Summary of Belfast Telegraph Articles on changing Northern Ireland politics

Last Week’s series of articles in the Belfast Telegraph made very interesting reading.  I have digested what was written and attempted to put some sort of view, on the basis of commonality between the Articles, on what might happen going forward. 

Throughout living memory, Northern Ireland elections have been dominated by tribal headcounts.  In the recent general election, it had the lowest turnout for any region at the General Election (57.6% as against the UK average of 65.1%).  The low turnout has been correctly identified by Professor Rick Wilford as a sign of disillusion.  Northern Ireland politicians now face their toughest challenge – how to tackle the serious public spending squeeze.  The next Assembly Elections threaten to be dominated by the issue of who becomes the first Minister.  As Owen Polley put it, this could be a “headcount to end all headcounts.” 

That is the backdrop against which the guest writers of the Belfast Telegraph were invited to set out their vision on how the status quo of Northern Ireland Politics would change.  David Gordon also invited commentary on the following wider issues:

  • Does Assembly politics have to be locked in the unionist/nationalist pattern, given that the consent principle was enshrined in the Belfast and St Andrew’s agreements? The consent principle means the border question is primarily for a referendum to decide — not elections.
  • If elections are not about voting parties in — and out — of power on the basis of their social and economic platforms, how will politicians be held to account for their handling of the looming public spending crisis?
  • Can the Stormont system — with its mandatory coalition, all the main parties in power and no one in opposition — be reformed without undermining key parts of the overall political settlement?
  • Does having a political system enmeshed in tribal division hold Northern Ireland back economically and help project a damaging image to the outside world and potential investors?

As you would expect from these articles, there was a strong correlation between the political interests of the authors and their proposals for moving Northern Ireland forward.  The four main parties in Northern Ireland have the most to lose from a fundemental shift from identity/sectarian politics to bread and butter issue/normal politics.  That is why I start with the articles written by the academics. 

Professor Rick Wilford has said that the context [of problems facing Northern Ireland Government] will shape the context of our electoral debate. 

“Hence, the key strategic issue for all parties is whether they can rise to the challenge of relative public spending famine and display an even stronger unity of purpose than that exhibited in the wake of the dissident republican outrages.”

In my previous post, I have provided a suggestion which, if followed, could result in the transformation of the Northern Ireland economy.   That would involve an exceptional degree of unity of common purpose.  It is hard to see how that could happen.

Professor Wilford thinks there may be an opportunity for shared platform involving the UUP, SDLP and Alliance Parties whereby a campaign can be designed upon common ground politics.  He says:

“Devising a campaign on common, cross-community ground rather than, in the UUP’s and the SDLP’s case, diving for cover into their respective communal trenches would herald a decisively new kind of politics”

The biggest obstacle to achieving this is Education.  The UUP supports academic selection.  The SDLP and the Alliance Party oppose it.  Moreover, the Alliance Party want segregated schools.  The SDLP would probably oppose this bearing in mind that the Catholic Church vehemently opposes joint faith schools, let alone any proposal which would lead to secularization in schools. 

Even more “game-changing,” he maintains, would be the preparedness of a unionist MLA to serve alongside Martin McGuiness as a deputy.   There is little chance of that happening.  Realistically, the DUP is almost certain to be the largest unionist party.  They have already stated they would not be prepared to nominate a deputy FM.

Dr. Peter Shirlow’s piece is about the disaffected people from the Unionist community who did not vote at the last election (some 45% of them).  He divides these people into two groups.  The first group (the working class with a unionist background) do not have their interests (for example, poverty and poor educational outcomes) represented by either unionist party.  The second group (non-voting middle classes) have their reasons for not voting UUP or DUP stated as follows:

“Among them is a significant group from the liberal left who find the religiosity of the DUP and the conservatism of the UUP plainly unattractive.

“Their unionism is merely defined by an appreciation that Irish unification would undermine their economic status.”

“Such persons have no desire for a unionism that does not support equality, the delivery of mutual consent and the advancement of non-sectarian values.”

“These silent non-voters have an altered consciousness about what is right and what they desire, but they will never flock to the nationalist/republican cause.”

Dr. Shirlow asks

“What have the two main [unionist] parties to offer the secular, progressive and non-traditional unionists who seek the delivery of change, the building of inter-community partnership and the cessation of the politics of fear?”

Dr. Shirlow concludes that the disaffected unionists probably can not be won back.  Why would these disaffected voters not be interested in voting for the Alliance Party? 

