Battle lines murky in upcoming diversion

Posted By: February 11, 2017

Patrick Murphy.Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, February 11, 2017

Isn’t it wonderful to see our politicians speechless? Of course, they are all talking, but none of them are actually saying anything because they find themselves contesting an election which has no purpose, no issues, and no interest.

Less than three weeks before polling day, we might reasonably expect arguments about the economy, education or health (you know, the things they discuss in other countries).

All we have had so far is sectarian banter and insult. Welcome to Election 2017, the poll which no one wanted and which no one knows what to do with now that we have it.

But all is not lost. We can use our politicians’ behavior to test an interesting political theory. First advanced in 2006 by US academic, WB Michaels, it argues that those in power highlight issues such as racism and sexism as a means of diverting the electorate from economic inequality. Here the list could presumably be extended to include identity, equality and even an Irish language act.

This is not to suggest that such issues are not important. They are, but Michaels argues that the most powerful people highlight such issues to retain power. For example, when a female banker earning a £1 million bonus is portrayed as a victory for women, it diverts attention from the immorality of merchant bankers’ bonuses.

You may find the theory somewhat challenging, but we can test it to some extent by examining the election campaign so far, particularly the first round of party election broadcasts.

The SDLP’s broadcast largely ignored economic inequality and urged us to “make change happen.” We need change that can unite us (in a sectarian Stormont?). It does not indicate whether this change will reduce the inequality endured by those who cannot afford private health care. But the SDLP still stands for “equality” and urges us to vote for parties which enjoy working together. (“Vote for political enjoyment.”)

The DUP promised a better society for everyone (and, in fairness, many people have bettered themselves under the DUP). Their first broadcast made no mention of economic inequality, particularly the inequality of the DUP’s academic selection policy. (Although they boasted about it in their second broadcast.) Instead, Arlene’s regal pose (she even had a small crown on her lapel) was highly personal, a bit like the Queen’s annus horribilis (horrible year) speech in 1992.

She asked us to support her, by voting DUP. (What do you think of the Michaels theory now?)

The UUP broadcast also tended towards the personal. “I will deliver a dynamic new Stormont,” said Mike Nesbitt. He sabotaged what was the most original party broadcast by stating that the problem with Stormont has been a lack of “chemistry” between the DUP and SF leadership. It may be the first time an electorate has been asked to vote for chemistry. (“What do we want?” “Chemistry!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”)

Alliance told us that this was our chance to “really change,” but there was no indication that change would reach as far as economic inequality.

Finally, Sinn Féin said that the election is about people, which was heartening. It mentioned education, the elderly, hospitals, and austerity. But it was a passing mention on the way to the main message of standing up against the DUP. With electoral support, the party can “fix the problem,” suggesting there is only one problem, but not telling us which one it had in mind.

The election broadcast said that Sinn Féin stands for equality, respect, and integrity. The Michaels theory would ask how standing for equality, for example, might alleviate child poverty in West Belfast.

Of course, the issues raised so far cannot be dismissed as unimportant. For example, an Irish language act would be very welcome (although this column would draw the line at giving rights to Munster Irish – but that’s just a grammatical thing.) However, in an economically unequal society, it would just mean that the unemployed could draw the dole in one of two languages.

So you can make your own mind up on the Michaels theory. He would probably argue that what we are holding is not so much an election, more a diversion. His views have been summarized as, “how we learned to love identity and ignore inequality.”

Of course, you might think that economic inequality is unimportant, or at least less important than issues such as respect (whatever it means).

Anyway, you could say, what does Michaels know about politics here? For all we know, he could be one of those anti-agreement elements. He might reply that you have just raised another diversionary issue.