

1. An institutionalization of sectarianism in government through the prescribed Unionist/Nationalist split in the Assembly.

2. An inbuilt potential for grave instability in government, which may become quite manifest after the May 2003 election if no Executive is mathematically capable of being formed due to mandated weightings of votes within the respective Unionist and Nationalist camps.

3. An increasing problem of fundamental credibility in that government, as makeshift patches are placed over its constitutional holes. Last year, an unseemly “queen for a day” transformation was specially permitted for certain Alliance party Assembly members, who temporarily became “official” Unionists in order to help form an otherwise unformable Executive, and it is not clear how far this Assembly version of musical chairs might be permitted to continue. For example, Assembly elections next year may see the British government calling upon some SDLP and Sinn Féin members to “share the pain” by redesignating themselves temporarily as “Unionists” in order to prop up an inadequate UUP bench; depending on the mathematics in play, nay-saying Unionists might then find themselves redesignating en masse as Assembly “Nationalists” in order to hole, from the other side of the aisle, the Good Friday Agreement experiment.

4. An inability, via the d’Hondt system, to exclude from the executive portion of this government any political party with more than marginal support. (For example, if a hypothetical Northern Ireland Nazi party suddenly gained the Assembly votes of roughly 10 percent in the six counties, it might indeed be constitutionally impossible to keep a Northern Ireland Nazi politician from holding a ministerial position … at least not without some new makeshift constitutional patch to the Good Friday Agreement scheme.)

5. An inherent anticompetitive aspect to governance in the region. Whereas fortunes do, from time to time, favor Labour over Conservatives in Britain, and Republicans over Democrats in the United States, Northern Ireland will always have in its Executive (while the Good Friday Agreement scheme persists) Ulster Unionist Party Ministers, Sinn Féin Ministers, Social Democratic and Labour Party Ministers, and Democratic Unionist Party Ministers, and their respective numbers will change rather little. Short of voting so as to make governance through the Executive mathematically impossible, Northern Ireland in practice will have virtually no opportunity to change the overall “philosophical” nature of its Executives; hence, the lack of political competitiveness in Northern Ireland’s governance.

Maybe activists in Ireland, including particularly those in Northern Ireland not wholly supportive of the Good Friday Agreement scheme, should first consider change not in their society but, instead, in themselves. Perhaps they should honestly and thoughtfully consider or reconsider: (i) whether reforming government in Northern Ireland (or, perhaps, Ireland as a whole) is needed; (ii) what specific problems that reformation would attempt to address; (iii) how that reformation might be effected; and, not least, (iv) whether, if helpful governmental reformation is possible, their society would instead be better served by their putting their efforts into attempting to formulate and implement change in the vastly more complex area of social economics, a subject which might correctly be regarded as a general force of nature as far beyond the control of man as is control of time or tides. In a similar respect, no one is under any obligation to believe any divine hand directs the course of weather; however, a law mandating that “There shall be no rain on Tuesdays and Thursdays” will prove unavailing regardless of beliefs in deities, as will any legislative attempt to repeal the general economic laws of supply and demand (cf. the events of America’s prohibition era, when blue-nosed do-gooders decided that no one in the United States had any need for or right to a glass of beer or a bottle of wine).

Ms. Cox suggests in her article that,

As [social] conditions worsen, people anticipate an immediate solution and expect that somebody in charge had better come up with one. The general assumption is that only one or two solutions are viable, and to suggest anything else is capitulation. And people will respond defensively to that. In reality, this time of transition allows the exploration of many ideas for a better end result.

In writing on Northern Ireland’s status quo, here and elsewhere, my desire has never been to preclude discussion. For example, last month in The Blanket I wrote: “If Republicans in the North of Ireland are still interested - as I assume they are - in achieving a genuine republic for themselves, they have, at least in theory, three main options: (i) they could keep trying, in some way or ways, for the 32-county state; (ii) they could aim to establish a 6-county republic (perhaps along the lines discussed in my first THE BLANKET contribution); and (iii) they could somehow attempt to disestablish the English monarchy.” Of course no one need “capitulate” to this suggestion; to my knowledge, no one yet has done so. If anyone is able to specify another way of achieving a republic, he or she is free to discuss how that might be done. If anyone thinks achieving a republic ought to be merely a secondary goal, or not a goal at all, he or she is free to say so and to say why. If anyone feels that specific reforms not involving the basic structures of government might vastly improve Northern Ireland’s situation, he or she is free to advocate them. Thus, no right of free speech is in peril; in truth, I cannot help but feel that Ms. Cox is kicking an open door (or, as is said in the law, fighting a strawman).

However, while she is correct in writing that “this time of transition allows the exploration of many ideas for a better end result,” she nonetheless unhelpfully joins others in making that assertion without also actually putting forward adequately any concrete “ideas for[ achieving] a better end result.”

A century ago, American meat producers held that they used everything from the pig except the squeal. At the distinct risk of causing some to “respond defensively” to my undiplomatically stated views, squeal seems to be about the only thing Irish dissident activists use in their activities. Their criticisms of the status quo are often quite valid, but I yet wonder whether their affirmative positions contain any real meat.

Rephrasing a still unanswered question that I now pose publicly for the third time, what goals do Irish political activists dissenting from the Good Friday Agreement scheme seek to achieve and how do they propose to achieve those goals?



Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews + Letters + Archives