Time for normal politics in Northern Ireland?

Ed Jacobs looks at the aftermath of the first ever 'everyday' elction in Northern Ireland and asks what the future holds for the Stormont Assembly.

Following his election to Stormont for the North Antrim constituency, Jim Allister, leader of the anti-Good Friday agreement Traditional Unionist Voice party vowed to continue his long standing campaign to make life uncomfortable for the executive.

He explained following his election:

“I look forward to being a very active thorn in the flesh of the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition.

“I look forward to being a scourge of IRA/Sinn Fein, and I look forward to being a rebuke to the wanton daily abuse and squalor of money in this province.”

And yet, despite his long running hostility to the DUP/Sinn Fein partnership, could it instead be the Tories’ former electoral allies, the Ulster Unionists, who are about to attempt to claim the mantra of the thorn in the Executive’s side – despite being part of that same Executive?

Speaking at his count over the weekend in Omagah, Tom Elliott, the party’s leader, used the sight of Irish tricolour flags to launch a full fronted attack on Sinn Fein. He argued:

“I see many people here with flags today, some of them with flags from a foreign nation.  I would expect nothing better from the scum of Sinn Féin.

“Their counterparts in the IRA have murdered the citizens of this province for years and decades and now all they want to do is shout down political representatives. That is how they want to run this province but I can tell you, as unionists, we will not allow them to do that.

“They tried to bomb and murder us out of Northern Ireland for generations and it didn’t succeed and they will not succeed now.”

Despite anger at the remarks, including from the brother of the murdered police officer, Ronan Kerr, who dubbed Elliott’s views as “prehistoric” and “prejudiced”, Elliott has told the Newsletter that he stands by the remarks.

But what lies behind his outburst, from the leader of a party that was supposedly the moderate voice of unionism in Northern Ireland?

Perhaps first and foremost is desperation. Having not all that long ago been the majority voice of the unionist community, led by David Trimble, one of the architects of the Good Friday agreement, they are a party which, as a result of the 2010 election and their misguided partnership with the Conservatives have no MPs in Westminster, and following the consolidation of the DUP’s position as the largest unionist voice following the election just been weakened still further.

Indeed, writing on his blog, the BBC’s Northern Ireland political editor, Mark Davenport, has outlined a scenario in which the UUP could lose one of the two ministerial seats it held in the last executive.

But Elliott’s comments form part of a wider trend in which the UUP have become more rebellious and prepared to rock the boat. As Left Foot Forward has previously reported, it was the UUP which, together with the SDLP, led the fight against the Executive’s budget cuts and it was the UUP health minister, Michael McGimpsey, who spent so much of his time distancing himself from his ministerial colleagues with outspoken attacks on the lack of funding for the health service being provided by finance minister, Sammy Wilson.

Such attacks are likely, in part, to be used by Elliott to boost his argument made prior to the election that it was time for changes to be made, to end the system of mandatory coalitions and to provide for a properly resourced opposition to hold the Executive to account, rather than ministers being forced to split in public when differences of opinion arise.

Whilst his tactics might be a little bizarre, Elliott’s point remains valid. Following what Peter Robinson himself dubbed Northern Ireland’s first normal “everyday” election, it remains an anomaly that voters have no opportunity to throw out unpopular governments in favour of an alternative. It also makes manifestos a waste of time since no party in Northern Ireland is ever able to fulfil everything it promises.

With the UK government having concluded that it was safe to bring to an end the policy of 50/50 recruitment in the police service, if Stormont is to look and sound like a proper Assembly and Executive then perhaps now is the time to consider if political leaders can move to a system of government and opposition without tearing chunks out of each other and dividing the community.

That would be a sign of real progress.

As I wrote recently for Nottingham University’s politics politics blog during the election:

“As the 2011 election campaign goes on, we can expect to hear yet more from all parties about the progress made in Northern Ireland, with an emphasis on the ‘normal politics’ of the economy, health or education. However, as with all things, ‘normality’ in Northern Ireland should be compared not to the rest of the UK but to the province’s past.

