Friday, October 28, 2005

Constructive ambiguity

Bloggers, generally, appreciate the power of words. Powerful men from Alexander the Great to Adolf Hitler, from Machiavelli to Abraham Lincoln, have all been skilled at using words to further their ends. Words can be chosen to lift people's spirits, or they can be selected with care to injure and demean. Either way, they usually work.

For me, Phrase of the Year 2004 was "Constructive Ambiguity". It's nothing new of course, but the description had a new lease of life during the political negotiations held late last year at Leeds Castle in Kent, 'mediated' by that great wordsmith of our age, Tony Blair, and his happy band of hacks-turned-manipulators.

CA is no stranger within British-Irish politics. For example:
"Certainly, Dr Paisley sir, I will never force the people of Northern Ireland to join the Republic while the majority of those in the Province oppose it".
Ten minutes later in another room:
"Indeed, Gerry mate, 50% plus one vote, and the British partition of Ireland is history".

Beautiful, eh? Two statements which aren't in conflict with each other in any way: two sides of the same coin, the same logic expressed differently - and presented in a way each audience just wanted to lap up. Slurp.

Trouble is, as well as being conveyors of meaning, the same words can also impose limitations - but of course in the world of constructive ambiguity the words have to be so emotive, so tempting, so desirable as to blind the hearer to the steel fence being erected around him. The abhorrent thing about constructive ambiguity is its deliberate manipulation. Indeed, the very phrase itself has been crafted to sound upbeat and wholesome. Desirable even.

Closer to home: a description of Cavan/Monaghan TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin as "Sinn Féin Dáil leader". Interesting use of phrasing. No untruths in there - he's an SF member, he sits in Dáil Éireann, and yes, he's the leader of his (5-strong) parliamentary party (which is barred from joining in parliamentary debates) - but ambiguous in that it sounds as though a Sinn Féin member is leader of the nation's parliament. Motives aren't my business, but certainly the ambiguity cuts in a direction the party might appreciate - unlike, say, "Sinn Féin's leader in the Dáil" which cruelly robs the reader of any scope for (mis)interpretation.

Of course, I'm no better. Yes, the Big Ulsterman's not above a bit of the old CA himself. I am, it's true, not small (more tending towards "a cloud comes over the sun" actually), yet I want to be Big and to encourage you to be Big. And I've deliberately chosen "Ulsterman" as a monicker palatable to all traditions, i.e. Ulster as one of the four ancient provinces of our great nation, because I know that 'Northern Ireland', 'the North' and 'Six Counties' are all labels loaded with their own versions of prejudice if used in the wrong way. And although I want to speak the truth plainly, I don't want to offend. I want to build.

Ironically, that's probably what Tony would say.


At 11:30 a.m., Blogger Parsifal said...

legal speak isn't it BU
I once heard gov't ministers talking about: "taking a flexible approach to a rigid policy".
Laughable if it wasn't so serious.
They make it up as they go along to cover their sorry asses!

At 4:21 p.m., Blogger Chris Gaskin said...

Occupied 6 counties

Now that pisses off Unionism ;)

I either call it the 6 counties or the North.

At 10:14 p.m., Blogger B.U. said...

OK. One-all, Chris ;-)
Have a good weekend. BU.

At 9:55 p.m., Anonymous Brian Boru said...

In my personal experience, most people here in the South call it "The North". The next most used term is "Northern Ireland". However I must confess that I have hardly ever heard it referred to as "Ulster" because we see that term as referring to the Nine Counties and as such, calling the Six Counties "Ulster" would feel to me like consigning Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan to provincial limbo which they would not like. Personally I usually refer to it as "Northern Ireland" or the "Six Counties". Sorry John. Plz forgive me :)

At 7:04 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its like being in primary school,people trying to score petty points , annoying the other side by calling it the "North" or "the six counties".


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