From free will to the Good Friday Agreement

You may not have heard it – you may have been busy greasing the cat’s boil or doing some equally useful work  – but Monday morning last callers to The Stephen Nolan Show  on BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh were discussing free will. “Eh?” you say. “A free will phone-in on a Monday morning? Bit airy-fairy, that”.

Well no, not really. You see the issue under discussion was whether there should be a ban on smoking in cars. Nobody was saying it’s good to blow smoke into the lungs of your children in a confined space; the debate was whether not doing so should be left to our own free will or whether there ought to be a law.

Big issue, that, because it boils down to whether we believe doing the right thing is best left to each individual or whether the state through its laws should pressure us into doing the right thing.

What do I think? Well, let me first point you to two public issues that have undergone a total transformation in my lifetime.

The first is smoking. When I was young, everybody smoked. The school I went to even had a special shed for us Big Boys  (15 and older) where we allowed to stand and suck on our Gallahers Blues or Sweet Aftons. As young adults, when you went into somebody’s house, you automatically reached for the fags, passed them round. We smoked in cars, in houses, writing, playing poker, on the toilet, in the pub. If we could have smoked while asleep we would have.  We knew it was damaging us (we even called them ‘coffin nails’). And now? All changed. Now the few who still smoke stand huddled outside buildings, indulging their vice  and looking miserable.

The other big change has been in drink-driving. When I first got my licence, the guy who could lower six or eight pints and then drive home was not exactly a hero but certainly no villain. He was a laugh, that’s what he was. A rogue. Wobbling all over the place, God, did you see him! The notion of phoning for a taxi just because you were half-cut would have sounded like the actions of a madman. All changed.  Now, anybody who drinks and drives is seen as a public menace who deserves the stiffest of sentences and his licence revoked.

In both cases, the public opinion turnaround didn’t happen because it was left to people’s free will – laws were passed  that forebade smoking in pubs and restaurants, other laws were passed which said that if you drank and got caught behind a car wheel,  you’d be a sorry boy or girl. The laws acted as a kind of scaffolding that made public opinion turnaround possible.

And in politics? Well the Alliance Party, bless their little cotton socks, have historically urged us all to be nicer to one another – Trevor Ringland’s “one small step” philosophy would eventually lead us away from separateness and sectarianism. Nice idea. But it took the muscle of the McBride principles to persuade employers to end discrimination, it took laws against incitement to religious hatred to damp down the uberbigots,  it took a minimum-wage law to make sure employers paid their workers half-properly.  Once the law’s in place, of course, people begin to see that decent pay and non-sectarianism and not poisoning ourselves make sense. Social responsibility grows after legal protection has allowed it to emerge.

Otherwise there are always excuses, aren’t there? Left to our own devices, the drag is downward – we opt for the easy, the self-pleasuring option. Only after we’ve had a law passed that protects us from our worst impulses does the public mood change.

But here’s the bad new, politically speaking. The Good Friday Agreement says that there’ll be a constitutional change here only when a majority in the north want it. In the end, the Agreement leaves an end to partition and its attendant absurdities to a change of political thinking by a sizeable number of unonists. 

Do you see signs that, thirteen years after the Agreement, unionists have started to stop puffing the political fag in confined spaces or driving the political car while legless? Can’t say I’ve noticed it myself.  

8 Responses to From free will to the Good Friday Agreement

  1. PJDorrian November 18, 2011 at 8:57 am #

    spot on jude

  2. Anonymous November 19, 2011 at 9:31 am #

    My god you just get worse Jude…so correct me if I’m wrong,what you are saying is that unionists are stupid people who cannot see the sense in a united Ireland and should be forced through legislation to see sense.
    Just in your analogy of the errant drink driver,idiotic behaviour and thinking until corrected by law making.

    Your thinking and logic is stunningly naive and insulting.

  3. Jude Collins November 19, 2011 at 10:18 am #

    Anon 9:31 – I’m sorry if you take insult. I believe that unionism is damaging its adherents as well as its opponents – in short all of the people of Ireland. I’m observing that there is no law/scaffolding that encourages/pressures unionists to move from their present state. I presume you’d agree with me in my second sentence and that you’d allow me my opinion in my first? When I express a view, I don’t ask people to agree with it. In fact, if everyone did, I’d be seriously worried.

