The Sicilianisation of Britain?

Some years ago during the Silvio Berlusconi era I visited Giorgio a friend of mine in Sicily. During his younger days he looked at the North of Italy as model as to how the whole country was run and was very despondent because  rather than the Northern ethos coming to dominate Italy, it seemed that  corruption and the Sicilian way had taken over the entire country.

Of course the UK is not Italy but it does have a substantial section detached from the British mainland in Northern Ireland. There are many great things about the people of Northern Ireland and I have friends on both the Nationalist and Unionist side, but there are three very negative characteristics which seemed absent (or at least rarely obvious) from the British mainland.

Whataboutery NI

Whataboutery, sometimes called whataboutism is an attempt to deflect criticism by calling out the failures of the other side. In a Northern Ireland context if a Nationalist was challenged about the behaviour of the IRA he/she might retort how about the Dublin and Monaghan bombings? It was a technique used extensively by the Soviet Union to deflect criticism from their own atrocities by pointing out the failures on the other side. And also now a technique frequently used by Trump (most often by claims he makes about Obama or Clinton).

Siloing and Confirmation Bias NI

In NI there are two very separate communities referred to as the CNR (Catholic/Nationalist/Republican) community and the PUL (Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist) community. These rarely talk to one another and live in their own communities often with minimal interaction from those of other communities.

Zero Sum Game Mentality NI

There are two communities in Northern Ireland ussums (we) and themmuns (they). Denying themmuns any sort of victory is imperative. If themmuns get any advantage out of a negotiation clearly it must disadvantage ussums. A prime example is the Irish Language Act (ILA) agreed to in the Saint Andrews Agreement 2006 by both the DUP and SF. The Nationalists were and still are keen to have an ILA. It is as much to do with culture and feeling valued and not being treated as second class citizens in their own country as the actual language itself. The agreement says:

The Government will introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.

Clearly from the DUP’s side such an ILA would give themmums some sort of victory so there is another clause in the St Andrew’s agreement:

The Government firmly believes in the need to enhance and develop the Ulster Scots language, heritage and culture and will support the incoming Executive in taking this forward.

I had never heard of the Ulster Scots language, a dialect perhaps, but if it makes the PUL community happy I have no problem with it! Unfortunately however, the support base of the DUP smelled a rat in that an ILA was clearly more significant than the plans for Ulster Scots and after 11 years we seem to be no further forward. Themmuns can’t be seen to win! Indeed this seems to be one of the major sticking points for the reforming of the NI Executive.

Of course we are more grown up in GB. Or at least I thought so until the recent Brexit debacle.

Whataboutery GB

When I have a rare debate with a pro Brexit person they do not to seem to care that blatant lies were told on the Leave side e.g. the £350M and Turkey’s imminent joining of the EU. I get what about the recession that was predicted immediately after or George Osbourne’s emergency budget? In other words, your lot were just as bad!

Siloing and Confirmation Bias GB

Pro and anti-Brexit people seem largely entrenched and convinced they are right. I’m guilty myself; I see Brexit as an abomination and think that the Brexit leaders should be tried for treason. I’ve stopped reading any right wing press – I used to look at the Telegraph a few times a week to see what the other half were up to. Almost no one I know voted Brexit. What is interesting is that the opinion polls are still about 50-50% Remain and Leave with a slight remain majority. People on the Leave side read different press and respond to very different arguments, and it therefore seems to be more difficult – or even impossible – to have meaningful discussion.

Zero Sum Game Mentality GB

A zero sum game mentality has driven Brexit negotiations. I think Chris Kendall puts this very well on his blog:
“Language matters. Tone is important. Ever since the EU referendum and throughout the negotiation process, it seems that everyone on the UK side has been using the language of conflict and confrontation, sport and gaming, winners and losers. This fundamentally colours the UK’s approach to the process, and in my view handicaps us. By seeing this negotiation as a contest, with winners and losers, the UK sets itself up to fail. A confrontational, zero-sum approach rarely makes sense in a negotiation, and never when you are the weaker party, which the UK is”.

It’s interesting to note that Sicily and Northern Ireland are both among the poorest parts of their respective countries and are not good role models to follow. Indeed Northern Ireland, despite being subsidized by the UK central government by an estimated £5.5k per head of population is now the poorest region on the Island of Ireland. There is sadness and disbelief amongst my Dublin and continental friends and colleagues that the UK has lost its reputation for pragmatic negotiation and levelheadedness. There is a worry that the UK as a whole will get much less attractive and poorer and a hope that this this “Sicilianisation” phase will be short lived.


