Leaders Learn and Lead
- Last Monday night Belfast City Council voted to extend a welcome to Pope Francis if there is a papal visit in the near future... This to the outsider may at first be seen as a step towards a more inclusive city, but Unionist councillors abstained in the vote, with the UUP's Jim Rodgers speaking out against the visit as he had done in the previous week's Belfast Telegraph, warning of possible trouble on the streets.
- Then throughout the week there has been a dingdong about Welfare Reform, with the DUP, from various angles( eg. here and here), accusing Sinn Fein of economic immaturity in holding up implementation of Welfare Reforms here in Northern Ireland, with the Deputy First Minister objecting to what the First Minister has said, and Alex Attwood from the SDLP wading in to also point the finger at Sinn Fein (and particularly Gerry Adams) regarding the stand-off (despite the fact that SDLP haven't supported the reforms either).
- Towards the end of the week Paul Nolan's report into educational achievement pointed out the fact that every undereducated dog in the street has known for years, ie. that working class protestant/unionist/loyalist boys are chronically underperforming everyone else bar those in the travelling community.
- Then at the end of the week Sinn Fein announced that Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness would be at the state banquet in Windsor castle tonight in honour of the Irish President Michael D. Higgins, almost upstaging this historic first visit of an Irish President to England.
In my last post and thought for the day last week I said:
I long for leaders in the political realm, in wider civic society and in the church who will help us focus our vision firmly on the future; not sweeping the problems of the past under a psychological carpet, but seeking to learn from them and shaping a place where we may embrace each other and whatever lies ahead, with hope…In the light of that it is good to see that Sinn Fein have learned from the public response to their graceless handling of the Queen's visit to Ireland, and are now seeking to lead their core supporters into a new attitude to the British Royal family. I know that this has got more to do with electoral politics than a real change of heart, and I don't think they are going to become ardent royalists any time soon, but that is OK... their ultimate political aspirations are as legitimate as any unionist advocate of constitutional monarchy... But it is good to treat other people and the legitimate institutions they represent with respect... If that respect for the Queen might lead Sinn Fein to more obvious signs of respect for those who value symbols of the Kingdom of which she is head, such as the Union flag, then perhaps their political opponents might not feel so defensive about this and the erosion of what they see as other dimensions of their Britishness (although I have yet to hear a clear articulation of what these are, beyond "the loss of the ROYAL Ulster Constabulary").
But this leads me on to the clear LACK of learning by the Unionists in City Hall with regard to the potential visit of the Pope. Prophecies of trouble on the streets in response to such a visit are exactly the same as were pronounced in advance of the flag vote in the City Hall. But there is no pride to be taken in such prophecies coming true (especially when, in the case of the flag vote the Unionist parties contributed to the tensions with an inflammatory leaflet campaign)... City councillors are not elected to be prophets of doom but to be political leaders... Yes, to represent the views of their constituents appropriately... but also to help shape the political direction of the communities which they represent... Leaders should actually lead their people in a direction that is good for them and the wider community, rather than position themselves as the mouthpieces of what will ultimately be a self-destructive angry mob... If Pope Francis is seen as a divisive figure in loyalist communities, what are Unionist politicians actually doing to address the shameless sectarianism that underpins that attitude? There may be legitimate theological differences, but that is unlikely to be the rationale behind these threatened riots... In exactly the same way that the flag on City Hall was really only a pretext for riots... Take a look at state of the Union flag outside Ballymacarrett Orange Hall or on street lights the length and breadth of loyalist areas to see the respect for the flag of the UK... Address the real reasons for the riots, complex though they may be, rather than acting as apologists in advance of them...
