Law of Unintended Consequences

Posted By: November 25, 2013

The Belfast columnist casts a weary eye over the Wee North.


Patrick Murphy. Irish News ( Belfast). Saturday,November 23, 2013
SHOULD paramilitary murals carry a health warning? You might think of including a phrase such as “Sectarianism kills”, “What about social and economic issues?” or even “Catch yourselves on”. Any of these would be helpful.

But this column would respectfully suggest that murals should include a more universal message: “health warning: any action can produce outcomes which you neither expect nor want.”

This is known as the law of unintended consequences, which states that our actions often produce unplanned outcomes. it is a law which mural supporters, flag protesters and politicians might usefully learn.

There are many different types of unintended consequences – and a variety of causes – and this country has seen them all. For example, the SDLP brought Sinn Fein in from the political cold. In doing so, it allowed Sinn Fein to replace the SDLP as the North’s leading constitutional nationalist party. That, presumably, was unintended – a side effect caused by short-term planning.

A second category of unexpected outcome is where an organisation aims to achieve an objective but achieves the exact opposite – usually through a lack of information or analysis.

The PIRA campaign of violence for a united Ireland, for example, produced the opposite outcome: permanent partition by consent.

The PIRA’s lack of political analysis was obvious from the start, but they were so keen to climb aboard the para-military bus that they failed to check where it was headed. So in effect, the disappeared died for Stormont. It has been hard to find an example to illustrate a third category of unintended outcome – until now. It occurs when action is taken to avoid an imaginary problem, but it then creates that problem in reality. Welcome to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Cast your mind back to 2007, when we had direct rule from London. (You must remember direct rule – it was when government worked.) The DUP and Sinn Fein were about to enter government together, but they needed a reason to do what was then unimaginable.

There were the usual arguments that direct rule was not responsive to local demands (yes, you may laugh) and that local politicians could tackle bread and butter issues (they tackled the bread and butter by eating it at Stormont).

But the parties’ overriding argument was that a reconvened Stormont was necessary to fill the political vacuum. If left unfilled this vacuum, we were told, would kill us all in our beds. (They did not actually say that, but you get the idea.) Nature, they claimed, abhors a vacuum.

No one ever explained what that meant. But never mind, it was the accepted wisdom of the day. (Accepted wisdom is rarely wise and should never be accepted.) In truth there was no political vacuum. Direct rule was not ideal, but it delivered decision-making outcomes. Now fast-forward to Stormont today where there are no decisions and no outcomes – what might be described as “a space entirely devoid of matter”. Scientists call that a vacuum.

So in trying to solve a problem which did not exist (if that makes sense), our politicians created what they intended to avoid. Few would disagree that Stormont is now exceedingly vacuous. This week, for example, Jim Allister asked why it had taken Nelson McCausland two years to reply to a tabled question. The Speaker’s response was that he should pursue the “procedural avenue” which, for all we know, may take another two years.

Ah but, you say, Richard Haass is here to tackle the vacuum. No, Mr Haass will address the vacuum’s symptoms -flags and parades – but not the disease itself. (The Attorney General has already solved the issue of the past on the basis that less history means less hassle. He has suggested we adopt the Khmer Rouge approach in Cambodia by saying that history began on an agreed date – in this case 1998. So forget about 2013, we are now in Year 15.)

Our problems stem from a system of government at Stormont which encourages inertia, and ultimately vacuum, by guaranteeing a veto for both sides. This consequence was not planned (although the risk was easy to foresee) but we must suffer under it. In the meantime those who advocate flags, parades, murals and even political “solutions” might learn that decisions without understanding can be counterproductive. Which is why we should remove our paramilitary murals and adorn our gable walls instead with a singe large inscription: “Remember the law of unintended consequences.” Richard Haass might also find it helpful as an opening remark in every session of his current discussions.