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Billy King shares his monthly thoughts
A bird in the hand
I have done and seen many things in life on this island, some of which border on the surreal, though only on rarer occasions surreal on the border*. But I recently had the experience of shepherding a swan across a busy city street. Yes. It was on the north side of Dublin as three of us were cycling along after leaving a meeting to go to Chilli Banana in Drumcondra for a meal (and an aside - both myself and the person sitting beside me had different yellow curries which were both very good). As we came to the Royal canal, with busy traffic on a Saturday early evening, a swan started crossing the road. What to do? It was at risk of being seriously injured or killed by traffic - it might have been its swan song. We dismounted our bikes and tried to shepherd it back to the canal below on the side it was coming from.
The swan was obviously disoriented and seemed injured; they are not very gainly walkers anyway but it seemed to have more difficulty walking than it should. It clearly didn’t want to go back to the several swans on the canal bank there and seemed to be afraid of one of them, it is possible there had already been an altercation. The swan headed back in the direction of crossing the road at the bridge, so we flagged down traffic and accompanied it across; it knew what it wanted to do, even if it was disoriented. Acting as companions to a swan crossing a busy city road was indeed somewhat surreal. We left it on the canal bank the far side of the road.
A phone call was made to the ISPCA regarding an injured swan but I think that it being the weekend they had no flying squad to intervene at the time. I just hope that it was able to come to its senses more and recover. And as for the experience, well, people can truthfully accuse me of swanning about. And why did the swan cross the road? It was the chicken’s day off.
*And what about ‘surreal on the border’ (in the first sentence of this item)? Here’s one example. Travelling from Letterkenny to Derry in the mid to late 1970s, hitching as was my regular travel mode at the time, I came to the British side of the border on the Foyle-side road where a redeployment of the British army had just taken place – a fixed army checkpoint was no longer there. When they departed the squaddies had left a table with a white cloth and a sign saying “Turn off your headlights. Get out and search your car yourself”...
On good terms
Historical vicissitudes make for many geographical inexactitudes and anomalies. [Just swallow a big dictionary? - Ed] [I think you get what I mean - Billy] Those identifying as British in Northern Ireland, for example, don’t live in Britain. The USA isn’t even the largest country geographically in North America – Canada is just slightly larger in terms of area – and only one of 22 or so countries in ‘the Americas’ but it often proclaims itself, and is referred to as ‘America’, and its inhabitants as ‘Americans’. ‘Make America Great Again’; Chile, Argentina or the lot?
In Ireland things sometimes border on the ridiculous, pun intended, due to the two jurisdictions. ‘Northern Ireland’ is not the most northerly part of the island, that being Donegal in ‘the South’. But referring to Northern Ireland as that (its official name) makes more sense than referring to the 26 counties of the Republic as ‘the South’ since it includes the south, the west, the midlands, and a lot of the east, apart from, as already mentioned, the most northerly point. I would often use the affectionate and slightly jokey and colloquial term ‘Norn Iron’ in non-formal circumstances. Mind you, where ‘the Midlands’ in Ireland begin and ends is anyone’s guess. And the Irish for a province of Ireland (cúige) translates into English as ‘fifth’ since the term originated when there were five, with Mide/Meath being the extra one (look it all up – it’s quite a complicated historical picture with provincial boundaries and provinces themselves ebbing and flowing).
Referring to the ‘Six counties’ and the ‘Twenty-six counties’ is sometimes taken as republican terminology but it should not necessarily be so. ‘Ulster’ to refer to Northern Ireland, or indeed (though slightly less so) ‘the Province’ is a misnomer since half as many Ulster counties are in the Republic as in Northern Ireland; ‘Ulster’ for Northern Ireland tends to be loyalist/unionist usage. ‘Province’ in the context of ‘Ulster’ is thus incorrect and might only be correct if it was a ‘province’ of the UK but it is not – it is legally part of the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’. Using ‘the North’ as shorthand for ‘Northern Ireland’ is something quite commonly done but some loyalists might take exception.
Matters are complicated since the 26 county state refers to itself as Éire in Irish or Ireland in English. Calling the larger jurisdiction on the island ‘Ireland’ is reverse partitionist in that the state does not extend to north of the border, and this term ignores the existence of the border. I tend to use ‘the Republic’ for the 26 countries.
There are no easy answers. There are certain terms that are definite no no’s. Beyond that we have to muddle through and, as necessary, qualify or explain our use of particular terminology.