As if to answer the question, Robin Wilson says:

“If the sectarians and made-over paramilitaries among Northern Ireland’s political elite assume they can pull out votes by constraining choice and exploiting fears, there were signs in the Westminster election of a more democratic and assertive politics, and a more future-oriented rearrangement of the political furniture.”

“Having proved a mayor for all the people of Belfast, Naomi Long provided the election shock in defeating the DUP leader, Peter Robinson, in the east of the city, drawing out a dormant Northern Ireland Labour vote — enraged by the ‘Swish Family Robinson’ and their links with developers — for Alliance.”

In response to the prospect of unionist “unity” Wilson, pointing to the failure of an agreed “unionist unity” candidate to win Fermanagh and South Tyrone, argues that this concept has already fallen at its first hurdle.  A merger or pact of some sort between the UUP and the DUP following leadership elections is still possible. 

Liam Kennedy believes that if there was such a merger,

“…the results might well be less than the sum of its parts.  The deep distaste some voters feel for the DUP, its Paisleyite legacy, would be likely to translate into further declines of the unionist turnout.”

If a monolith unionist block was created and if a Nationalist block was to emerge in response to it, Kennedy reckons that the result would be a strengthening of the Alliance Party. 

As you would expect, DUP supporters do not see a problem with Unionist Unity.  Lee Reynolds does not believe it is a problem so long as it is shaped to “moving out beyond the city walls” rather than to “re-inforce the ramparts”

Chris Donnelly has a similar view for the development of Nationalism.  He says:

“The challenge facing Irish nationalism today is to present a coherent vision for the future which begins to strike a chord with some within the broad unionist community and others from the small but growing non-aligned section in our society.” 

Like Mr. Reynolds, his solution is to develop more attractive policies.  He says this:

“…what is required is for nationalism to articulate and begin to create the shared and equal society which openly and willingly accommodates the distinctive and shared aspects to our identities, whilst developing and implementing cogent policies and strategies capable of proving that an all-Ireland future can be constructed which makes tangible differences to the lives of all of the island’s inhabitants.”

Both Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Donnelly are effectively looking to keep identity politics going while “reaching out to the other side.”  This is the stuff of fantasy.  Tribal politics will not end by one tribe achieving electoral conquest over the other.

Colin McDevitt of the SDLP begins his piece by attacking the dominant parties within tribal politics as being extremist.  He takes a pot shot at Sinn Fein for their IRA links.  He also criticizes the DUP/Sinn Fein axis for squeezing them out of contention for the Justice Ministry.  This is now looking like a lingering SDLP grudge.  His party needs to move on from old issues if they wish to be taken seriously, within the Nationalist community. He calls for unionism to “come to the table” and talk about issues that matter.  Effectively, he wants to see all the parties working harmoniously together. 

If power sharing actually worked, that is what should be happening.  Ministries have become fiefdoms and the Executive, as a unit, is highly dysfunctional.  There might be some degree of working together only when matters reach a crisis (as suggested by Professor Wilford in relation to the looming relative public spending famine).  Otherwise, there is no concept of collective responsibility.  Mr. McKevitt has failed to address that problem.

Owen Polley, an Ulster Unionist blogger, does recognize that problem.  He calls for an end to mandatory coalition.  He says

“A voluntary coalition government, with cross-community safeguards, is an alternative model which attracts unionists, and even Mark Durkan, the former SDLP leader, has spoken in its favour. But it is also undeliverable in the short-term.” 

Polley recognizes that this is undeliverable in the short term.  Changing the current power-sharing system requires cross-community consent.  That is unlikely to be forthcoming from Sinn Fein. 

Voluntary opposition, which is favoured by Basil McCrea, a contender for the UUP leadership, would take some of the dysfunction out of the Executive and inject an element of normality to politics.  It would be more effective if the UUP and the SDLP did that together.  With only 9 months to go before the next Assembly election, such a move is unlikely to be electorally beneficial. 

This is something that both the UUP and the SDLP should seriously consider doing in the best interests of Northern Ireland.  Such a gambit would dovetail neatly with Professor Rick Wilford’s idea of a shared platform (see above).

Naomi Long’s article is entitled “Mending our divided society makes sense economically.”  It sounds spookily similar to the Conservative Policy theme “Mending a broken society.”  The thrust of her post was that people don’t want sectarian politics any more.  She says:

“Those with whom I have spoken, both during and since the election, are less interested in the power struggles within and between unionism and nationalism than they are in the current economic challenges facing us all.”

That may even be true but how do you encourage voters to vote along non-sectarian lines? 