  1. Peter May -

    “In other words, your lot were just as bad!” is really a playground taunt. Which isn’t worth making just in order to make the country poorer.
    Giles Frazer
    suggests that many people consider they have nothing to lose by being made poorer, which is woeful.
    In fact if we have to pay import tariffs on food of 20% under those infamous WTO rules they will be potentially even poorer.
    OK the EU isn’t particularly cuddly, but it’s the only cuddle available. (Northern Ireland actually has a choice of two.)

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Indeed Peter. There is another issue; there has been a large amount of dark money channeled through the DUP; a very strange web. I think we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg; we need to write about this soon.

      Thanks for link, I think the regional policy is callous. Britain is ticking along but London and the SE seems to grab all the goodies so to speak; it’s no wonder things are so polarised. its deeply sad that things will almost certainly get worse for those already struggling.

      I’m not sure what will happen in NI; joining the South would be in their best interest but there is a pathological hatred of the South amongst some loyalists and very little desire amongst many southerners to take on either an economic basket case or stomach to take on half a million DUP voters. For NI some sort of special status may be the best option.

  2. Graham -

    A refreshing take on two seemingly intractable problems. My HoD said to me 40 years ago that when you read the press from other countries you get a very different perspective on any situation from what you read in the British press. Not that one was right, just different and illuminating.

    What we now seem to get in the media is simply propaganda and I include the supposedly left-leaning Grauniad, which I no longer read, and the supposedly impartial BBC, which is anything but. Just a small example, on a Radio 3 news bulletin during the week reporting on the UK’s financial obligation to the EU it said “how much the UK would be MADE to pay”. Could have bee scripted by Farage.

    I’m afraid the media do nothing to educate, illuminate and provide reasoned debate but simply try to brainwash the reader/listener and we all suffer. It’s one reason so many of us go online now for intelligent discussion.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Hi Graham
      yes I agree. Even the Guardian is not what it was. I think the British media is dreadful and much resembles propaganda. For me the UK simply isn’t working at present, great for London and the Home Counties but even there inequality is high. The media seems to have given up on impartiality but has gone for relativism; all opinions are of equal value. The media is very culpable but Murdoch, Dacre et al. have a pathological hatred for the EU and even Machiavelli would be impressed by their methods. The dream of the Murdochs and others to rule the world through the media have exceeded their wildest expectations.

  3. Nile -

    I see this as another ‘Underton Window’: not the continuing rightward drift of the Overton Window, but an orthogonal movement downwards.

    Coarsened politics, tribalism, tolerance for corruption, bland acceptance of outright and easily-provable lied, and – above all – the descent into chaotic stupidity: that’s the downward ‘Underton Shift’ in the quality of politics that we can now consider acceptable.

    Also: street politics matters in the province. You haven’t looked into the speaker meetings and the Wee Free sermons and the bellowing addresses to the men assembled for their marches.

    Calls for mass-murder and extermination, and the sectarian epithets and imprecations: a fraction of it would get you fired and prosecuted for incitement and racial abuse on the mainland.

    Sicily, of course, has 20th-Century street politics: politer in tone than Ulster, but these man and women are real, live communists and fascists. And the organised crime that lurks beneath the politics kills rather more people than the paramilitaries-turned-gangsters in Northern Ireland: the key difference is that the Sicilians finished the sectarian violence, conclusively, centuries ago.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Nile thanks
      I passed through Belfast today on my way to Dublin and Munster
      Thanks for your comment
      I again appreciate your insight
      It helps my understanding of the irrationality of some of the loyalists and the dislike they have for the Republic
      One has to hope Westminster does not find them expendable!

      1. Nile -

        Understanding the DUP is harder than you think: you can’t imagine a conversation about bad neighbours – violent criminals who had shocked the community – ending with a mixture of matter-of-fact and satisfaction in the words “We warned them, and we burned them out”.

        I had that conversation, and I managed to stay pokerfaced – a nod to indicate that I understood, and we could continue with his running commentary on our drive through Ballywhatever, as if I was entirely unmoved by sharing a car with a man who had been a member of a mob whose actions were a bellowed warning, a count of however long they considered merciful enough, then petrol bombs and torches through the front windows and the door, followed by the same into the back when their intended targets had run out.

        Or not, if the intention was to burn them. But he said “We burned them out” and I believe they let the targets run.

        This was perfectly normal. I’ve heard the same tone of voice about a bad family on the estate, in England, with “He’ll get out of prison sometime after 2020 and he’d better not come back here”

        But not that. Not the normalisation of such violence.

        And this man was a sympathiser, an ordinary tradesman with a wife and family, not a member of the paramilitaries.

        Bedrock of the DUP support.

        This wasn’t the most interesting, nor the most revealing conversation that we had: but it’s the conversation I will use to tell you that the DUP cannot be modelled using the assumptions you apply to piticians in a 20th-Century democracy.

