Northern Ireland: where moderation is a rarity.

It’s often said that American politics is increasingly polarised. Republicans and Democrats vote on party lines more frequently, with dissenters being scorned as ideologically impure. Many academics believe this polarisation has been an elite phenomenon, with most ordinary Americans maintaining relatively centrist views. But even if America’s stark political divisions are purely the failure’s of its leaders, the same cannot be said for Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland is currently in the midst of a political crisis. It started when the largest party, the DUP, ran a Renewable Heat Incentive scheme. The idea was to encourage people to use renewable energy, but the absence of proper controls meant people were making money simply by heating their homes, at great expense to the taxpayer. As a result, Sinn Fein withdrew from the government, triggering an election in which they inevitably gained a higher proportion of the vote. Following the election, talks between the two major parties have broken down, with either side refusing to compromise. Sinn Fein want the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster, to resign, because of her role in what is now commonly known as the ‘cash for ash’ scandal. They also want cuts to funding for Irish language classes to be reversed, gay marriage, and a poll on Irish reunification- the latter is largely to avoid Brexit, in which most Northern Irish voted against. The DUP have refused all of those demands, believing concessions to be a sign of weakness and the demands to be unreasonable. Eventually there will be either direct rule from Westminster, or another election- which would be the third within a year.

The country has a long history of sectarianism and political polarisation, which has been far more brutal than even politics in the US. Although he eventually came to the negotiating table, the recently diseased Martin McGuinness was a murderer and a terrorist, and never renounced his violent ways. But the old debates over whether the Nationalists or Loyalists were responsible for more deaths, or whether Irish unification is a good idea, are both beside the point when it comes to today’s conundrum. As a historian, I find it tempting to judge the the agencies of the present based on their actions in the past. For instance, its very easy to be critical of Germans because of the Holocaust, or accuse Russians of not feeling guilty enough about the gulag. But eventually, however unacademic, we ought to move on from the past, and assess people based on their current behaviour.

So in this instance, regardless of who has the worse history, the DUP are presently far more obstinate and unreasonable in their political views and expectations than Sinn Fein. Arlene Foster ought to do the decent thing and resign, even if an investigation shows no evidence of any intentional wrongdoing. Although it would look embarrassing for the DUP in the short term, the longer she stays as leader, the worse the party’s electoral fortunes will be. Moreover, Sinn Fein’s social policies are perfectly reasonable, even if they (along with the DUP) expect far too much money from Westminster via the Barnett Formula. Gay marriage is supported by a majority of Northern Irish and even a majority of MLA’s- only the Good Friday feature known as a ‘petition of concern’ prevented marriage equality from becoming law (like it already is the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the UK.) Funding for the Irish language is also reasonable, even if it is currently only spoken by a small minority. As for Brexit, the DUP seems to have no qualms about taking Northern Ireland out of the EU against its will, even though this will probably result in a hard border between it and the Irish Republic- customs checks and immigration controls would be impossible without one. The Good Friday Agreement was enacted on the basis of the UK’s continued EU membership; such a dramatic change warrants a referendum.

None of this ought to be read as an endorsement of Sinn Fein. They are still too closely tied to crimes committed during the Troubles by the Provisional IRA, even as those like the late McGuinness are slowly dying out. Their brand of left-wing nationalism has a subtle feeling of xenophobia, as shown by slogans like ‘get the British out.’ They inaccurately refer to British rule over Northern Ireland as an occupation, sometimes even going as far as to compare themselves to Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. Such a comparison is totally facetious: the two situations are completely different, and most Northern Irish still want to remain British. To describe Britain as an occupying power is to deny the people of the right of self-determination. As for economics, Irish reunification may be beneficial in the long term. Northern Ireland is currently poorer than both the Republic and the rest of the UK, so unionism is hardly a guarantor of prosperity. But in the short term, the North would have to go through an austerity programme, because of the loss of Barnett Formula funding. Having personally witnessed the late McGuinness give a speech on the perils of Tory austerity, even from the perspective of a region that receives more than its fair share of funding, the prospect of fiscal conservatism is hardly a rallying call for reunification, particularly with a Republic that has a centre-right majority.

