A note on cognitive bias


Last week, Brian Feeney devoted his regular Irish News column to the anniversary of August 1969. In particular, Brian was interested in why it seemed to be only nationalists who were marking the anniversary, while unionists were staying very quiet. Thus Brian:

Very few unionist politicians have come forward to offer an explanation of the events from August 12 to 15 1969, not of course to account for the onslaught on Catholics in north and west Belfast because after all no senior unionist who was in power at the time is still alive. It’s true the occasional unionist commentator has tried to explain that unionists thought there was an IRA-led insurrection or that there was an imminent invasion from the south.

Maybe so, but few unionist politicians then or since have condemned the traditional unionist response to such fears, namely to attack as many fenians as you could get your hands on.

Furthermore, in the context of all these recent articles, features and reminiscences there have been few examples of unionist politicians putting their head above the parapet to say that burning Catholics out of their homes was a bad thing and let’s face it, 1,500 of the 1,800 families who ran for their lives were Catholic.

There is little evidence any of them has said unionists should never and will never do anything of that kind again.

And Brian brings this up to date by looking at recent outbreaks of sectarianism, notably around Coleraine, and wondering loudly why it’s been nationalist politicians who have been by far the most outspoken, while unionist representatives have been, well, perfunctory.

Brian is onto something here, but perhaps not quite in the way he thinks. As far as 1969 goes, unionists often find it extremely difficult to admit that there was anything fundamentally wrong with the old Stormont. The usual narrative is that Stormont was either a basically sound system or one that was flawed, but not in an irreformable way, and that our wee country had its peace shattered by the machinations of republicans and Trotskyists. As for reactions to loyalist violence… there’s something else going on here in terms of group cognition.

Perhaps some illustrations are called for. Currently, Stormont culture minister Nelson McCausland (DUP, North Belfast) is getting his knickers in a twist about a hunger strike commemoration held at the GAA ground in Galbally. Nelson, never a man to miss an opportunity to bash the GAA, believes that this breaches GAA rules against allowing Association property to be used for party political purposes. Tyrone Provos are countering this with the somewhat specious argument that the Republican Movement is not a party, but is open to all, and hence the commemoration is not in breach of the GAA’s ban on party political activity. However, Galbally is a very republican village, and a hunger strike commemoration there is not going to be controversial – as this one wouldn’t be if Nelson hadn’t thrown a wobbly about it.

Meanwhile, unionists have been rather unexercised about the trouble surrounding the weekend’s loyalist band parade in Rasharkin. What this entailed was forty loyalist bands, many with paramilitary associations, parading through an 80% Catholic villiage. This is on the back of a summer of sectarian tension in north Antrim. (See the indefatigable Daithí McKay for details.) To put it another way, if forty republican bands, many with paramilitary associations, had applied to hold a parade in, say, Bushmills or Cullybackey, Nelson McCausland would have denounced it as a provocation and rightly so. It does not occur to apply the same standard to Rasharkin.

Now we’re getting closer to the matter, and north Antrim is a good illustration. There has been a lot of talk about how Protestants are being driven out of north Antrim – the term “ethnic cleansing” even being bandied about – which may strike you as being a bit overheated in describing an area where Protestants are still an overwhelming majority. Most of the trouble there – which has been spread across the sectarian divide, but has probably impacted more on vulnerable Catholic minorities in loyalist villages – has been on a low level: criminal damage, the odd drunken fight and so on. As a general rule, whenever there’s been trouble in the area local nationalist politicians have spoken out against yobbery on both sides – Daithí McKay has been particularly active, at some physical risk to himself. But unionists, while they spring into action like Batman if an Orange hall or Presbyterian church is vandalised, are hard to locate when it’s Catholic premises that are being targeted. In fact, the latest urban legend doing the rounds in north Antrim is that attacks on Catholic premises are being carried out by republicans as a false flag operation, for the purpose of blaming the Prods.

