NI Politics comes to England but is it a Trick or a Treat?


Growing up in Dublin, Halloween (Oíche Shamhna – the night before Samhain 1st Nov.) was a significant event, particularly for children. Dressing up in ghoulish costumes, making turnip lanterns, playing particular games, going around neighbour’s houses asking “help the Halloween party” was all part of the fun. Fireworks, in particular, “bangers” were set off. Bangers were illegal in Ireland but readily available in Moore St., where the street sellers cry of “get your apples and nuts” would be followed by a whispered “want any bangers sonny?” when boys of a certain age were around.

When I came to England in 1981, Halloween was hardly celebrated at all. Instead, it was Guy Fawkes Night, on the 5th Nov. celebrating the saving of parliament from the gunpowder plot. The festival traditionally had a very anti-Catholic flavour. Fortunately, this aspect has all but disappeared (in Ireland we would have preferred if the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded).

What has been evident over the years is that Halloween, hardly celebrated at all in the 1980s has become far more important and in many areas eclipsing Guy Fawkes night.

This has not been caused by direct Irish influence, the number of Irish in Britain declined substantially over the period, but rather an indirect import via the US. The Irish Americans have had a far more significant cultural impact on the US than in Britain and introduced Halloween into mainstream US culture.

I hope we can agree that Halloween is great fun for children and mostly a good thing, but sadly very much over commercialised. There are however certain less welcome imports from Irish culture, particularly from the north east of the island, including whataboutery and siloing.


Whataboutery is an attempt to deflect criticism by calling out the failures, bad behaviour or downright atrocities of the other side. It has existed for centuries, and the Latin term Tu quoque (you also) has a similar meaning.

Fig.1 Finger-pointing illustrating Whataboutery


Northern Ireland

Whataboutery is down to a fine art in Ireland and is at least a century old, but the actual term seems to have been coined by John Healey in 1974. Whataboutery is also a logical fallacy and no defence but does appeal to what has been termed the lizard brain in us all.

In NI there is absolutely no shortage of ammunition on all sides. Unpleasant as it is, it is worth recalling some of the worst atrocities, in the hope, we will never go there again, and as a warning, things can indeed spiral out of control. There has all too often been a downwards spiral of violence – a tit for tat approach.

From the British Army: The Ballymurphy Massacre, Bloody Sunday and Operation Flavius. From Loyalist Paramilitaries:  The Miami Showband massacre (UVF), the  Reavey and O’Dowd killings (UVF), the Loughinisland Massacre (UVF), the Greysteel Massacre (UDA), the Sean Graham bookmakers’ shootings (UDA) and the  Miltown Massacre (UDA).

The   Dublin and Monaghan bombings, which came near to killing the author in Parnell St., Dublin, in 1974, was a joint effort between Loyalist terrorists, the British Army, the Secret Service, and sanctioned at the very highest level. Many of these atrocities received minimal coverage in Britain. For example, the lack of coverage of the Ballymurphy inquest is a scandal.

From the IRA: Bloody Friday, the Kingsmill Massacre and the Poppy Day Massacre. After that, the realisation that the average Brit had turned off, no amount of carnage in NI could have any effect. Only a campaign in England would get any attention. Bombings in Guildford, Birmingham, Brighton, Manchester had a much more significant impact. The Warrington Bombing was particularly heinous.

This violence continued for 30 years from 1968 to 1998 when the GFA was signed. By the end of the troubles, there were over 3500 fatalities and hardly a person who hadn’t first-hand experience of violence. It remains one of the most traumatised societies in the world.

The blame game is further muddied by massive involvement, of special forces, MI5, the shadowy British Army Force Research Unit and informers embedded in both the IRA and Loyalist terrorist organisations. Some light is currently being shed by the current Spotlight On the Troubles: A Secret History currently being aired on BBC NI. The earlier Stephens enquiry into collusion with Loyalists was dogged by resistance, lies, a major arson attack, and came to very damning conclusions. Stephens is now Baron Stephens of Kirkwhelptington, a near neighbour, and someone I got to know quite well, during his stint as Chancellor at Northumbria University.

