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|From: Irish Political Review: Editorials|
|Date: June, 2016|
Where Are The 'Moderates' ?
Where Are The 'Moderates' ?
Is it possible or desirable to have change in the way Northern Ireland is governed?
That question would certainly not be raised, if it were not for the continuing Sinn Fein electoral success in general—and, more specifically, its success in recent Irish elections. Until the rise of Sinn Fein, the Irish Establishment was content with the settlement brought about by the Good Friday Agreement. That Agreement was designed to produce communalised government—with the 'moderate' parties on either side of the divide in command.
However, after 1985 the sad truth emerged that there are no 'moderate' parties on the Unionist side.
A rational approach might suggest that the Union with Britain is safe, so long as a majority continues to vote for it—and that, whatever demographics, there are few signs of any widespread or pressing desire to break that link amongst Catholics. That approach would suggest that every effort should be made to soothe Catholic sensibilities—with such things as an Irish Language Act to the fore.
However, even though, cerebrally, Unionism might understand such facts, in practice ingrained attitudes of community hostility prevail. There are to be minimal cultural rights for Catholics—with the Traditional Unionist Voice (which gained something like a 1% increase in its vote, compared to equivalent losses amongst its two Unionist rivals) there to keep things straight.
The obdurate Unionist approach to the GFA, pioneered by UUP leader David Trimble, brought about the ousting of the 'moderate' SDLP as the lead Catholic party, and boosted Sinn Fein in its upward trajectory.
Can there be a 'moderate' Catholic party? In this context, a moderate party is one which accepts the cultural self-expression of the other community.
It is probably fair to say that there is a greater general readiness of Catholics in Northern Ireland to tolerate Protestant self-expression in its various forms—though there are a few territorial exceptions.
It is understandable that Catholics should be more tolerant in this respect than Protestants. The long term is in their favour, which is to say that a united Ireland—territorially, if not nationally—is on the cards. It is the long-term which the Protestants are fighting off.
Be that as it may, the long-term grind of the communities against each other put the most vigorous parties on either side into dominance, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, relegating the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party to second place.
That shift has brought about a change in the way the Irish Establishment views the North. It was not particularly concerned about how structures functioned, so long as Sinn Fein stayed on its side of the fence. But, with the increasing popularity of Sinn Fein South of the Border, there has been a noticeable change in attitudes. It seems that power-sharing on the eminently fair d'Hondt system produced the 'wrong' result—therefore d'Hondt must go.
The d'Hondt system gives each party Ministerial representation according to its electoral popularity. That gave the DUP and SF the preponderance. Micheal Martin of Fianna Fail has described that outcome as producing a "dictatorship", and called for a new political arrangement. There can be little doubt that, in making this demand, he is not motivated by concern for Northern Catholics who endured decades of Unionist misrule in pre-Power Sharing days. It is rather that the Fianna Fail leader is casting about for a way of ousting Sinn Fein from power: and that he realises that there is no way of achieving this end under the GFA dispensation.
David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party, under its spunky new leader Mike Nesbitt, has also been casting around for a means of regaining its position as lead Unionist Party.
Similarly, the SDLP, under a succession of leaders since Seamus Mallon, has been trying to get back the top position amongst Catholics.
The upshot of these power plays is that the two major parties which negotiated the GFA, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, are now disengaged from its governing structure, and have gone into opposition—a situation not allowed for in the GFA but which SF was forced to give its consent to in the 'Fresh Start' Agreement of 2015.
It should be said that this Opposition is unlike the Opposition in democratic states. Rather than accepting the system and offering itself as an alternative Government, it is an opposition to the prevailing system of government. It is an "anti-system Opposition" (to use a phrase coined by Professor Brian Girvin to describe Sinn Fein before Sinn Fein became the system!). Rather than the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP offering themselves as an alternative ruling coalition, they are taking issue with the very concept of proportional community representation in Cabinet. They stand for 'majority rule'—albeit a weighted majority with Cabinet Government. Such a system would restore power to the majority community, as Cabinet responsibility would end the present freedom of action enjoyed by each political party in the Ministerial positions it holds.
For Mike Nesbitt's UUP, going into Opposition is a step on the road back to Majority Rule. He can garner votes from Unionists who hate to see Sinn Fein in Government. Things are more complex as far as Colm Eastwood's SDLP is concerned. The Party still supports "Petitions Of Concern", but it yearns for a deal with a 'moderate' Unionist Party, one which would enable it to trump Sinn Fein.
John Hume, while he was leader of the SDLP, firmly kept his eye on a united Ireland—which meant keeping his devolutionary wing under strict control. It has to be said that Hume himself started out as a 'devolutionist', meaning that he thought a fair accommodation could be reached in the medium term between Catholics and Protestants within Northern Ireland under general British suzerainty. However, a few years of political experience caused him to drop that belief and look to developing the 'Irish dimension', gradually developing Northern Ireland towards linking with the South.