This is actually quite an important point. When Brian Feeney accuses respectable unionists of turning a blind eye to loyalist violence, he isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s a lot more subtle than Brian would have it. It’s not that respectable, middle-of-the-road unionists condone loyalist violence – far from it. But many – not all – of them have a set of predictable responses. The first is not to notice it. The second, on having it drawn to their attention, is bemusement, as if to ask “What’s it to do with me?” The final response is to become quite irate if you suggest that it’s a problem that unionism as a whole has to address, in terms of putting its house in order, rather than by producing the condemnatory formulae when required. If you think this is out of step with the loud demands for nationalist politicians and Catholic clergy to denounce every bit of vandalism carried out by drunken Celtic supporters, you’re missing the point. (Or see also Gail Walker’s slightly desperate attempt to blame the GAA leadership in Dublin for what happened at a small club in the back end of Tyrone.)

It has to be remarked, too, that although this can be disingenuous on the part of unionists, it isn’t necessarily so, and I’m not sure that it’s even usually so. You’ll often find that the outraged “What’s it to do with me?” response is entirely sincere. It’s just a matter of being used to looking at things in a particular way, and not noticing what goes against your preconceptions. Psychologists have done a lot of work in mapping cognitive biases, and here in Norn Iron we have enough cognitive biases to keep an entire university psychology department busy for years.

Back to the concrete. During the marching season, Provisional leader and occasional beat poet Gerry Adams has been conducting a bit of megaphone diplomacy with Orange Order Grand Wizard Drew Nelson. If he’s hoping to appeal to Drew’s pragmatic and reasonable side, I’m afraid Gerry is whistling in the dark. The correspondence, so far, has had a predictably circular nature. Gerry wants to talk to the Orangemen to get a resolution to contentious parades. The Orange won’t meet Gerry unless he personally apologises for the death of every Orangeman killed by the Provos. At this point, Gerry does his mote-and-beam thing:

Drew Nelson accused me of glorifying IRA killings and demanded an apology, in particular for those 273 orange members killed by the IRA.

In my open letter I tell him that I have never glorified IRA killings and I again ‘expressed my sincere regrets for the deaths and injuries caused by republicans. This includes members of loyal institutions.’

But I posed a number of questions to him. The 12th resolutions state that 335 members of the order were killed. Who killed the remaining 62? ‘Was it a direct or indirect result of membership of Loyalist paramilitaries? Were some brethren killed by members of the British Crown Forces, the same Crown who you reaffirm your devotion and loyalty to every 12th? How many nationalists were slain by Orangemen in Loyalist paramilitary groups? Or in the British Crown Forces?

I draw his attention to some examples of paramilitarism with the Order, for example, one Belfast lodge, that is renowned for its UVF connections, is the ‘Old Boyne Island Heroes’ LOL 633. Their bannerette listed 6 UVF lodge members who were killed in the recent conflict.

Six years ago this same Lodge took part in the contentious Whiterock parade along the Springfield Road. One of those taking part was Eddie McIlwaine, adorned with Orange sash who was sentenced to 8 years for his part in the Shankill Butcher’s campaign of terror.

And yes, Gerry justifies his argument by waxing biblical, on the apparent assumption that this will cut ice with the Orangemen:

There is a reference in the Bible which seems very appropriate at this point which says: “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote of thy brother’s eye”. Matthew 7:3-5 (King James Version)

The trouble with this is that Gerry’s invocation of the mote and the beam will just not fly with the Orangemen. More than most unionists, they’re conditioned to view themselves as always, or almost always, sinned against rather than sinning. Evidence pointing in the other direction is rarely an occasion for self-criticism – more often it just doesn’t compute. If you mention, for instance, the late Billy Wright’s Orange affiliations, and how that might appear to Catholics in the Portadown area, the average Orangeman will stare at you as if you’re insane and say, “Well, what’s that got to do with me?”

Let’s conclude by taking the issue away from sectarian whataboutery. Patrick Yu of NICEM was in the paper last week complaining, not for the first time, about Sammy Wilson’s grandstanding on immigration, and demanding the Stormont Executive pull its finger out and do something about the increase in racist incidents. Or at least deliver the diversity strategy it’s been promising for ages. Patrick takes exception to Stormont’s complacency in the face of attacks on East Europeans earlier in the year, and he’s certainly got a point.