There is, of course, no justification for whataboutery and far less for murder.  It solves nothing. Any murderer irrespective of being carried out by the British Army, IRA etc. needs to be treated equally before the law and brought to justice. Nevertheless, in Ireland, there is a degree of symmetry, both sides have done horrible things, and it is straightforward to have a plague on both your houses mentality.

Whataboutery has been at a much lower level in England until recently. In Westminster, the DUP could condemn Sinn Féin/IRA, with a straight face, in the sure knowledge that the atrocities perpetrated by their cronies on the  Loyalist side could be ignored. For example, Ulster Resistance, founded by prominent members of the DUP, gun-ran weapons described as ‘Godsend’ for loyalists – assault rifles illegally imported in 1987 killed at least 70 people and were used in three massacres.


So far in England at least the two sides are not, frequently yet, killing each other, but whataboutery has become mainstream in the Leavers arsenal. This may well have come via the US – Steve Bannon  (far more heavily involved in Britain than generally realised) and many of his shady colleagues are Irish Americans – well versed in whataboutery. There have been a doubled prong injection of this poison via D Cummings time in Moscow, as the other masters of this technique are the Russians, customarily styled whataboutism from our Eastern neighbours.

Unlike in Ireland, where whataboutery grew organically,  in England it is totally synthetic, emanating mainly from the shadowy right-wing think-tanks such as those housed in 55 Tufton St.

One early example was the referendum. There was what Prof Michael Dougan termed “dishonesty on an industrial-scale” on the Leave side. We know that there has also been significant illegality, dark money, Facebook dark ads targeting etc. doggedly perused by Carole Cadwalladr among others. There is also a curious DUP connection.

None of this matters, apparently, because the other side is just as wrong. What About the “emergency budget?” What about the “dire economic forecasts that never happened?” – Your side is just as bad. Even if I accepted that and to use a football analogy: one side should have been given 20 red cards and the other two yellow ones – but no referee was present.

Logically if both sides cheated the case for a rematch is strengthened rather than weakened. It is also ironic that if the Referendum were legally binding rather than advisory, it would have been declared null and void.

Last week in Ian Dunt’s excellent article Both sides’ niceties neutralise anti-abuse campaign, he writes:

It begins with the comments about ‘both sides’, then it moves on to straight-up whataboutery. And before you know it, the whole thing has been neutralised. Nothing can be changed, because everyone is culpable. It becomes a failure of the human condition rather than a kind of political behaviour footed in specific circumstances and the actions of individuals.

Sadly it seems to work. One extraordinary thing about England is the apparent inability of Leavers to change their mind, despite overwhelming evidence the Referendum was a tissue of lies. Though there may finally be some sign of movement, with a study showing 2.6M Leavers have changed their mind.

Siloing, Confirmation Bias and Sectarianism

Northern Ireland

In NI there are two very separate communities often referred to as the CNR (Catholic/Nationalist/Republican) community and the PUL (Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist) community (of course this is a simplification, and there are a growing number of ‘neithers’). The CNR and PUL communities are generally segregated. Less than 10% of children go to Integrated Schools, where pupils of both communities mix. Often it is not until ones go to University that they meet people from the other community. Belfast is crisscrossed by “peace walls” segregating populations as in Fig. 2, to keep communities apart.

Fig. 2 Example Peace line Belfast


In terms of Brexit, nearly all tranches of the CNR community voted ‘Remain’. The exceptions were some Republicans who voted ‘Leave’ as they calculated Brexit would be a disaster and accelerate a United Ireland. There would also have some ‘Lexiters’ among the community. In terms of the PUL community, there was an education and class divide. The middle class and better educated slanted ‘Remain’, but the more working-class and Loyalist end voted overwhelmingly for ‘Leave’.