On a sombre conclusion, Northern Ireland may be one of these places where true moderation is impossible. You either believe Northern Ireland should be British or Irish (unless you’re one of the few deluded individuals that thinks the country could survive as an independent state.) Whatever position you take, roughly half the country will vehemently disagree with you. I am personally ambivalent on the Irish question from a purely philosophical perspective, though the prospect of union with a country racing towards the hardest possible Brexit, led by people who believe that no deal with the EU is an economically viable option, is hardly an appetising one. At present, Britain looks like it will have a Tory majority in perpetuity. The opposition Labour Party languishes in the opinion polls, and is totally unwilling and/or unable to hold the government to account on anything.  Conversely, the Irish Republic is currently one of the developed world’s fastest growing economies. Unemployment is still a problem, but it is in decline. It already has a GDP per capita that exceeds the UK, and the gap will only grow. Northern Ireland has a chance to end its dependence on Westminster subsidies, and embrace the entrepreneurial culture the Republic has so successfully fostered. If the DUP really believed in democracy, which it insists is what Brexit is all about, then it would allow Northern Ireland a say on its future. And if the country voted for reunification, I would hold nothing against them.


Even Isis can’t stop spread of secularism

The rise of Isis and fanatical Islam might lead you to think that far from fading, religion is making a comeback. But the reverse is true: it’s humanists who are on the march. “The fastest-growing belief system in the world is non-belief.” In Saudi Arabia, 5% of those polled in 2012 described themselves as atheist and 19% as non-believers – a higher proportion than in Italy. In Lebanon, the figure was 37%. True, Arab governments are now cracking down on atheism – Saudi Arabia has made it a terrorist offence – but this is “evidence not of confidence but of alarm”, just as the fanaticism of gun-toting jihadis is evidence of their fury at the spread of secularism. But the efforts of the militants to shore up belief will be in vain: the pull of materialism, rationalism and scepticism is too strong. Whether you’re Christian, Jewish or Muslim, there’s “just something about living in a society with restaurants and mobile phones, universities and social media, that makes it hard to go on thinking” that morality derives from some divine law. Jihadism is a grave threat today, but be assured, “secularism and milder forms of religion will win in the long run”. (Matt Ridley,The Times)

Epicureans do not believe in priests and Popes, Pearly Gates, or a angry gods. They believe in the bringing out the very best instincts of human beings: generosity, care, good humour, cooperation, to name a few, all without priests. But I myself am not sure Mr. Ridley is correct. Suddenly, we find ourselves in uncharted seas, surrounded with angry, vulgar and often violent people. This sudden reversal from the relative calm and quiet, the social and economic progress, of the last half century is quite likely to drive rational people back into irrationality and false hopes of a better after-life. This will only make matters worse – religions tend to have that effect.

America’s infrastructure crisis

From the crumbling bridges of California to the overflowing sewage drains of Houston and the rusting railroad tracks in the Northeast Corridor, decaying infrastructure is all around us, and the consequences are so familiar that we barely notice them—like urban traffic congestion, slow-moving trains, and flights that are often disrupted, thanks to an outdated air-traffic-control system. The costs are significant, once you reckon wasted time, lost productivity, poor public-health outcomes, and increased carbon emissions.

The economist Larry Summers has pointed out that, once you adjust for depreciation, the U.S. makes no annual net investment in public infrastructure at all. Yet polls show that infrastructure spending is popular with a majority of voters across the income spectrum. Historically, it enjoyed bipartisan support from politicians, too. If it’s so popular, why doesn’t it happen?