But, while it’s true that the folks on the hill are not exactly putting an anti-racism strategy at the top of their agenda, there’s a further aspect that Patrick is too tactful to mention, which was the response of local politicians to the attacks on the Roma a while back. It was immediately noticeable that it was nationalist and Alliance reps who were making the running on the issue. Now, I don’t mean to say that unionist representatives failed to condemn the attacks – they, in particular area MLAs Michael McGimpsey and Jimmy Spratt, said the right things in their statements. But an outsider might assume that, since the perpetrators were coming from the community they represent, it might have been worth their while showing some leadership and demonstratively standing in solidarity with the Roma. Why, then, was it left to Martin McGuinness and Naomi Long to do all the touchy-feely stuff?

This is something that Rankin’ Dave Cameron might like to consider, in light of the UCUNF project. And I know I’ve said this before, but I still can’t quite figure out what’s in it for Dave, why he would have thought it a bright idea in the first place, and why the Spectator hasn’t been full of articles from people like Douglas Hurd or Tom King warning him not to go anywhere near the Unionists. But Dave has pressed ahead regardless, and even promised Unionist ministers in the next Tory government, for the benefit of those legions of Home Counties electors who are just dying to have Reg Empey or Basil McCrea in the cabinet.

I was thinking of this, and Dan Hannan’s praise of Enoch is relevant here, after reading the very funny new book True Blue by Chris Horrie and David Matthews, which I may get around to looking at in greater depth. Anyway, towards the end of the book there’s an encounter with Shaun Bailey, and a sharp reflection on what the Bailey phenomenon means. The authors point out that appealing to black voters has never made much strategic sense for the Tories, as black voters are heavily working class, heavily Labour supporting, and mostly live in inner-city constituencies that the Tories don’t have a prayer of winning. In the 1970s and 1980s, it made more sense for the Tories to issue coded appeals, via cricket tests and such, to the racist end of the white working class, who actually could dent Labour majorities in places like Lancashire and Essex. But this hasn’t worked so well lately, with the dog-whistle “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” campaign in 2005 going down like a lead balloon.

Hence Shaun Bailey. Many black Londoners seem to regard Shaun as a chancer on the make, and they may be right. But they aren’t the point of the exercise. The point of the exercise, as so often with Cameron, is to detoxify the Tory brand and shed the image of being the nasty party. Shaun Bailey may not appeal to black voters in any great numbers, but for nice affluent liberal-minded white voters he conveys the message that the Tories are no longer racist. It’s a similar situation to Alan Duncan – you’d have to be a very strange gay person to vote Tory because Alan Duncan is in the shadow cabinet, but for the party of Section 28, Alan’s presence at the top table neutralises gay hostility and presents a diverse image. Ditto Sayeeda Warsi, although she’s turned out to be something of an unguided missile. It’s all about the optics.

So this could pose an interesting question for Dave and his new unionist friends. Let’s assume that there are some more racist incidents next summer – and, given the close proximity of the Village to concentrations of ethnic minorities, that’s a reasonably safe bet. Look at the enormous media coverage the attacks on the Roma generated in the British media. Dave, who’ll be extremely conscious of the need to maintain his anti-racist credentials, will be expecting his compañeros to demonstratively show leadership. If they restrict themselves to pro-forma statements, well, Dave just might look askance. And what price then the Tory-Unionist alignment?


  1. Liam said,

    August 27, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    In a similar vein how’s this for an example of cognitive bias from a BNP councillor commenting on racist attacks?
    “Firebombing is not a British method. A brick through the window is a British method, but firebombing is not a way of showing displeasure“

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 27, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    No, firebombing is something that Johnny Foreigner would do. A brick through the window is much more in the spirit of the Blitz.

  3. Nechayev said,

    August 28, 2009 at 5:40 am

    Sectarianism is clearly alive and well in the north, and the GFA clearly hasn’t slain the beast.

  4. ejh said,

    August 28, 2009 at 10:08 am

    Don’t know if you saw Daniel Finn’s LRB piece.

