Northern Ireland – another opportunity to miss an opportunity

9 May

Northern Ireland has just held elections for its powerharing Assembly. The results can be best described as ‘steady as you go’. There were no major shocks, with the two largest parties, (the pro-United Kingdom Democratic Unionists, and the pro-united Ireland Sinn Fein) retaining their hold of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister positions. Seats were traded here and there, and two seats for the People Before Profit party should make life in the Assembly a little more colourful, but there are no fundamental changes.

That lack of change means that Northern Ireland is condemned to at least five more years of embedded sectarianism and limited scrutiny of a dysfunctional Assembly packed with (at best) mediocre politicians. The Assembly’s primary role will be to administer the austerity agenda of the London-based Conservative government.

There are other mid-sized parties in Northern Ireland: the former largest unionist party (the Ulster Unionist Party), the former largest nationalist party (the Social Democratic and Labour Party), and the cross-community Alliance Party. These parties had hoped to make breakthroughs in the Assembly elections but that did not happen. The UUP and SDLP were ‘ethnically outbid’ by their in-group rivals the DUP and Sinn Fein respectively.

The powersharing Assembly uses the complicated d’hondt system to apportion seats in the Assembly Executive or cabinet. Up until this stage, that means that the two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein have been joined at the cabinet table by the middle sized parties: the UUP, SDLP and the Alliance. What that means is that everybody is at the table. And no one (apart from the odd independent or micro-party) is left in the Assembly chamber to provide the type of scrutiny and oversight that legislators need. Scrutiny is needed especially given that the already mentioned mediocre calibre of the legislators and the bickering dynamic that is the hallmark of ethnically based parties.

So Northern Ireland is destined for another five years of non-productive nonsense. Electoral participation rates – once the highest in the United Kingdom – have been falling as people realise that the powersharing Assembly talks a lot but delivers very little.

But things could change if the mid-sized parties were brave enough. There are few signs that they possess this bravery. The leaderships of these parties range from the conservative to very conservative in terms of vision, charisma and ability to think critically. But – and let’s suspend belief for a few moments – if the SDLP, UUP and Alliance were prepared to give up the possibility of a seat or two in the Assembly Executive then they would be able to stand outside and try to hold the Executive to account. Joined together they would be the second largest party in the Assembly – more seats than Sinn Fein.

At the moment, the three mid-sized parties trade in their ability to truly scrutinise the Assembly’s operations by accepting a few ministerships. They effectively prop up the dysfunctional Assembly because they want ministerial crumbs (basically, they have positions like Minister for Lettuce or Minister for Bouncy Castles). The DUP and Sinn Fein hold the main ministries and are the driving force behind the Assembly – and the direction of Northern Ireland politics.

The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland fought the Assembly with a series of slogans like ