Malachi O'Doherty: Question of identity poses as big a threat to UK politics post-Brexit as it does in Northern Ireland
Future Prime Ministers face the accusation of not being British enough to hold office, writes Malachi O'Doherty
I don't care very much whether we have same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. Well, I do, to a degree. Inasmuch as a few of my gay friends would like to see the change, I support them in that and wish them well. But same-sex marriage is not an issue which, on its own, would determine whether I voted for one party or another.
I feel more strongly about abortion, because the criminalisation of it locally causes suffering that people could be spared. As for an Irish Language Act, I can see that it might be a good idea, without denying my vote to any party that wouldn't support it. Why? Because there are bigger issues to think about. Not that these determine how most people vote in Northern Ireland.
But, throughout my whole lifetime, until now, British politics has been divided on the most important question politics could debate. Politics there has been real, focused on what matters.
On the one side - to be a little simplistic - we have a Tory option for business and the rich, and on the other we have the Labour option for the people.
Toryism, in its purist form, cuts taxes, cuts welfare and public spending and trusts that the free market will end poverty. This is an idea I fundamentally disagree with.
The fact is that capitalism concentrates wealth in the hands of the few and welfare cuts just leave people poorer. And this is happening at a time when capital investment goes more and more into the reproduction of money - ie gambling - and not into the creation of employment.
The Labour idea, in essence, is that the state should take seriously its responsibility for the weakest, should spend money on health, education, policing, infrastructure and things which we all need. I agree with that.
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I will happily pay higher taxes in order not to have to wait years for a hip replacement, or go private and pay the money anyway.
Both sides, of course, erode their conviction to their values when they are in competition with each other. We see that now with an election looming that the Tories suddenly promise big spending.
This is the most fruitful and relevant political debate any country can centre its energies on. This represents a struggle to maintain the wellbeing of the poor, to raise taxes and spend them for the good of all.
It holds in check those who only want to enrich themselves and counters the myth that they are doing us all a favour while they are at it. It also curtails the prospect of the big state that would homogenise and interfere too much.
By contrast, what do we focus on in Northern Ireland? Identity politics.
We have fallen for the trite nonsense that being British or Irish counts for more than having a health service that works and is not in perpetual decline; counts for more than schools having toilet paper.
The current deadlock which deprives us of devolution is over "equality" and the unionist commitment to equality is to be tested by their willingness to assent to a "standalone" Irish Language Act.
This is the politics of the inept and unworthy.
The DUP offer to restore devolution and have parallel negotiations to resolve the Sinn Fein complaints is perfectly sensible. I detest some of the policies of the DUP. I think they have been stupidly self-destructive in their pursuit of Brexit. But if that idea was put to a local referendum tomorrow, I would vote for it.
The tragedy that befell Northern Ireland is that the political parties that prevail do so by pegging their commitments to identity rather than to ideas of how they might increase the wellbeing of the people. There is a hierarchy of needs. The American psychologist Abraham Maslow described these for individuals, but we can transpose them onto societies.
The first needs of a society are that everyone is fed and sheltered, has a health service and an education and is protected by an efficient police service and a body of law.
Their identity concerns can come afterwards.
But, clearly, we have some people who think that identity comes first, that they would be better off starving on the street as Irish or British than have an ill-fitting identity, but still be able to feed their kids.
Take it from me, an Irish person living under British rule; it's not so bad. I can manage.
But what is truly appalling is that the idea that identity comes first is now infecting Britain as well. That's what Brexit is all about and the danger it creates is that political energy is distracted from the prior needs of human wellbeing, so that people can get puffed up about their separate nationalisms.
And who would that suit? Most of all, it would suit those who do not want their free market ideas held in check by political opposition.
We live in a time of enormous economic challenges, how to house the homeless, how to reconcile rising retirement ages with the disappearance of jobs through automation, how to continue to provide free healthcare and social care for the elderly, how to educate future generations for a world that is changing faster than they are growing up; how to avoid a massive war in the Middle East when Iran is clearly daring the US and Saudi Arabia to come and fight.
Now, we can have our eyes wiped by those who suggest that a rant by Sammy Wilson, or the question of whether Gerry Adams was in the IRA, are central concerns, even while waiting lists grow and the parties quarrel over a daft idea like Brexit.
The horror before us is that parties dividing on Brexit will retain that division beyond the final resolution. Just as our parties taunting us on identity find subsidiary issues like flags, parades, or bonfires, the Irish language and the commemoration of paramilitaries; just as they divide issues between them, like abortion and Israel, British parties will in future do the same.
Future candidates for Prime Minister will be accused of not being British enough and their more practical ideas - if they have any - won't merit consideration.
Then the corruption of politics by identity concerns and the evasion of responsibility by putting identity above everything else will lead to the same kind of neglect that prevails here, destroying the capacity for politics all over Britain to meet real material human needs.
Here we get away with it because the bills get paid anyway. When central government functions as we do, we are screwed.