A note on cognitive bias

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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?

1969, the persistence of sectarianism

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There’s a lot of coverage at the moment of the fortieth anniversary of what’s often held to be the real outbreak of the Troubles – that is, the serious escalation of violence in Belfast and Derry, and the deployment of British troops. And a watershed it certainly was, although unsurprisingly all parties are pushing their own libertyvalanced versions of August 1969. Provisional leader and occasional beat poet Gerry Adams has been ruminating a little on his blog, and there’s this account from Spike Murray, who has a prose style that I find pleasingly direct after my weekly dose of Gerry. If you’re in West Belfast and minded to attend such things, Spike will be addressing a commemoration rally this Sunday. And for those not of the Provo persuasion, there will be other events if you have a look around.

But what I wanted to do was to briefly pose a question – are the Troubles over? I don’t mean by that the armed campaign, although it does indeed continue on a very low level. What I’m thinking more about is sectarian tension at the social level, something that the New Dispensation hasn’t really resolved. The odd clashes there have been, the rioting in Ardoyne, the murder of Kevin McDaid and so on, are on one level the sort of thing you would expect over the summer months. It’s well known that the marching season has that sort of effect on a certain type of person.

But there’s also a sort of geographical displacement that’s quite interesting. The peace process, you see, has really been geared very much towards pacifying Belfast and Derry. Tensions do persist in Belfast of course, mainly in interface areas, which is to say mostly in north Belfast. Those are the areas where you’ve got long-term deprivation and associated problems like criminality, rubbing up alongside the sectarian tensions inherent in the patchwork of interfaces, and the two factors playing off against each other. A lot of this manifests itself around the issue of housing, specifically the huge waiting lists in some nationalist areas, and masses of empty housing stock in loyalist areas that remain off-limits to Catholics.

That, though, is the persistence of something we’re familiar with. There’s something else that’s been coming up on the rails, however, in the form of sectarian clashes in small towns and villages. By and large, too, these are places like Coleraine, Banbridge and Larne that in the main escaped the Troubles. You’re talking about places that would traditionally be considered part of the unionist heartland, where there was little trouble in the past because the Catholic communities were small, and believed in keeping the eternal low profile so as to avoid trouble. It may not have been expected that sectarian trouble would resurface in places like this under the New Dispensation.

Yet such is the case, and perhaps the New Dispensation, with both the diminution of fear and the property boom, has had something to do with it. During the trouble in north Antrim around the Twelfth fortnight, I was startled to hear of attacks on Catholic churches and GAA halls in villages like Cullybackey, Dervock and Ahoghill. Startled, you see, because in my memory these were villages that were exclusively Protestant. Some of them were as near as damn it exclusively Presbyterian. Sectarian clashes weren’t supposed to happen in areas like this.

And yet, demographic shift has been changing that. You’ve got provincial towns where there used to be maybe one Catholic estate, or even just dispersed families, where the Catholic population has grown significantly. In a given town it might have gone from 10% to 25% within the space of about ten years. And a growing Catholic population, in this era of power-sharing and Section 75 and all that, means an uppity Catholic population. At the most passive level, it means churches and schools and GAA clubs, the things that make a Catholic community visible. At the more energetic level, it means young lads deciding that, if the Orange are going to cover their town with flags and bunting in the summer months, they may as well hoist a flag or two on their estate. After all, there’s supposed to be parity of esteem.

And in the north, every action produces an equal and opposite reaction. You’ll recall that Big Ian launched his political career in the 1960s on the back of tricolours being flown in West Belfast. This is why I get the sense that some of these provincial towns are almost rerunning the birth of the Troubles – or maybe better, the immediate pre-Troubles period – on a forty-year time delay.

The context is wholly different, of course. We have the federal presidency at Stormont rather than the nakedly supremacist unionist government that existed back then. The old system is gone, smashed forty years ago, and isn’t coming back – but that doesn’t mean that the hangovers of the old system don’t exist in the the unionist backwoods. Especially when facts on the ground call into question the separate-but-equal thesis that a lot of unionists thought they were buying into with the peace process.

And this brings us back to what the peace process does and what it doesn’t or can’t do. Pacifying Belfast and Derry, through both a baroque system of government and the disbursement of peace funds to combatants willing to behave – not unlike what the Americans are trying to do in the Bananastans – has been raised to a fine art. But the New Dispensation is not very good at all when it comes to dealing with these sub-political tensions. The cops have plans in terms of public order, although they very often don’t work out very well. The political actors… well, it’s a bit like expecting a vacuum to show leadership.