One clear reason is politics. While both parties remain rhetorically committed to infrastructure spending, in practice Republicans have been less willing to support it, especially when it goes toward things like public transit. This is partly because of the nature of the Republican base: public transit is hardly a priority for suburban and rural voters in the South and in much of the West. But ideology has played a key role as well. “The rise of modern conservatism, with its sense that government is the problem and its aversion to government spending, has created a Republican Party that’s much more skeptical of big infrastructure projects than it was.  Then the process of getting infrastructure projects approved has become riddled with what political scientists call “veto points.” There are more environmental regulations and more requirements for community input. There are often multiple governing bodies for new projects, each of which has to give its approval. Many of these veto points were put in place for good reason. But they make it harder to undertake big projects.  Mind you, this applies to most other countries as well, which doesn’t stop them getting things done.

Worse than the lack of new investment is our failure to maintain existing infrastructure. You have to spend more on maintenance as infrastructure ages, but we’ve been spending slightly less than we once did. The results are easy to see. In 2013, the Federal Transit Administration estimated that there’s an eighty-six-billion-dollar backlog in deferred maintenance on the nation’s rail and bus lines. The American Society of Civil Engineers, which gives America’s over-all infrastructure a grade of D-plus, has said that we would need to spend $3.6 trillion by 2020 to bring it up to snuff.

Maintenance is handled mainly by state and local communities, which, because many of them can’t run fiscal deficits, operate under budgetary pressures. Term limits mean that a politician who cuts maintenance spending may not be around when things go wrong. What politician doesn’t like opening something new and having a nice press op at the ribbon-cutting? But no one ever writes articles saying, “Region’s highways are still about as good as they were last year.”

The U.S. needs  a long-term strategy, fund it adequately, and hold the government accountable for making that strategy work. Infrastructure is the ultimate public good. Trump is right to make it a priority, but I reckon any attempt to put an infrastructure plan into action will go the way of the healthcare bill that failed yesterday.

Cicero on Epicureanism

Cicero’s “On Ends”, his narrative on key aspects of Epicurean philosophy:

– Pleasurable living is the goal of life. Epicurus held that this is established by observation that all young animals pursue pleasure and avoid pain, and that these matters are so clear to us that no logical argument is needed to prove them.

– The error of praising pain and condemning pleasure arises because people do not pursue pleasure intelligently.

– The wise man chooses all his actions so as to produce the greatest and most lasting pleasure.

– This principle of action justifies and explains why we sometimes choose even the most dangerous of physical dangers.

– By pleasure we mean both physical and mental pleasure.

– The Stoics were wrong to condemn pleasure on the grounds that it is only active and physical, because they ignored the fact that pleasure also comes from mental contemplation.

– Compare the nature and life of the happiest man of pleasure with the most miserable man, and you will see that pleasurable living is the object of life.

– The error of believing that the goal of life is to live virtuously.

– Only the wise man can live the happiest life possible, and it is for that reason only that wisdom is valued.

– Only the courageous, patient, diligent, watchful, and industrious man can live the happiest life possible, and it is for that reason only that these virtues are valued.

– Only the just man can live the happiest life possible, and it is for that reason only that justice is valued.

– In short, all virtues are praise-able and desirable only because they secure pleasurable living.

– The pleasures of the mind may be more intense than the pleasures of the body, but the body and mind are inseparable and thus all pleasures are connected with the body.

– It is a pleasure to remove pain, but the removal of a pleasure does not necessarily lead to pain, because our minds have a ready store of past pleasures to reflect on.

– The Stoics are foolish in their characterization of virtue as the only good, and their divorce of virtue from pleasure.

– Fortune has but little power over the wise man.

– The philosophers of Logic and Dialectic, who ignore pleasure and the study of nature are of no help in living happily.

– Friendship is essential for living happily.

– The philosophy of Epicurus is more clear and plain than the sun itself in establishing that pleasurable living is the goal of life, and how to achieve it.


You can see why some people objected to Epicureanismas as being self-indulgent, if you read the above superficially. What Cicero left out is what gives a human being pleasure. It is giving of oneself to friends and loved ones; consciously trying to get on with everyone, however difficult and obnoxious; being polite, courteous and thoughful; avoiding stressful relationships; enjoying nature and the simple things of life; eschewing politics, avoiding the rudeness and vulgarity of modern life, and setting an example of tolerance and civility; thinking for yourself; and simply getting along with your fellow human beings