Democracy and what is deemocracy is a moot point, nowhere more so than in a place like Norn Iron which was created on the basis of a sectarian head count (this may seem damning but it is the truth). The ongoing struggle to produce a democratic and inclusive society in such a situation is a problematic one which these pages often grapple with. However on this occasion I wanted to go off piste (and not the other way around) and look at our neighbours east and west – Britain (to some extent ‘the UK’) and the USA.
One of the factors which I expect in any democratic system is a fairly close correlation between the number of votes cast for particular candidates and parties and the number of seat realised in any legislature or ‘the result’ in general. PR-STV, Proportional Representation by the Single Transferable Vote, as used in the Republic and North, fits that bill, particularly in 5 seater constituencies, in delivering a fairly close approximation between percentage of votes and seats. Ironically it was introduced to Ireland by the British government! They thought it was good for us but not good enough for themselves, but it has put down real roots here.
However in the USA we had Donald Trump elected as POTUS in 2016 with a couple of million votes less (nearly 3 million less) than Hillary Clinton because he had a majority in the so-called Electoral College. In systems which tend to emphasise decision making being exercised on 50% +1, I find that very strange. Trump got 46.1% of the vote and Clinton 48.2%. Also I don’t feel that 50% +1 being able to do what they want is democracy either. What is so magic about 50% or 50% +1? Nothing.
In the recent election Boris Johnston’s version of the Tory party romped home with just over 56% of the seats in the House of Commons....on 43.6% of the popular vote. I find that very strange but it is facilitated by the British ‘First Past The Post’ system which is the unfairest electoral system around, favouring the largest parties. And this was taken as validation of Boorish Boris’ Brexit policy.
And in that December 2019 general election the poor oul Lib Dems got 11.5% of the vote (an increase of 4.2%) but received only 11 seats – just under 1.7% of the seats, and a loss of 1 seat; another injustice of the First Past the Whipping Post electoral system. [In proofing this piece, my spell check gave me the option in relation to writing “Lib Dems” for “Liberal Democrats” the option to ‘Ignore Once’; I thought the option to ‘Ignore all the time’ would be more fitting, given the British electoral system for Westminster.......] The SNP/Scottish National Party, however got 48 seats on 3.9% of the vote because their vote was concentrated in only Scottish constituencies compared to the Lib Dems who were ‘all over the place’.
My verdict: gerrymandering is alive and well – given the failure to address these issues in the countries concerned.
Hearing recently of someone’s redundancy from a post in the community and voluntary sector made me ponder a couple of things, my own experiences of said phenomenon, and secondly what positive guidelines could I give to an organisation which is making someone redundant. I had two experiences of being made redundant in one decade, both jobs were ‘permanent’ and ones which I had expected to last me. It is difficult to give ‘positive guidelines’ for what is a profoundly negative experience but I will try. Redundancy is a very conflictual and stressful situation and dealing with it well is vital.
My experience, again, is within the community and voluntary sector where jobs can be even more precarious than in some profit making sectors, but most of what I say applies there as well. This short piece is a bit specialist but I hope it may be of interest and use to some. Where I feel it is appropriate, I include some personal experience to elucidate the points made.
This is intended as advice for management boards and committees and those tasked with what (should be) the difficult task of making someone(s) redundant. We are all human and for an organisation to survive and do its work it may need to make redundancies though prudent management will avoid this as much as possible; the decision may be a difficult angst-inducing one for a committee or board to make. Unfortunately, shit does happen, sometimes totally out of the control of those who are tasked with dealing with the repercussions.
Anyway, here goes my advice. A caveat is that my experience was in the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland and the legal situation in the Republic or elsewhere may be different. This piece also relates to ‘no fault redundancy’ rather than someone being dismissed for contravening their terms of employment.
1. Adhere to the law. If uncertain about your obligations, seek advice from those who know, and have been involved in such a process. The law in Norn Iron includes offering other work that is going in the organisation to the employee (that they could do); the employee is not obliged to accept it.
2. Adhering to the law should not prevent you dealing with the situation in as humane and employee-friendly a way as possible. The fear of ‘doing something wrong’ may prevent a human approach to the matter but if it is not easy for you, think of what it is like on the other side of the table for the person being made redundant.
3. Make the offer of a ‘support person’ for the employee being made redundant. Their role needs to be clear. They should have a pastoral responsibility to the employee and are not ‘a spy’ for the management. They would only relay information to management with the agreement of the employee. If they let slip something to management which the employee did not want shared they should tell the employee and apologise. They should be someone not involved in the redundancy decision but who could be trusted by both sides.