        Perhaps they are closer to Sicily than you might think: the violent disregard for the authorities and any intervention of the state for good is real enough. What level lacking is the habit of Vendetta.

        What’s definitely present is a link between elected politicians and criminal gangs – at least, among the DUP.

        That, however, is rational.

        You’re looking at irrationality, and there are some shocking differences between us, and in the reasoning and the emotional landscape of a DUP supporter. And, as you go deeper into the party, you can see how the resentment of the EU is based on a visceral sense tgat they detest the prosperity and social progress of the Republic in the EU.

        Push deeper, and you see a perfectly rational opposition to the ECHR, among those who would be free of any prohibition on religious discrimination. Rational, within a framework we associate with psychopaths.

        Deeper still – and this, I think, is where we push too deep, and cross a threshold into actions that most of the DUP’s leadership and their ‘bedrock’ voters would consider unacceptable – there is a smaller group of people who are implacably opposed to Europe and the ECHR because it is a mechanism by which they can be called to account for extrajudicial executions.

        A smaller group, but made up of men who would have a use for that.

        Behind the scenes, the DUP seems beholden to paramilitaries-turned-criminals who are first and foremost businessmen: and, like all the tradesmen and farmers and small businesses who form the bedrock of the DUP, they will lose far more from a hard border than they’d ever hope to gain from smuggling.

        This might not be true of the Republican ex-paramilitaries: I hear that their commercial interests in the post-conflict environment are different – but I have no good sources for that and I do not think that they are quite as influential in the day-to-day business of politics. But they are rational, as you and I would understand the term, and very politically-astute.

        In any case, Westminster considers the DUP expendable – as are Ulster, and all the people in it – but essential for the continuance of Conservative government, for the time being.

        As long as they are rational enough to take the money and turn up to vote.

        The real danger is that they are not – I do not think that May has anyone who understands their mindset and could actually negotiate with them – and there is a significant danger that they were offered something publicly unacceptable, deplorable and unspeakable, in secret; or that they, with their differently-rational understanding of political negotiation, believe that such a thing was offered and accepted.

      2. Nile -

        Careful readers will notice that I tapped this out on a mobile phone, and that I should acknowledge the creative contribution (and capricious non-intervention) of the type-ahead spellchecker.

      3. Sean Danaher -

        Thanks for this a lot to think about
        If the Tories sell NI down the river and/or Brexit goes badly for NI the GFA allows for a border poll.
        The Republic’s economy is very strong and predicted to grow strongly over the next few years

        It is perfectly possible that a border poll in 2022 would go for a narrow United Ireland victory

        I’m worried all hell will break loose

      4. Nile -

        Indeed. Dublin knows this, and fears it. I expect some interesting proposals about a special status for the North: they can’t handle the DUP, and they know it.

        I cannot offer any insight into the behaviour of the Loyalists when they are finally and totally screwed over by Westminster and May.

      5. Sean Danaher -

        Indeed the Republic is very non militarised and would have to change very much towards the direction of a police state to cope with the loyalists
        I’m hoping to work towards a better historical prospective and will meet a historian in NI on Friday who has expressed interesrt

  4. Allen Bell -

    Oh the irony. Sean makes an excellent point about the level of subsidies going into NI from the UK as a whole and that NI is the poorest region of the UK.
    But when it comes to the EU, subsidies being its prime fiscal purpose, there is not a mention.
    Sean, please wake up, and judge the EU on what it does with the money it gets from the net contributors. It subsidies land owners, rural stuff, poorer regions, and the result – food security is unchanged, entrepreneurship is stifled, and the biggest recipient of the transfers ( Greece ) is still qualifying for the biggest transfers.

    1. Nile -

      Always interesting, hearing Greece brought up in the Brexit discussion.

      If there is a Socialist case for Brexit, it can be found in the appalling mishandling and mistreatment of an incompetent state: Greece and, to a lesser extent, Spain.

      And yet, Labour’s Leavers have nothing to say about this. It simply doesn’t seem to matter to them.

      I am curious as to why.

      1. Sean Danaher -

        The UK is not in the Euro which is the least democratic and badly though out part of the EU project
        Ireland was screwed as well but has an economy which is strong enough to cope
        The treatment of Greece was and stil is a disgrace

  5. Sean Danaher -

    An interesting debate to be had here
    The UK has for example one of the widest distributions of income by NUTS2 area in the EU

    Is London and the SE a boon to the UK or a parasite?

    Does subsidy produce a dependence culture? People compare NI to a adult who hasn’t left home and still relies on the parents

    I had a previous post on regional variations in GDP but on iPhone at present so a it constrained

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