“Whilst the issues discussed may be similar to those debated elsewhere in the UK, the litmus test now will be whether the next Assembly and Executive are prepared to reform the way it does its politics.”

30 Responses to “Time for normal politics in Northern Ireland?”

  1. Amangham

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    Time for normal politics in Northern Ireland? | Left Foot Forward: Ed Jacobs looks at the af… //bit.ly/j6ZoaA //bit.ly/NTnuK

  10. james kirk

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  12. Rory Gallivan

    The people of Northern Ireland also don’t get any real say in UK general elections. Why can they not vote for the Labour Party, for example?

  13. Cayden Bui

    Time for normal politics in Northern Ireland? | Left Foot Forward //bit.ly/l8xTLZ

  14. mr. Sensible

    I was quite concerned by Tom Elliott’s comments on saturday and his attempt to re-open old wounds.

  15. Modicum

    “perhaps now is the time to consider if political leaders can move to a system of government and opposition”

    I think it is. Power-sharing doesn’t require that every party be included in government.

    Simply empower the majority nationalist party and the majority unionist party to together form a government, with the rest left in opposition.

  16. Rory Gallivan

    In response to Modicum, I don’t think your solution would really change much. It wouldn’t give voters the chance to “throw out unpopular governments in favour of the alternative.” They would only be able to throw out one half, which doesn’t seem very democratic.

  17. Modicum

    Rory Gallivan,

    Can you suggest an alternative that is consistent with power-sharing?

    Returning to permanent Unionist majority rule isn’t an option.

  18. Rory Gallivan

    No, the people of Northern Ireland voted for it and we are stuck with it. I am simply pointing out the flaws in the system we have and that I don’t think your proposal would change very much.

    “Power-sharing” seems to me to entrench the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland and prolongs a conflict that is currently being pursued by peaceful means, but might not be in the future. I think that it is at least plausible that, had the British government refused to give in to the IRA, they could have been defeated and normal politics, with people voting for Labour, Conservative etc, would have taken root in the province. Devolution could then have been established once this had happened, but not before as it would result in the current system or Protestant majority rule.

  19. Modicum

    I don’t deny that power-sharing is a flawed form of government. In an ideal world the largest parties would be cross-community and non-sectarian. The current model makes that harder to achieve by actually giving less voting power to representatives who refuse to designate as “nationalist” or “unionist”.

    Alliance have suggested an alternative in which important decisions would be made by a super-majority (e.g. 70%). There are probably other ideas that could be explored. But the province is far from ready for simple majority rule.

    I don’t agree with the connection you make between power-sharing and the Provisional IRA. I think that’s entirely ahistorical. Sectarian politics predated and led to the Troubles, not vice versa.

    Power-sharing has been necessary since the province was founded. It was at the core of the Sunningdale Agreement (which the PIRA opposed) and it was always going to be part of any solution. Even if it had been possible to militarily defeat terrorism the underlying conditions that make power-sharing necessary would still be there for some time to come.

  20. Modicum

    I also don’t personally think that indefinite direct rule, until such time as politics in Northern Ireland becomes more “normal”, would be a solution.

    It would be perceived as a regime favouring unionists. Indeed, many unionists actually consider direct rule and assimilation into the rest of the UK to be the ideal. Nationalists would not accept direct rule unless the Southern government had some sort of role. Unionists are implacably opposed to any such role.

  21. Rory Gallivan

    Well, I think the idea of “power-sharing” itself is a red herring. They’re not actually sharing power. The ministers have their salaries and drivers but they have office not power, to use that old cliche.

    And direct rule might be perceived as favouring unionists (or Protestants), but that would not necessarily be a correct perception, would it? Of course many nationalists would not accept direct rule to begin with, but if they realised that it was not going to change, might they not eventually consider that the best course is to participate in electing the government of the country they live in? I think this is possible and would lead to the emergence of normal politics in Northern Ireland.