After Hume's retirement, there was a succession of devolutionist leaders, beginning with Seamus Mallon. This was during the long infancy of the GFA institutions, at a time when its survival seemed doubtful. Nothing would have pleased these leaders more than a working arrangement with 'moderate' Unionism in a devolved administration. A voting alliance between the SDLP and the UUP was the heart's desire of these leaders. But, though the SDLP came courting, it was repeatedly spurned.
The UUP chose to go into Official Opposition after the May Assembly Election. This means it is given £60,000 a year and the Chair of the Stormont Public Accounts Committee.
Nothing would have pleased the SDLP more than to be allowed to join the UUP in this departure from the spirit of the GFA. However, Nesbitt's objective in going into Opposition is not to make friends in the Catholic community. Rather, he is expressing the anger of the majority at being deprived of its old majority-rule model of devolution government—and its wish to bring down the GFA system of power-sharing as of right.
Colm Eastwood's SDLP, in continuing electoral decline, has decided to join the UUP in opposition—even though it will not be the Opposition in the Westminster sense.
Of course, it will be easy to be an Opposition for the next few years. All that there has been in recent years—and that can be expected for the foreseeable future—from the Westminster Government is Cuts, Cuts, and more Cuts. That makes life difficult for the Stormont sub-Government whose raison d'être is to spend the Block Grant it is given by Westminster—and in crucial areas to spend it in the way Westminster dictates.
It might be added that the Alliances Party—which has been described as a small 'u' Unionist Party—is as incapable of 'moderation' as are its big brothers. This is even though it designates itself as 'Other' in the Assembly—that is to say, not being in either the 'Unionist' or 'Nationalist' camp.
It has been the role of Alliance to supply the Minister for Justice in the devolved administration since the position was established a few years ago.
However after the Assembly Election, Alliance announced it would decline the Justice Ministry and thus any role in the Executive (which is a sort of approximation of a Cabinet in normal Government).
It announced that its price for continuing to accept the Justice portfolio would include that demand that provision for Petitions Of Concern be discontinued, and that Integrated Education become the norm. (It is already heavily favoured financially; however, 'Shared Education' has been adopted more generally as an agreed way of cooperating across the school divide.)
Petitions Of Concern are the bedrock of Power-Sharing. Without Petitions Of Concern, Northern Ireland would revert to a crude majority rule system in the Legislature. They give the Protestants and Catholics respectively a veto on initiatives from the other side. The feature is part of a structure which qualifies the power of majoritarianism and allows a voice to the substantial minority.
It is enlightening that an allegedly cross-community party like Alliance should seek to disrupt the peace brought by the 1998 settlement by making such a demand—a call which resonates with Unionist 'ultras'.
The second major demand, for enforced integrated education, is Cromwellian in tendency. It seeks to enforce a single model of education where there is provision for cultural diversity. In short, it is hard to see how Catholic/Nationalist or Irish Language education could survive a transition to uniform state administration. On the Alliance model, all children would be turned into good-thinking little Brits!
The Party took care not to make its intentions clear during the preceding Election campaign. It was sharp practice to spring such a policy on the democracy after the vote was cast and it will be surprising if this is not remembered in future elections.
The Alliance conditions for supplying a Justice Minister were rejected by the DUP and SF. And, as neither party could accept a candidate from the other, an Independent Unionist, Claire Sugden, the daughter of a Prison Officer, has been selected as Minister. If no Justice Minister had been found, there would have been a fresh election. This compromise is not ideal from a SF perspective. It enabled Colm Eastwood to criticise the party for accepting this situation. He was able to point that SF had allowed the Chairmanship and Deputy Chairmanship of the Assembly Justice Committee to go to Unionism.
This Election has seen Unionism hold its own position in electoral terms, whilst the position of Nationalism has been slightly diminished. This is in spite of the gradual demographic shift in favour of Catholics. It must be concluded that the population trend has concentrated Unionist minds, whilst encouraging a latitude on the nationalist side, meaning a lower turnout and the luxury of voting for protest parties
The DUP and UUP retained 38 and 16 seats respectively, while TUV retained its single seat, giving Unionism a total of 56 seats in the Assembly.
Sinn Fein's overall vote dropped by 2.9%. Due to some miscalculation and vote mismanagement, the party lost one seat, returning 28. The SDLP lost 2 seats, leaving it with 12. Nationalism therefore can muster 50 votes. SF will be disappointed not to have reached the 30 votes needed to block Unionist initiatives without having to depend on support from elsewhere.
As for the Parties listed as 'Other': Alliance retains its 8 seats. It is joined by two each from People Before Profit and the Greens.