The differences between the communities is discussed in the hit series Derry Girls; there are whimsical differences such as “Do you keep your toaster in a cupboard?”   On a more serious note on many measures, the CNR community resembles the ‘Remainers’ community in the UK and the PUL community ‘Leavers’. From the Ashcroft poll, the approval ratings of selected party heads are the CNR:PUL communities are 4%:78% for Boris Johnson, 57%:8% for Jeremy Corbyn and  4%:60% for Nigel Farage.

In a recent Irish Passport Podcast, there was an interview with a PUL Trump supporter with a MAGA hat. Interestingly, these views seem typical of some of this community. There is a longstanding link between the more fundamental Unionists and the American South. Ian Paisley Sn. gained his doctorate from the “Buckle of the Bible Belt”,   Bob Jones University.

In NI there is an accelerating demographic shift. When NI was created in 1921, designed as a Protestant Apartheid entity, there was a 2/3 Protestant majority. Currently, for voting-age adults, it is very close to 50:50. Given however that for school-age children there it a 60:40 ratio in favour of Catholics it is inevitable that Catholics will be a majority within a few years and an ever-increasing one, after that.

This shapes the mentality of the two communities. Many in the PUL community look back to a past, in which they had significant privileges and see their God-given right to rule disappearing. This creates, very much a siege mentality. Some see Britain as an endless cash cow, provided they stay ‘Loyal’, money will flow. To some extent, this works as NI costs considerably more to the Treasury than EU membership. The DUP seem very good at extracting more. Brexit is seen as a chance to restore NI to the Halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s, where it was much wealthier than the ‘South’. They are also very Imperialist in their views and seem to genuinely believe Britain is still the world-bestriding power it was in 1900.

The CNR community can afford to play the long game, not only will there be more of them, they will be better educated and will increasingly dominate the professions. They look towards a future within the EU with confidence and many to a United Ireland. They see the Backstop as a significant opportunity, as it gives NI unique access to both the UK and EU markets and will turbocharge NI’s stalled economy. Without the Backstop, a United Ireland is probable within a decade.

To be fair, many of the better-educated members of the PUL community understand this support the Backstop. The DUP, however, have been vitriolically against it on supposed constitutional grounds and have whipped up their electoral base to detest it. These constitutional grounds are considered very weak to neutral observers. As David McWilliams says “they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”.

The greatest siloing is confirmation bias. In Northern Ireland, if you use green spectacles, you will see the EU in a very favourable light and HMG as being both duplicitous and inept. If you wear orange spectacles, HMG is returning the UK to its rightful imperialist place in the world, and the EU is an over-reaching, emasculating, alien power.


The two tribes until recently were far less distinct and polarised in England.  However there has been a Whig tradition and a Tory tradition for centuries, but the fault lines shift over the years. My father Kevin (a prominent Folklorist and author) recognised the two cultures. He had tremendous admiration for Tolkien for example (whom he knew quite well) and the liberal intellectual tradition, but detested the Imperialist dominating aspect – the smug belief that they were superior and had a God-given right to rule everyone else.

When I arrived at the University of Sheffield in ’81 for my first post-doc position, I slotted in very quickly. The vast majority of the academic community are from the Liberal tradition. I was mystified at the poor quality of the English press – tabloids at the time hardly existed in Ireland. The Mail, in particular, seemed repulsive, being offered a free one once I remarked: “I wouldn’t even use it to wipe my bottom“.

The fault line in the early 80s was Labour vs Tory. Margret Thatcher was initially very unpopular, but the Falklands’s War gave her a tremendous boost in the polls. Thatcher was doubly lucky as North Sea Oil was in full flow. As Anthony Barnett says“It was oil revenues that bankrolled the unemployment, the destruction of manufacturing, the high-exchange rate, the termination of British coal mining, and the big-bang that turned London into a capital of global neoliberalism and pumped growth into the South-East in the early 1980s”. Thatcher was non-consensual and talked privately about the enemy within, but had the good sense to tone down the rhetoric in public.