  4. Anonymous November 19, 2011 at 11:18 am #

    The question here is lack of empathy. You would be outraged by the suggestion that republicanism damages Northern Ireland and should be discouraged through legislation. Yet it does not even seem to have occurred to you to place yourself on the other side of an argument before launching into it. In fact your allusion to unionists lacking the free will to recognise their own stupidity suggests you do not even really see them as fully human.
    Putting myself in your position, I suppose you will claim you are too psychologically damaged by partition to project a theory of mind.
    Others might simply say you’re a bigot.

  5. Anonymous November 19, 2011 at 11:47 am #

    I don’t dispute your right to have an opinion,god we would really be in trouble if that was the case.
    No I question your blinkered and narrow minded opinion,I guess what people like yourself just dont get is the fact that we perceive ourselves as British,in your world it might be all ok if we could just dislodge those nasty Brits and then these silly prods would finally see how much better they would be in a United Ireland.
    The problem is I’m the British presence in Ireland not Owen Patterson with his clipped home counties accent.
    You talk of no leverage to dislodge unionists,but why should there be…sinn fein can put their arguments and unionists can either agree or not…thats democracy I believe
    While I’m at it why would unionists want to join a bankrupt nation…go on sell me the benefits Jude

  6. Jude Collins November 19, 2011 at 1:26 pm #

    Anon 11:18 – Let’s get the last point out of the way first: name-calling is pointless, silly and discourteous. Please, no more.

    Now. I would not be outraged by the suggestion that republicanism damages NI. I know lots of people think it does and they’re entitled to their opinion and to express it. I did not suggest unionism should be discouraged through legislation: I observed that the unionists (and nationalists/republicans) were left as individuals to decide re constitutional position. I think they should be encouraged to look at it and question it, and that there’s nothing in legislation which requires them to do so. That’s all. You really mustn’t put words in my mouth.
    You’re missing the point if you think I was calling unionists stupid – in fact you’re dreaming up something I didn’t say or imply. Because I disagree with unionists doesn’t mean I think they’re stupid. Do you think nationalists/republicans are stupid because they disagree with you? I hope not.
    I don’t know what ‘a theory of mind’ means so you’re right, I wouldn’t know how to project it. But I’m perfectly capable of empathy and I do exercise it, in politics and in life. That doesn’t mean I agree. Empathy: one word. Agree: another word. Simple, really.
    I welcome your thoughts, Anon, but I will insist on no more name-calling.

  7. Jude Collins November 19, 2011 at 1:40 pm #

    Anon 11:47 – I’d refer you to what I said to 11:18 re name-calling. Now, as to your points. I do indeed believe unionists see themselves as British and I think you know I do. I do believe that Irish people should be grown-up and left to run their own affairs, rather than have the next door neighbour do so – whether that’s Westminster or Brussels – and I don’t think of unionists as ‘silly prods’ at all – see previous comment to your fellow-Anon – but yes, I think the unionist people would ultimately be better off contributing to the running of Ireland. I don’t see you as a problem at all but I do see Owen Paterson, as representative of HM Government, coming over here and overseeing our affairs, as regrettable, let’s say. I suspect again that you are aware of that distinction between unionists and British ministers, etc. ‘No leverage’ – etc – yes, you’re right, there isn’t; and since I’d like to see unionists move to fresh thinking on the subject of governing themselves, I’d welcome leverage (but no, I haven’t worked out what that might be – wish I had). But politics works through leverage, as you probably know, both at domestic and international level. As to the advantages of ‘joining a bankrupt nation’ – I don’t see a united Ireland as the six counties in the north attaching themselves to the 26 in the south, allowing themselves to be somehow subsumed, consigned to a similar fate. God forbid. But I think that working together, the Irish people north and south could produce something a lot lot better than presently exist on either side of the border. When you mix colours you get a new colour.
    I really must discipline myself or I’ll get nothing else done beyond responding to commenters such as yourself, Anon; but again, I genuinely welcome debate and challenge, as long as that’s done in a reasonably courteous and friendly way.

  8. writers company November 21, 2011 at 2:20 pm #

    U would be outraged by the suggestion that republicanism damages Northern Ireland and should be discouraged through legislation.