Sinn Fein has suffered electorally both North and South because it is a Party of Government in the North and a would-be Party of Government in the South.
In the North, it has not had freedom of action because its hands are tied by Westminster decisions on structures and funding. Against its will it has become an instrument of austerity. That position is well understood by Catholics, which is why its position has held up well in this Election.
At the same time, the Party has taken notice of the electoral message coming from its community. It surprised commentators by having a virtual clean sweep of its Ministerial and Assembly Committee positions and appointing new faces. Amongst the newcomers is Mairtin O Muilleoir as Minister for Finance. It is the first time that a Catholic party has held this powerful position. It can be assumed that the DUP 'allowed' this to go to SF as part of an overall behind-the-scenes agreement. The DUP itself will have the new post of 'Minister for the Economy'.
O Muilleoir has an interesting background, having founded the lively Andersonstown News and having attempted to break into the all-Ireland newspaper scene with the Daily Ireland—a venture kicked to death by Progressive Democrat Michael McDowell and others. He has been notable for cross-community initiatives, including a walk-about on the Shankill Road during which his police protection saved him from a mauling. Elected in South Belfast, he can be expected to enhance Sinn Fein's appeal to middle class voters.
Also notable in the SF reshuffle was the advent of very capable representatives from Counties Armagh and Tyrone to leading positions. Conor Murphy is Chair of the Economy Committee. His path to power has been colourful, to say the least. And then there is the appointment of Barry McElduff to Chair of the Education Committee. He is known to readers of this magazine for taking on the Duchess of Abercorn over the Pushkin Prize (see Irish Political Review, February 2000, In Quest Of Pushkin).
In the South, Sinn Fein has been partly outflanked on the Left by the protest voters. However, it has held its nerve and continues to advocate realistic, rather than Utopian, alternatives—but retaining its radical trajectory. If the party would develop a practical national industrial strategy, its position could be further improved.
The Irish Times, reflecting Southern Establishment dissatisfaction with the way the GFA is working out, welcomed the outcome of the NI Election with an editorial, Welcome Hints Of Change In The North (9.5.16). In this piece, People Before Profit success is welcomed as bringing "diversity" to the Assembly. We do not recall a similar editorial expression of welcome to a similar development in the South.
The editorial also shows goodwill towards the "loosening of the Belfast Agreement's political structures", with the expected decision of the UUP and SDLP not to join the Executive.
With a national division running through the North, it is impossible to see governing structures within the province that fail to take account of that division. What would be desirable, of course, would be to see a different form of politics come to the fore, one that does not reflect the communal divide but that straddles it. However, it is impossible to see such a development occurring whilst 'Northern Ireland' remains a separate entity. People Before Profit—like the Workers' Party of years gone by—thinks it can ignore both the national division in the North and the Border. There is no word about these in its Manifesto. Its canvassers were instructed to tell voters that it is a single issue party: one devoted to opposing austerity—a noble dream, but a chimera. Its base is within the nationalist community. It has contested seats within the subordinate Northern Ireland system where the substance of politics is communal—but matters relating to austerity are decided by the Government of the state.
Whilst Northern Ireland remains an administrative unit with a powerful Unionist voting bloc, politics will continue to feature the Orange/Green divide. It is only when it ceases to be a devolved administrative unit and becomes part of an organic body politic of a state that real issues will take centre stage.
Northern Ireland: Where Are The 'Moderates' ? Editorial
Whither Europe? Editorial
Sneering for Britain. Pat Walsh
Somme Think While Others Flanders. Wilson John Haire
Readers' Letters: A 'Nazi' Ship? Philip O'Connor
NI Assembly, 5 May 2016 Election Results. Editorial
The 'People Before Profit' Vote. Editorial
Shorts from the Long Fellow (Ireland and the The Marshall Plan; Ireland and China; Ireland and Leicester City; Ireland and the Begrudgers; The Flood/Mahon Tribunal Camel; Wilbur Ross and the Phoenix)
Hugh Lane Gallery Marks Casement Centenary. Tim O’Sullivan
Es Ahora. Julianne Herlihy (Baron Bew, Roy Foster et al)
The Irish Bulletin. Jack Lane (Kanturk Talk)
Should Ireland Have Stayed In The Empire? Pat Muldowney (South Kilkenny Historical Society Debate)
In Praise Of 77 Women Of The Easter Rising. Manus O’Riordan (Review of, and Extract from, book by Mary McAuliffe and Liz Gillis)
Two Nations Once Again. Pat Walsh
Ken Livingstone, anti-Semitism, and the state of Israel. Eamon Dyas
Biteback: TTIP Bad For Environment. Report of Matt Carthy MEP, Sinn Fein, letter
Does It Stack Up? Michael Stack (Population Control; Irish University Review)