I detested Thatcher; I thought Neoliberalism a cruel form of economics, which would smash society, create inequality on an industrial scale and ultimately fail. Large parts of the North never recovered. I thought Thatcher was profoundly wrong, but she was extraordinarily talented as indeed were many of her cabinet. Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine are still standing.

Thatcher was famously brought down of course by the Poll Tax.

Under Major politics became a bit more consensual but my memory of the time was a Government rocked continuously by scandal. The Tories by this stage were despised, and Blair won by a landslide in 1997, by appealing to the centre-ground (I was a very active member of the Labour Party at the time). The two Tribes got very blurred. Things improved, but many of the improvements were cosmetic rather than structural, and Blair rather than shunning neoliberalism, looked towards a third way – a compromise. Blair’s two greatest mistakes were the continuation of PFI and of course the Iraq War (over which I left the Labour Party in disgust).

Labour’s stint in Government ended under Brown. The major event was the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008.

In 2010 the coalition government came to power and introduced a totally unnecessary Austerity Program. Bad economics which hit the most deprived communities hardest and a hammer blow to many of the poor Northern Communities which had still not recovered from Thatcher.

In 2015 the Tories got an outright majority. One manifesto promise was to hold a Brexit Referendum.

Column miles have been written about the Referendum, but I recommend this new thread on referendums in Britain by the excellent Steve Analyst here.  My view on the Referendum was that it was a textbook example of how not to do things. Best practice is easily found in say Switzerland and Ireland, who are very used to running referendums, just as you should use a surgeon who does an operation once a week, rather than one every five years. My blog How to Run Referendums – Lessons from Ireland shows how to run them professionally. The single most significant error was not to define an end state, e.g. Norway+. Also unforgivable was turning a legally advisory referendum into a politically binding one.

To many peoples surprise, but not mine, Leave won. It was depressing to see that the “Mail” reader tribe instead of them being a dying minority were in the ascendant.

Much has been written about the new tribes, for example, Brexit identities: how Leave versus remain replaced Conservative versus Labour affiliations of British voters and in Brexit and Public Opinion 2019. It is clear however that they are split on far more than EU membership, bit on a range of cultural issues.  The thought process also seem very different. Remainers tend to be fact and evidence-based. Leavers rely more on deep feelings and more abstract concepts such as Sovereignty.

NI Style Politics has Indeed Come to England

Whereas Halloween may be mostly welcome, Whataboutery and Tribalism is not. Tribalism can quickly descend into sectarianism. It is this aspect of NI politics which is most worrying.

In England, we now have two bitterly divided tribes “Leavers” and “Remainers.” Quite extraordinarily, if one drops the religious element, these map remarkably well onto the two NI tribes: the CNR (Remainers) and PUL (Leavers).   Quite neatly the CNR acronym ends with R – Remainer and the PUL tribe with L – Leaver. Chris Grey has described HMG as Government by Cult – a religious element my be present also.

In both Britain and NI, the two tribes are of about equal strength. The R Tribe, however in both NI and Britain is younger. The age profiles are remarkably similar. This leads to a growing  R tribe and shrinking L tribe. Strategists in the L tribe are aware of this and see Brexit as a race against time. They are terrified that unless Brexit happens soon, it will not happen at all.

The R tribe in both NI and Britain lean left. In NI most are SDLP (Social Democrat and Labour Party) or SF (politically Socialist). In Britain most vote Labour, SNP, Plaid or Lib Dem.  The L tribe votes largely Tory (similar to the UUP in NI) or BXP (similar to the DUP).

The R tribe is socially liberal supporting same-sex marriage and abortion in NI, for example, where the L tribe does not. The R tribe does not buy into faux patriotism in the form of flag-waving, adoration of the Royals and hyper glorification of the military.

The R tribe and the L tribe find it increasingly different to talk to each other. Being Irish, I very much get Sovereignty, but come to the exact opposite conclusion of the Brexists, believing EU membership very much enhances Irish sovereignty and leverage. It is certainly possible to be sovereign in the North Korea sense, but not a wise move.

