A brief coffee time review of 2023, before the return of real politics in 2024?

In a year in which we seem to have gone from Storm Ciarán to Storm Pia in the blink of an eye, the changeable weather elsewhere barely seems to have touched the deadlock of NI politics.

In a February edition of The Irish News there’s an editorial that reads, Moment of truth nearing or Donaldson, just ahead of the announcement of the Windsor Framework [Was that this year? – Ed].

By any measure that moment of truth is still to arrive. Some wise bods, closer to the scene than me still believe a deal will come not long into the new year, but I’ll reserve my judgements till I see movement.

However, I believe that beneath the headlines, things are shifting. The year began with a peaceful hand over of power between the joint heads of a coalition many commentators did not think would last a year.

I noted that political analysis often falls down an instrumentalist hole of its own making, amplified by an dependence on plotting data points on the two or three regular polls to predict an unknowable future.

My polymath Swedish friend, John Kellden has noted “slow knowledge flows are optimal. Slow begets vibrant and resilient organising”. Do everything at speed, and we lose touch with what’s important.

So I try to slow the whole story gathering business down so as to make better judgements about what’s actually true and what’s just someone else’s cynical, one eyed corporatised/politicise message.

Another issue I touched on in January is how lack of accountability leads not just to poor government, but for five out of the last seven years no government at all. [See also US House of Representatives – Ed]

Lack of accountability emerged in a damning report on the record of Invest NI, treated by successive Economy Ministers as a cash cow for good PR and photo ops rather than shaping economic opportunity.

Polls fell and interest rates rose but so did investment in housing and infrastructure. House building may prove critical next year. As Munchau said “it is not the debt that is the problem, but what you do with it.”

The marketing prowess of Ireland’s Future ensured a United Ireland was a constant throughout the year. But Fintan O’Toole had a point when he argued that many advocates were also opponents of change:

Those who want unity the most seem to see it is an extension of sameness: the North essentially dissolves into the South. But the survey shows how very far from Irish reality such an assumption remains. Any honest discussion of unity has to start with the acknowledgment of very profound differences.

In February the unionist legal challenge to the Protocol failed, and Chris Heaton Harris changed the law, sparing us an Assembly election for another year (almost up). Then my old mucker Henry died.

Then in March the Protocol’s lovechild, the Windsor Framework arrived, and was almost as quickly forgotten (along with a whole bunch of other recent relics). [New Decade, New Approach anyone? – Ed.]

Bertie Ahern emerged to explain patiently (Bertie has long been clear on the need for practical north south cooperation) why not even a Sinn Féin led government will lead to a border poll.

Oh, then there was the Twitter spun controversy of Linikergate, remember that?? Oh, and questions in the house over Sinn Féin’s long record of dodgy harvesting of public cash for party political purposes.

In winning a second Grand Slam in five years, Ireland rugby team gave a thoroughly convincing and authentic representation of, as Sam McBride put it in the Sindo, a country that doesn’t exist. Go figure?

In Scotland, SNP members chose Nicola Sturgeon’s successor as leader in what was at times a chaotic competition. One of Sawar’s rivals, Ash Regan subsequently defected to Alex Salmond’s Alba Party.

The 25th Anniversary of the Belfast Agreement passed without its democratic institutions sitting, so the Biden visit was low key and retrospective. There was, though, this fascinating 25 challenges for unionism pamphlet.

The news came later, ie that the new Casement Park would be built, with its massively increased budget almost certain to be funded through the largesse of the British government in time to host the Euros.

In the south, the new Finance Minister (and the first Fianna Fáil one since 2011) Michael McGrath announced a new national wealth fund for the Republic. Believe me, this is one to watch for in future.

In May Newton Emerson wrote that “there is quite a difference between proclaiming a triumph over unionism and a triumph over Northern Ireland itself”. Others now have the casting/blocking vote.

In June, I upset a few residents when I argued that President Higgins’ intervention on the Department of Foreign’s attempt at an open discussion of Irish foreign policy was half baked, and cranky.

Far more serious (and disturbing) was the Once Upon A Time in Northern Ireland documentary series. Moving, re-humanising and at times almost unbearable to watch. It got to places few others have.

In July came verification of Onora O’Neill’s idea that ‘lawless’ thinking is no more than babble’,with news from the University of Liverpool that contrary to the slick marketing demography is not bringing the island closer.

Whoops, and we’ve passed Peak Catholics, and Britishness still predominates in Northern Ireland. If it seems too good to be true then that’s probably because it isn’t.

In October, I read (and listened to) Máiría Cahill’s amazing feat of memory, courage, patience and in some instances forgiveness. Anyone who considers themselves a student of Irish politics should read it.

There was news that some 400 investigations into deaths in the RUC/Troubles era would be ended, leaving only about 50 still on the Police Ombudsman’s books through the passing of a law in September

This week Dublin’s resort to international law was greeted as seismic. But this exhausting, decades long process for some (victims of non state actors had no such recourse) is now indefinitely paused.

By November we arrived where we started the year, with the ceaseless demands for instant responses that Twitter and other forms of social media throw at us, that are making us stupider as a society.

And that’s all from me for 2023. Huge thanks to Brian O’Neill, without whom we’d be lost. He’s the life force behind this remarkable project to bring independent and sceptical take on NI politics to the world.

And thank you to all our donors, partners and advertisers. Particularly the regulars and those generous individuals who support us with one off donations. It all helps us to validate our efforts on your behalf.

I used to jokingly say to friends in old days, when the running costs mostly fell on my own domestic budget, the price of independence is eternal poverty. Your generosity means that’s no longer quite true.

But our independence matters. It allows us to go to places and say things out loud that others find difficult. We can be experimental and genuinely pluralist in bringing in new voices. So, thank you.

And see you in 2024… with the multitude of elections coming up, it is certain to be a year of change. I hope Slugger will help see you through it all, if only to prove to yourselves you’re not the mad ones.

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