And one of the deep seated issues behind the rioting is the disaffection felt by young loyalist men... who have no stake in a new Northern Ireland, because the peace dividend has never really penetrated their areas. The riots in loyalist areas in 2003-4 that prompted an earlier Loyalist Task Force in government, clearly identified educational underachievement as a major issue. There was piecemeal attempts to address this that were short term and diluted by having to be equality proofed in simplistic numerical terms... 10 years later and it seems that the same issues are being pointed at. Yet there is no doubt that the divisive nature of our education system, not only Catholic-Protestant, male-female, and across socio-economic divides exacerbates a phenomenon that is being seen all across the UK... The later is clearly bolstered by the transfer test. When I came through it in 1977 it was still a bridge to opportunity for working class kids... But in the intervening years the drawbridge has been pulled up and fewer and fewer working class kids in unionist areas are making the transition. The reasons for that are complicated, yet the fact is that it is a system that is failing working class unionist boys more than most (truth be told Catholic working class boys don't fare well either, but are still doing twice as well as their protestant equivalents), yet few Unionist politicians are brave enough to say this... Why? Might it be because they would be perceived to be agreeing with the assessment of successive Sinn Fein education ministers? So rather than actually work to achieve something positive for their electorate, or at least a potential electorate of the future, they would prefer to maintain this Mexican stand-off that blights the lives of kids taking the tests... and even more those who choose not to take them...
But it is not just Unionists who are prepared to do their electorate a disservice rather than conspire with the enemy in an act of mature political leadership. I am no cheer leader for welfare reforms (a leading DUP politician told me lately that he would be shocked if I was)... I do believe that the Welfare System needs reformed, but I don't believe that a time of economic austerity is necessarily the time to do it... Especially when it is driven by a doctrinaire Conservative party that would actually eradicate most of the welfare system if it could get away with it. However, it is a fait a complis... Westminster have passed this iniquitous legislation and within a year it will really start to bite when the old computer system managing working tax credits and child benefit is switched off in mainland GB... If there is no Universal Credit system implemented here by then, forget about the various fines that have been talked about this week, that will have an effect of front line services in hospitals, schools etc, but may be hard to differentiate from all the other cuts coming our way... the big effect will be directly on the family budgets of those dependent on such benefits to get by, including many of the working poor... I don't have the exact figures on hand, but it will be significant. And it will affect those in working class loyalist AND republican areas most. Standing Canute like and saying "No" to the reforms is as pointless as Ulster saying no in the mid eighties... or indeed L:abour Liverpool saying no to the cuts that came from Thatcher around the same time. The thing to do is to work together to find ways to ameliorate the worst effects of the cuts (because I agree with Sinn Fein in this, they ARE cuts, not simply reforms). Until the finer details of the negotiations between Nelson McCausland's team at DSD and the UK treasury and Work and Pensions Department team are published I couldn't honestly say whether that has been done... but the finger needs to be extracted by all parties here to see that it is, before they pull the plug on that tax-credit computer next year... The clock is ticking...
In all of these situations there are party political games being played... sadly they are frequently nasty sectarian games, where each party is quick to point out on The View, Nolan, facebook, blogs and elsewhere, the many areas where OTHER parties are playing sectarian games... But rarely are areas of common cause highlighted... And that is because, sadly, our political system here is still a sectarian headcount (and when it comes to next year's assembly election that sectarian headcount is actually hardwired into the system). Don't get me wrong, I do believe that there are a lot of politicians in most parties working hard for their constituents, and often regardless of who those constituents originally voted for, but because of the political power blocs in this province, even the best constituency politicians often end up getting sucked into divisive politics... and so don't really lead and seek to shape wider society, but are shaped by it... by old fears and prejudices.
Sadly, because of that I don't really think we can look to our politicians for much leadership until the elections are over in May... but then there's the marching season... and then they'll be gearing up for next year's assembly elections... and maybe Westminster elections after that... There's always another reason not to change... not to lead...
So it is perhaps time for wider civic society, including the church, to step up to the mark and fill the leadership vacuum... There may be accusations of "Who elected you!?" but in this community, being able to answer "no-one" to that actually allows for flexibility... the ability to learn and thus to lead more effectively.