  5. August 28, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    similar with the religious right, pentecostals or southern baptists in the USA … they know that their behaviour towards the civil rights movement could produce embarassing moments today so most of them prefer not to talk about it

  6. skidmarx said,

    August 28, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    At least the new chief constable’s a Christian:
    so we can soon expect the lion and the lamb to lie down together, and those that believe in him will never die.

  7. Mick Fealty said,

    August 28, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    As you say cognitive biases abound Splintered. But there’s also the problem of the historical fallacy: ie where you personalise blame on people living now, who were not the personal cause of past suffering (not to be confused with those causing current suffering).

    Another way of looking at is that we suffer a shared (but separate) group psychosis, where each manifests as an infeasible shadow (to quote Jung) to the other. There is, so far as I can see, no easy cure.

  8. Fellow Traveller said,

    August 28, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    Did the Orange boys ever have a pet Catholic they could wheel out to show they didn’t have anything against the Pope’s deluded followers as such?

  9. Mick Fealty said,

    August 28, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    It was a serious point FT. Spintered’s dead right that cognative bias leads to a blanking of ‘our own’ past misdemeanours (as though they could have no reasonable effect on ‘the other side’). But the same cognitive biases do run both ways.

  10. Tim Von Bondie said,

    August 28, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    I thought the 1969 ‘commemorations’ were pretty low key actually. Someone suggested to me that the reason Sinn Fein didn’t have any major meetings at the west Belfast festival on 69 was that the dissidents would turn up and ask if it was wrong for the Dublin leadership to ‘give up the guns in 1969’ then why was it ok to do it now. Plus the Andytown news feature contradicted itself within 2 pages. Front cover; one man claims to have fired the very first shots from the nationalist side in 1969 defending Bombay St on August 15. Page 4 Gerry Adams claims that the IRA were crucial to the defence of the Falls on August 14 and killed a loyalist gunman at St. Comgalls.
    Brian Feeney seems determined to atone for his trying to get funding withdrawn from Conway Mill and other community projects in the 80s by being the super-Catholic nationalist of the 21st century. That was the SDLP you were in for all those years wasn’t it Brian?

  11. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 28, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    Brian is very entertaining as the hammer of the SDLP, and he has the inside knowledge to do it well. But of course there’s his own history there, and the fact that, as talented as Brian is, and as sclerotic as the Belfast SDLP is, there were always too many big cheeses for Brian to rise to the top.

    Mick is on the money, and of course cognitive biases run in all directions. I was just interested in teasing out how this applies to unionism, starting from Brian’s column. Brian seems to take the view that unionist politicians are just being dishonest or hypocritical, which may sometimes be the case, but there’s also that they may quite honestly operate inside a groupthink that’s worth deciphering.

  12. Tim Von Bondie said,

    August 29, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    I honestly think that Brian sees himself as the voice of angry, resentful nationalism; while the Shinners are somewhat constrained by ‘outreach’ and the occasional harking back to Wolfe Tone, Brian was never a republican and he doesn’t have to pretend to be one. Some of the stuff he writes, about DUP politicians not being able to read wothout moving their lips for instance, is just nasty sectarian bile. Brian was in London during August 1969 and is another person whose a great expert on what happened without having been near it.
    Doesn’t change your point fundamental point of the Unionists though.

  13. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 29, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    He’s very much Mr Angry of North Belfast. The geography is important, for someone who spent a long time representing interface areas. Actually, on a rhetorical level he reminds me a little of the IRSP, only without their slightly baroque Marxism-Leninism. Although he’s still much too respectable to join the Shinners, who may have Francie Brolly up in the country but whose Belfast membership is still just a bit too plebeian.

  14. OldCrazyTobyWifaMoofaeTae said,

    August 31, 2009 at 8:28 am

    In what way does his rhetorical level remind you a little of the IRSP?

  15. splinteredsunrise said,

    August 31, 2009 at 11:36 am

    Just that he does the angry nationalist thing without too much regard for unionist sensitivities. He’s much angrier than Gerry Kelly, at any rate.

  16. January 20, 2010 at 11:45 pm

    […] Unionist party reptile A note on cognitive bias Aaro’s Voodoo Histories, and a few words on conspiratology The Lost Revolution: a sketch on […]

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