Archive for May 3rd, 2005

Make yourselves decent, there’s an election coming

‘Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?’

Joseph Nye Welch, 1890 – 1960

Eoghan Harris made an appeal to Northern nationalists’ sense of decency in the Sunday Independent, here:

‘There will never be peace in Northern Ireland until men and women of goodwill decide to vote for decent members of the other tribe rather than for criminal members of their own tribe.

and then, in reference to Gerry Adams opponent Liam Kennedy, here:

‘Decent people in West Belfast should give him their vote. And decent people in the Irish Republic can help defray the expenses of his election campaign by sending donations to Liam Kennedy A/C No 2, Northern Bank, Belfast.’

‘Decency’ is very much of the moment in Northern Ireland politics, not least because of the Decent People Vote Ulster Unionist poster campaign which, depending on your interpretation, either claimed that voting Ulster Unionist was what decent people did, or exhorted decent people to vote Ulster Unionist.

But what does it mean to be decent in Northern Ireland? ‘Decency’ comes from the Latin decere, meaning to be fitting or suitable. It follows nicely, then, that one’s sense of decency comes from what one considers to be fitting or suitable, under a given set of circumstances.

My own recollection of ‘decency’ in political rhetoric in NI during the 80s and 90s was its use as a means to draw a distinction between the ‘ordinary decent Roman Catholics (or Protestants)’ and ‘the terrorists and their supporters’, or maybe at a wider level the ‘decent people of Northern Ireland’ and ‘the men of violence’.

And that was pretty much it. ‘Decent’ was and still is shorthand to describe law-abiders or anyone who does not vote for Sinn Fein or parties linked to loyalist paramilitaries. One reason the UUP’s poster campaign caused controversy was because it allowed the inference that a DUP vote was either a vote for an indecent party, or the vote of an indecent voter.

When judging individual political candidates, however, decency didn’t, and still doesn’t, seem to mean that much in Northern Ireland – if anything, a person’s general dodginess of character can be overlooked, providing his political allegiances are suitably ‘decent’. Sex or alcohol-related indiscretions; misconduct at work; participation in dirty tricks campaigns; or perhaps simply being a bit of an all-round bastard; none of these is likely to influence any voter’s choice of candidate in the upcoming elections. Far more important for most will be how ‘unionist’ or how ‘nationalist’ the candidate is.

What about decent voters? The problem with determining a voter’s ‘decency’ or lack thereof according his party of electoral choice is that no rational person is likely to go to the polling station and vote for a certain party out of a transgressive urge: he is more likely to see himself as a decent person choosing the most decent candidate of those available. But his own perceived decency, like that of his chosen candidate, comes from what he considers suitable. So it is right to vote for the Sinn Fein candidate because they will do the decent thing for the nationalist people of the North. Or it is right to vote for the DUP candidate because in the same vein they will do the decent thing for the unionist people of Ulster.

I find it hard to imagine any voter approaching a polling station with the thoughts similar to the following:

”I support the killing and maiming of Protestants. It is right to support a party who bomb Remembrance Day commemorations, and whose leaders carried the coffin of many terrorists, including the Shankill bombers. Eh, and Tiocfaidh Ar La.”

or

”Ian Paisley was right: Catholics deserve to be kept in their place as second class citizens. It is right to support a party whose leader’s anti-Catholic rhetoric has inspired many a loyalist paramilitary, and one of whose candidates attended a rally in support of loyalist murderer Billy Wright, then officiated at his funeral. Eh, and No Surrender.”

Yet these are broadly the motivations ascribed by many to Sinn Fein and DUP voters. Indeed, many DUP voters may see a Sinn Fein voter’s motivations reflected in the first statement, while many Sinn Fein voters may see a DUP voter’s motivations reflected in the second. But few Sinn Fein voters would closely identify with the first statement, the same as few DUP voters would closely identify with the second.

Post-GFA, voting has become a crude form of tribal dialogue. Political parties see it as expedient to shore up their own tribal vote rather than appeal to voters from the other side. The symbiotic vote-machines of Sinn Fein and the DUP build their success in a large part on the message that a vote for either sends out to the other side: No terrorists in government, No Unionist domination. The fact that the message received is somewhat different appears lost on both sets of voters.

Where these parties go, the ‘moderates’ make tentative steps in pursuit: The UUP ‘It’s Not Fair’ leaflet campaign, which claimed discrimination against Protestants because they live in bigger houses, and the SDLP’s ‘we are the true republicans’ guff.

The main consequence of this is further polarisation and distrust. Perhaps it is fair to say that the Northern electorate as a whole lacks common decency. Common decency in that their votes are cast because it is what they consider best for those people to whom they have a tribal allegiance, above considerations for what is best for the entire electorate. Given political developments over the past 7 years, it’s hard to know which party is best placed to redress this. Decent choice is distinctly lacking.

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Belfast Marathon Rerouted

I see that the Belfast Marathon this year had to be rerouted due to a suspect device alert. If it was ‘dissident republicans’ responsible, they may wish to consider this: rather than being the spiritual heirs of Tone, Connolly and Pearse, their actions recall those of another prominent Irishman in the more recent past.


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