Robin Wilson said that some of her Ms. Long’s vote in East Belfast was a drawing out of a dormant Northern Ireland Labour vote.  Most of it, though, seems to have been a protest vote against the conduct of Peter Robinson and his wife combined with the fact that Ms. Long, as Belfast’s new Mayor, is now a big name.  Noticeably, all other DUP MPs held on to their seats. 

As Ms. Long says, the Alliance Party is about to celebrate its 40th Birthday.  It is a genuine cross-community party.  Why then has it not yet hit double – digit figures in the elections (other than in East Belfast)?

In fairness to Ms. Long, it could be that the General Election results are the very early signs of a shift in favour of her party.  It is possible (in reference to David Gordon’s first bullet point) that after 10 years following the Good Friday agreement, more voters a finding the Unionist and Nationalist Parties an irrelevance. 

If it is a real trend, then I suggest that a gap in the political market is also opening up for new non-designated parties on both the centre-left and the centre-right.  Jeffrey Peel appears to believe such a gap exists.  Citing the 57% turnout, he says:

“Thankfully, it would appear that in Northern Ireland the local electorate is getting increasingly fed-up with head-counting.”

Jeffrey Peel’s piece outlines the failure of the Conservative/UUP pact.  He believes that the Conservative Party has damaged itself to the point where there is a need for a new centre-right party to be formed.

If a new centre-right party was formed, it would almost certainly benefit the Alliance Party by forcing it to define itself properly on the left-right political spectrum and engendering left-right political competition.  As Andrew G has advocated

“A strong [centre right] Party with talented members should encourage Alliance to up their game, and vice versa, allowing a mature left-right political debate to evolve..” 

With Naomi Long as its likely next leader, the Alliance Party looks set to become a party of the left but there are socialists in Northern Ireland looking to compete for that space.  Jenny Muir laments the fact that two Labour Parties, the Irish Labour Party and the British Labour Party, have a presence in Northern Ireland but neither of them will yet allow candidates to stand.  Perhaps there are 3 Labour Parties as I understand from reading Wikipedia that the Labour Party of Northern Ireland is still in existence. 

Jenny Muir appears to be maintaining that socialism is a strong enough ideology to cut across tribal boundaries.  She says:

“The unifying factor for socialist politics is class, not territory. The left across the world tries to get states to move closer to the key principles I’ve outlined, either from the outside, by campaigning, or from the inside, by standing for election.”

In the light of the history of the old Northern Ireland Labour Party, (discussed here and later here), I think that is highly questionable.  However, Labour may not just have difficulty competing for the votes of Nationalist socialists.  They may have difficulty competing for Unionist Socialists.  As Turgon, writing on Open Unionism points out:

“Labour’s official position for many years was a “united Ireland by consent” and under Kevin McNamara in the 1980s and early 1990s the Labour Party was seen as far from neutral but actually hostile to the union and at times it seemed unionists.” 

Jenny Muir has suggested that a popular front (consisting of political parties and individuals) could be the answer to tribal politics but practically smothers that idea with the counter-arguments she makes in relation to organization.  She also says that “the National question might cause tensions.”  I believe that is an understatement. 

In my humble opinion, the British Labour Party should be seriously considering the model that Jeffrey Peel and I have advocated for the Conservatives and create a new non-designated centre left party and adapt its own version of the CSU/CDU arrangement.

Conclusion

The DUP and Sinn Fein have their interests tied to maintaining sectarian politics.  No initiative taken by them will bring about normal politics.   Lee Reynolds maintains that Identity politics is a powerful and lasting force.

Depending on how the SDLP would react, a single unionist unity party could hasten the demise of identity politics.  Even as two parties, the UUP and DUP have nothing to offer a very large number of disaffected unionists.

Professor Wilford has shown the way ahead for the UUP and SDLP to deliver a new kind of politics.  He does not say what would happen if they were not prepared to take this initiative.  Predicting the future is not easy but it is difficult to see this happening in practice.  Would a vacuum then be filled?  

Most likely, it would.  There are early signs that the Alliance Party is benefiting a changing mood within the electorate.  Other non – designated parties which do not yet exist, such as a new center-right party would also probably benefit. 

Putting it another way, all of the academic writers have hinted or stated explicitly that there is a yearning for a new kind of politics.  If there is no shared platform between the UUP and the SDLP, then a different type of cross-community coalition will emerge in the shape of non-designated parties, like the Alliance Party, except that their members and supporters will bond together from across the tribal divide on the basis of shared political values.  The embryo of one of those new parties, the NI Centre Right, is already waiting in the wings.

Northern Ireland’s UUP and SDLP therefore have two choices.  Either they change or they will be changed.  As Robin Wilson says

“It is a no-brainer which choice will ensure the party has a future.”

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