  22. Modicum

    Direct rule favours unionists in that it’s consistent with their political aspirations and identity. It’s diametrically opposed to the aspirations of the community that makes up the other half of the population. I don’t think that’s any more acceptable than it would be to place Northern Ireland under unfettered direct rule from Dublin, in the event that a bare majority of residents voted for that.

    I would also not be so optimistic that a province which has elected separate unionist and nationalist representatives since (I believe) at least the 1880s will easily embrace mainstream UK politics. Under direct rule you might very well see another century of political stagnation, with Northern Ireland directly ruled by governments that no-one there voted for.

    Furthermore in my view imposing a particular arrangement on nationalists against their will is not the way to reconcile them to “the country they live in” and it’s national parties.

    The Agreement proceeded on the basis of trying to find a set of constitutional arrangements that both communities can live with, agreed between the people affected rather than imposed from above. Devolution (of one form of another) was something all of the parties wanted. The result is far from perfect but I haven’t yet seen a realistic alternative.

  23. Modicum

    As a postscript, I think the best hope lies in:

    (1) People starting to regard politics as being about real quality of life issues, rather than treating every election as a referendum on the border. I think this is already starting to happen.

    (2) Finding some alternative to the system of sectarian designations in the Assembly, as Alliance have advocated.

  24. Rory Gallivan

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by “not acceptable.” They might not like it, but they may well learn to live with it. Many people in Scotland voted against devolution, but they still accepted it. If Scotland votes to be independent or remain part of Britain, many people won’t like the outcome, but they will just have to live with it.

    I think it will take many years for Northern Ireland to become normal, but the current set-up seems to me to sustain sectarian divisions (even with your proposed modifications, because “power-sharing” itself entrenches these divisions). Direct rule on the other hand would in my view lead to the gradual erosion of divisions between Roman Catholics and Protestants, as happened for example in the Netherlands and Germany.

    Could you explain to me how people are starting to regard politics as being about quality of life issues rather than a referendum on the border, please? Leaving aside a few isolated examples, it seems to me that the strength of DUP and Sinn Fein shows this is not the case.

  25. Modicum

    By “not acceptable” I mean morally wrong. That’s just my opinion. But even if you regard a maximalist, winner-takes-all solution to be fair it might never be regarded as such by nationalists.

    Nationalist opposition to direct government or Protestant-rule has persisted for centuries. It goes so far that a majority of nationalists currently choose not even to have a voice in Westminster, by electing abstentionists. The idea that simply continuing an approach that has failed up till now will lead to nationalists just abandoning their aspirations seems like wishful thinking. If that approach has succeeded in the Netherlands and Germany it has certainly failed in many other places.

    Thankfully the situation in Scotland seems to be quite different. There seems to be a consensus among both unionists and nationalists that Scotland should decide its destiny as one unit, and both sides can live with the result. Unfortunately such a consensus did not exist in Ireland when the island voted for independence in 1918. But if it were the case that an independent Scotland would lead to a large alienated minority, or to permanent domination of one group over another, then it would be necessary to find a negotiated solution.

    On power-sharing, if there were a system based on a super-majority rule rather than sectarian designations then it would certainly be indecisive and have other problems, but I don’t see why it need entrench sectarian divisions. Over time the super-majority threshold could be gradually reduced. Under the current set-up even if non-sectarian parties are elected the Assembly voting system simply can’t accommodate them.

    If you watch recent election campaigns in the province you see that the politicians are debating issues like health, education and the economy. That’s a huge change from only a few years ago, when all they wanted to do was dispute the terms of the Agreement and rehash past wrongs. The DUP and Sinn Fein have also moved towards the centre. The ideological space they once took up is now occupied by the likes of the TUV and republican dissidents, groups the electorate has totally rejected.