4. If it can be done, the possibility of redundancy should be broached with an employee prior to any decision. This is a difficult area and you don’t want an employee living in a state of permanent anxiety. But if there is any possibility at all of avoiding redundancy then I would suggest the subject is broached with the employee some months before any notice needs to be given. The employee can then be invited to suggest and explore whether any possibilities exist of tweaking their job so they can continue in employment, or of finding funding for the job to continue. This is ‘bringing on the angst’ earlier but it is sharing and caring, and allows the employee to start considering employment options. It is also treating the employee as an adult human being.
5. Know your employee before you decide to make them redundant (you should know them anyway). In one of my experiences of redundancy, those making the decision neither knew me nor what I did and my line manager had moved on – the five-minute ‘job review’ that took place cannot be considered to count since it only established the ‘heads’ of what I worked on, which they already knew, not what I actually did in the job or what I was capable of. I heard at the end of the process that they expected me to be more angry than I was at the redundancy – which was an aspect of not knowing me. They certainly did not know that I was someone who is a trained mediator and someone who deals with conflict issues outside of that employment, and I channelled my anger, partly into informing them what they should have done..... This knowledge is to the benefit of both sides.
6. Be as honest with the employee as possible. I was told in one case that my redundancy was because “there is no work for you to do” when the reason was financial – and the latter would have been much easier for me (or anyone) to take.
7. Ascertain the extent to which the employee wants openness. In my experience as a person being made redundant I would have much preferred the fact of my prospective redundancy to be known within the organisation. The fact that it wasn’t put me in totally humiliating positions, as when a treasurer announced in a large AGM that “steps are being taken to deal with the deficit” - where my redundancy was the primary ‘step’. I was standing there wishing the ground would swallow me up while trying to act professionally; that was difficult and very painful and I was made to feel not just invisible but a line in a balance sheet rather than a human being. Secrecy may have been operated in theory to ‘protect’ me; it did the opposite, it humiliated me.
If openness is agreed then this includes subsequent reports which could read something like “We very much regret that for financial reasons Billy King was made redundant from their post during the year; we are sorry to see them go and thank them for their valuable service over xx years in the organisation, in various roles, and we wish them well for their future employment”. In my case, what was said was the euphemistic “Billy King left the organisation during a period of reorganisation” which I consider borders on a lie. If in doubt, ask what the employee or ex-employee wants.
8. Consider the sequencing of events in relation to the redundancy and meetings where relevant topics may come up (cf No.7) to minimise pain and embarrassment for the employee. Liaise with them about their exit and whether it is appropriate to have any appreciation of their work in the organisation in terms of an event - the employee may not want it in the circumstances. And if the employee asks for anything reasonable, e.g. to be informed of a decision immediately after it was made, then that should if possible be honoured - and not forgotten about as happened to me in one case, causing considerable distress given the timing and circumstances.
9. Don’t make promises about the continuation of the work which you cannot honour and keep. This point relates very much to community and voluntary posts, and not so much to profit making sectors. In my second experience of redundancy, where the organisation itself was becoming insolvent and winding up, board members promised that they would themselves follow up on various aspects of work – and nothing at all happened. They did have some initial exploration at the time of the announcement but everything slipped into a great big void and absolutely zero happened subsequently.
10. When possible, do keep in conversation and touch with the employee during the redundancy process, both about the work (possibly the ‘wrapping up’) and how they are, without cutting across the role (No.3 above) of a ‘support person’ to the employee.
11. Do offer a reconciliation meeting or meetings at the end of the redundancy process. I think very highly of the one person involved in my first redundancy who offered this of their own accord, which I availed of, to talk about it all in a cafe for three quarters of an hour or so. In my second case I did eventually get a meeting but only about the redundancy process and there was a refusal to discuss the matters which led to the redundancy; it was not what I wanted but better than nothing.
12. Those in the organisation who may be less, or not at all, involved with the redundancy process, whether they agree with the redundancy or not, and who know or have worked with the redundant person should get in touch to wish them well. This is in a way an extension of No.2 above. It is again an exercise in common humanity and concern which many may avoid because they are afraid of stepping on toes or causing embarrassment. The alternative is the employee feeling even more isolated than they are going to anyway; they need all the good wishes they can get.
The main point in all this is that legalities do not preclude humanity, and as much honesty as possible is usually the best policy. Redundancy is one of the more stressful and conflictual situations that can face us in life. Combining doing it with both full legal compliance and maximum humanity can ensure that it is done with the least discomfort for all concerned, whatever the reasons for the redundancy itself.
Well, there you have it. Onwards and upwards towards spring, the days can be seen to be lengthening which is great. See you in a month, Billy.
Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman
pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little
about horses even if someone with a similar name is
found astride them on gable ends around certain parts
of Norn Iron).