Doing it the old-fashioned way in North Antrim

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As everybody’s favourite festival draws to a close, there’s been the regular riot in Ardoyne. It’s at least a reminder that the New Dispensation has not magicked away all the old tensions. There’s also the regular question of just how long the Provos can continue to keep a lid on the Ardoyne youth. From the way Gerry Kelly was cussing out the dissident groups – and the idea that the riot was orchestrated by dissidents beggars belief – one might expect another ostentatious anti-dissident campaign. Worth watching the headlines in the Andytown News, then. I’ll just say that being praised by Nelson McCausland and Frankie Gallagher is not going to do Munster much good with the youth.

There’s also the heroic effort of the modernising faction in the Orange Order – and when we say Drew Nelson is a moderniser, it should be clear we’re talking about those willing to drag Orangeism kicking and screaming into the eighteenth century – there is the effort to rebrand the Twelfth as something more in keeping with the brave new society we’re supposed to be building, something that might appeal to tourists, or at the very least not have the broad masses doing a runner for Donegal in the second week of each July. Changing the name to “Orangefest” is just the start. There is supposed to less public drunkenness and less loutish behaviour from march followers and kick-the-Pope bands. The Eleventh Night is supposed to be marked by eco-friendly “beacons” instead of enormous bonfires made of pallets, tree branches and discarded furniture, and adorned with sectarian slogans; the lighting of the bonfires is tied to “family fun days” with face-painting and bouncy castles. There are not supposed to be paramilitary flags on display. There are even designated “flagship marches” to function as examples of Best Practice.

Sadly, Drew and his brethren are having a hard time of it. To a large extent, it’s an existential question – if the Orange Order isn’t defined by anti-Catholicism, what is it? How is it possible to have a Twelfth of July that isn’t sectarian? You don’t have to be a mad republican to ask this question – actually, many of those who would celebrate the Twelfth would recognise its validity. That’s why, despite financial inducements being offered for beacons, many loyalists prefer the traditional bonfires, and the bacchanalian celebrations attached to them.

It’s also the time of year for intimidation. As if it wasn’t enough to have many of our ethnic communities fleeing their homes in South Belfast, we then had the threat against those who remain. Scuttlebutt links the threat to the UYM, the UDA’s youth wing, which surely puts something of a question mark over Jackie McDonald’s new touchy-feely anti-racist UDA.

Anyway, it’s Catholics rather than ethnic minorities who are the bread-and-butter targets, and this year it’s North Antrim that’s looking particularly hairy. This, I think, has to do with demographic shift, or what North Belfast unionists like to call “encroachment”. By this we mean Catholics moving into previously solidly Protestant areas, something that sends lots of unionists, even the self-proclaimed moderates, into a frenzy. This political imperative is what lies behind the housing crisis in North Belfast, as Catholic estates are bursting at the seams while Protestant estates – into which no Catholic may move – are increasingly empty, in some cases to the point of being derelict.

It seems that something similar is going on in North Antrim. When I heard there had been an attack on a GAA hall in Ahoghill, I was amazed at the idea that there was a GAA hall in Ahoghill. These little villages – Ahoghill, Cullybackey, Dervock – were katholikenrein until quite recently, but the appearance of visible Catholics, bringing churches and GAA clubs with them… well, that’s the sort of thing that winds up your rural loyalist who’s used to living in a cosy Prods-only environment. And this is just the time of year when loyalist passions run high.

In the interests of balance, it must be said that the area has also witnessed a number of sectarian attacks by Catholics, notably in Dunloy and Rasharkin. But the dynamic is not the same. The semi-regular arson attacks on rural Orange halls have been going on for quite a number of years, and some Orangemen would have you believe they are all personally masterminded by Gerry Adams, but my take is that the culprits are young folks who might describe themselves as republicans, but are basically lumpen Celtic supporters acting under the influence of alcohol. The intimidation of Catholics in North Antrim villages where the Catholic presence is recent fits a different pattern, and is of a piece with the tensions in Crumlin, a town where demographic shift has been very rapid. When demographic shift happens in an area, one of two things happens: either the Catholics are driven out and the status quo ante is restored, or the Catholics establish themselves and the Prods start to move out, to East Belfast or North Down or similar areas where it’s all Prods as far as the eye can see.

So it doesn’t look good for the Orange modernisers. Not only are they in an institution famously resistant to modernisation, but the ugly realities of sectarianism will keep reasserting themselves. That they reassert themselves at this time of year is hardly a coincidence. And Orange and unionist leaders proclaiming “Nothing to do with us, honest guv,” is not going to butter many parsnips.