  26. Rory Gallivan

    I don’t see direct rule as a ‘winner takes all’ solution, especially if it were implemented in such a way that there was no discrimination in housing allocation etc, which seems to me entirely plausible. I don’t think it would be morally wrong. And when Northern Ireland was ruled directly, I seem to remember that the SDLP, not Sinn Fein, was the largest nationalist party.

    I didn’t say that direct rule would ‘lead to nationalists just abandoning their aspirations’ but I think it would have been quite likely that it would eventually happen over time if it had been made clear that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom as long as the majority of its inhabitants were in favour of it.

    Obviously if Scotland does become independent there will be a large alienated minority, but I don’t see how there could be any kind of “negotiated solution”.

    I accept that Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland don’t feel British (just as NI Protestants would not initially feel any affinity to a united Ireland), but I think that living as a minority in a state you don’t feel loyal to is not exactly the nightmare you seem to think it is and that feelings of resentment would eventually fade away. The Irish Catholics did not feel British when they arrived in England and Scotland in the 19th century, but such divisions have substantially faded. I think the same thing is possible in Northern Ireland.

  27. Modicum

    I wouldn’t describe direct rule as a nightmare; that doesn’t make it fair or desirable though. The fact is that both communities want devolution, and it shouldn’t be denied to them due to a distaste for the representatives they choose to elect.

    The heavy handed approach you’re advocating has been tried before and found wanting. In fact it’s counterproductive. From 1800 onwards British politicians eventually addressed every Irish grievance except the one that really mattered, hoping the demand for self-government would whither away. That was called “constructive unionism”. What it eventually achieved was to radicalize a peaceful struggle for devolution, seeking an honourable compromise within the union, into a militant secessionist movement.

    But I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one.

  28. Rory Gallivan

    Well, the set-up that exists in Northern Ireland now, as I think I have shown, does not devolve power to anyone. It is a fudge that suits a few politicians very nicely, but doesn’t provide any kind of long-term solution to Northern Ireland’s problems and doesn’t meet anybody’s aspirations. The dispute over the province’s fate has been temporarily halted, but in my view prolonged ,when it could have been settled once and for all.

    In what way are the lives of Roman Catholics better under this system than they would be under direct rule – with the IRA’s campaign of violence over and a United Kingdom government in power that was determined to end discrimination in the province? The answer in my view is that they are not, and sooner or later Sinn Fein will start to push for more moves towards a united Ireland, backing up their demands with the veiled threat of violence.

  29. Modicum

    I don’t think you’ve shown that devolution hasn’t devolved power to anyone. Power-sharing is functioning reasonably well and can be made to work better.

    You assume that it would have been possible to achieve three ideals simultaneously: “direct rule – with the IRA’s campaign of violence over and a UK government in power that was determined to end discrimination”. We will never know. But I think a better approach to peacemaking is to talk to both communities and encourage them to find agreement, rather than to unilaterally impose a top-down solution.

    There’s now agreement by all parties, including Sinn Fein and the Republic of Ireland, that there will be no change to the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the majority there. There’s already evidence that the constitutional question has been parked and politicians are moving on to arguing about ordinary issues. Sinn Fein still pay lipservice to a united Ireland, but their proposals are about making the case to unionists and winning a referendum at some future date. They haven’t advocated reneging on the “principle of consent”.

    I also see no evidence that ‘Provisional’ Sinn Fein are interested in a return to violence or the threat thereof. The future of the party seems to be the likes of Pearse Doherty and Mary Lou McDonald, a new generation who were never involved in the PIRA and are only interested in peaceful politics. I see them following the same path as the original Sinn Fein in the South, which evolved from militancy into mainstream respectability. I hope that’s not too optimistic.

    There’s one point on which I agree with you. In a normal society I think the important thing is to live in a liberal democracy. Ordinarily I don’t think that where lines happen to lie on a map has very much importance for people’s quality of life. So it would be much better if people focused their energies on more practical political issues. The history of these two isles would certainly have been less bloody. But unfortunately people do feel very passionately about questions of national identity, and when that is the case those questions can’t just be ignored.

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