Abraham Lincoln said that the best way to predict the future is to create it. So would you care to predict what sort of future our politics is creating?
There is something we know to be true about politics and power in Northern Ireland.
The great ‘truth’ is this – the way to power and votes in Northern Ireland is to press the buttons of sectarianism and fear in your own people.
There was a time when the ability to press those buttons was about stirring people up to fight. Those days have passed but the temptation is still the same – to win by frightening your own people into ticking the right box in the polling booth.
The guns are more or less silent and pressing the buttons of fear and sectarianism is now a subtler affair. The key is deniability - to carefully calibrate the message to your own people but in a way that allows you to deny that you are using sectarianism and fear to bag votes.
Dog whistle politics is a type of political speech using code words that appear to mean one thing to the general population but have a different meaning for a targeted part of your audience. It is called dog-whistle politics because it means putting out a message that, like a high-pitched dog-whistle, is only fully audible to those at whom it is directly aimed.
We are stuck in a cycle of dog-whistle politics that can be broken in two ways:
By our political operators resisting temptation. Pressing the buttons of fear and sectarianism can be dressed up in the cutest PR. Saying no to pressing those buttons is about making a choice – that there is something more important than winning or not losing. That something is the common good.
By each of us choosing to grow up. Ron Heifetz says “In a crisis we tend to look for the wrong kind of leadership. We call for someone with answers, decision, strength and a map of the future, someone who knows where we ought to be going – in short, someone who can make hard problems simple. …. We should be calling for leadership that will challenge us to face problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions – problems that require us to learn new ways”.
Things in Northern Ireland are better than they used to be – but are they good enough? It needs politics beyond a place where the key skill on either side is the ability to gently blow on the embers of division – keeping them alive just enough to help us win, or at least not to lose?
Politics needs better oxygen than hatred. Have we the courage to choose more than sectarianism with a better class of PR?