In terms of trade also, being an EU member enhances the quality of trade deals. The size of your market is the most significant factor towards leverage and negotiating as a block of 500M+ makes one far more powerful than as a single nation of 65M. Ireland is very successful at trade, exporting about seven times more per capita than the UK. Being a member of the single market is essential to that success.

Once tribes have formed, it is tough to get the daemon back into the bottle. Using language which unites rather than divides is extremely important, particularly from the top. The language of sectarianism and division has been used to significant effect in NI. Ian Paisley Sn. was a master, ramping up division and stoking up support through terror of the other side winning. Destructive zero-sum game politics. This has proved very electorally successful but was disastrous for NI society. The framing the Backstop in terms of sovereignty, identity and constitutional integrity by the DUP is similarly sectarian (and a legal fiction).

The L tribe has use sectarian type language from the start, labelling themselves as dashing “Brexiteers” and “Patriots”. The R tribe is labelled: “Remoaners”, “Losers”, “Traitors”  and “enemies of the people.”

PM Johnson has further ramped up this sectarian framing. Language used to sunder society, rather than to heal, designed to appeal to the core base and to out Farage, Farage. This may produce short term electoral advantage as in NI but is disastrous for society. The abuse and death threats suffered by female MPs, in particular, such as Heidi Allen and Diane Abbot is an outrage.

Whereas Johnson’s advisors D Cummings (overtly) and S Bannon (covertly) will very much welcome reducing Britain to ground zero, as the new Statesman puts it: Scorched Earth Tactics, this will prove disastrous for Britain, and even for the entity, Johnson cares far more deeply about, the Tory party itself.


Ultimately whereas this Haloween is of particular significance as the supposed eve of Brexit Day, it is the cleaving of England into two separate communities, that may cause lasting damage.

Rather than emulating Northern Ireland, it might be more sensible looking further south, where there has been violent division in the 20th cent, up to and including civil war. The Irish work very hard at finding common ground. The nature of politics, because of  Proportional Representation, ensures coalition and consensus is built into the system. The UK has a winner takes all mentality, by nature adversarial.  In President Obama’s words:  “One can disagree without being disagreeable”. Language is important, as the Irish President Michael D Higgens said at his inaugural address:

Words matter. Words hurt. Words empower. Words can divide.

If Brexit goes ahead, it will get worse. As David Alan Green says:   “Get Brexit Done” – An absurd slogan: if UK leaves EU then Brexit [is] only beginning, Brexit will take decades. Any credible economic forecast indicated post-Brexit the economy will at best grow very slowly. A “No Deal” Brexit could easily send the UK into recession. High-quality FDI in manufacturing or services is likely to go to the EU, as access to the Single Market is paramount. The UK will attract vulture capitalists and asset strippers, keen to but up cut-price UK businesses. If Brexit goes ahead healing the country will take decades.

The only short term healing option is a People Vote between a negotiated deal and Remain, followed by a Remain win. It is imperative also to understand that there is no return to 2016. It is vital that the significant structural issues in the UK economy as outlined for example, by Raoul Martinez, are tackled.

It is likely, however, that there will be a General Election first. This is likely to be framed as a “people vs parliament election” with vitriolic and populist rhetoric ramped up to the maximum. HMG is determined to place the blame on anyone but themselves and will blame the EU, and paint both Germany and Ireland as the villains. Expect mindless flag-waving and endless WWII references.

Should the Tories win or the Tories/Brexit Co. get the most seats a no-deal is almost inevitable. This likely will cause both NI and Scotland to break away (probably no bad thing). If the Brexists get their Singapore on Thames model, England will become a very diminished country – “a banana monarchy” according to Prof David Edgerton.

This, therefore, will be the most critical election in our lifetime. It is more important than ever that tactical voting and electoral pacts. The battleground is likely to be Labour seats in the Midlands and North of England. It is there Cummings thinks his unashamed pandering to Brexit voters is most likely to succeed.




  1. Michael Walsh -

    Great piece comparing NI & GB. Just one question, source for your contention re various roles in Dublin Monaghan bombings?

  2. Samuel Johnson -

    Information about the official complicity in these atrocities was leaked to the Irish govt by a whistle-blower in the UK and at least some of what is known can be found online.

  3. Samuel Johnson -

    One of the recent interviews / profiles of Chris Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower (first, below) had a very interesting comment that resonated. It concerned his ability to communicate in ways cut to the heart of even complex issues in an understandable way. Instead of debating how much impact cheating in the referendum had and whether it made any difference to the outcome, he invoked disqualification in the Olympics if any cheating at all is detected.

    With the constant impugning by political adversaries of each other’s motives and honesty it seems that the UK is stuck with increasing levels of noise, distrust, and a crying need for someone respected and impartial, able to communicate as clearly as Chris Wylie, and able to referee matters. NI commentator Newton Emerson joked today on Twitter about it being time, given the Ulsterisation of Westminster politics, for a senior American diplomat to be sent for. (Who would one trust from the Trump administration, and would they have a side agenda of, say, shaking down the NHS?)

    In absence of a unifying figure or event (such as war) it’s increasingly hard to see the “precious union” remaining united. The UK is stuck in a crisis of legitimacy on several fronts and out of time. A 2nd referendum without addressing the risks of yet more weaponised misinformation will introduce more heat and may not produce an uncontested result (recalling that Farage said that a 52:48 result would be “unfinished business”). John Bercow’s having spoken to the speaker of the EU parliament today has resulted in hysterical tweets about his “malfeasance in public office” “for which the penalty is life imprisonment”.

    It’s not too hard to imagine Boris Johnson refusing to resign following a no confidence vote and, if Ulster history is any precedent, the military deciding to back him. A stretch, but maybe not as much as some would like to think. A potentially parallel situation on the other side of the Atlantic is even more alarming.

    Blair’s decision not to implement PR when he had a large majority looks now to me to be a, maybe the, key point at which UK break-up became unavoidable, given what has happened to strain the body politic since. Alas, fixing it now, and addressing some other constitutional issues, such as regulating parliamentary conventions, is now a venture into bitterly contested space and likely to result in accusations of subversion of democracy.

    The UK is in a dark place and it may get darker. To my mind the person most able to change it is Jeremy Corbyn–by retiring. If he stood aside for, say, Jess Phillips, Labour could win a majority. (It would likely then defer addressing PR, again.) In my view there is a NI parallel of sorts w the persistence of Gerry Adams. He elicits the similar reactions from the opposing tribe and his own would be best served if he retired and allowed depolarisation to proceed.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Samuel, thanks. I agree regarding PR. The Lib Dems did manage to get a referendum on a form of PR – the AV Referendum, which I voted for but it was heavily defeated.

      I do worry if there is a 2nd ref. There is every possibility that it may be even more bloody and dirty than the last time and that Leave may well win again.

      Alternatively, if the ref. is Stay vs a Deal, large tranches of society may boycott the ref. completely.

      I am no fan of Corbyn, it is not his policies but simply his lack of leadership skills. I would be happy with Jess Phillips who is a very good communicator.

  4. Bill Drees -
    There is plenty here on the background to the bombings.

    Great piece of work Seán.
    (Tolkein is reputed to have been denigrating about the Irish. That does not seem to match with your Father’s experience.)

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Bill, that’s an interesting point. My father, Kevin, would have met Tolkein fairly regularly at conferences etc. – I singled out Tolkein because he is of course very famous.

      My father felt that it wasn’t just two tribes, it was more complex in that both sets of characteristics could be present in the same person. I really don’t know if he thought Tolkein was of that category, but it is perfectly possible. Neither a saint or a sinner.

      He also had the ability to talk to anyone, he certainly had many friends in the Anglo Irish ascendency, but would always get out of his car and talk to petrol pump attendants when filling his car.

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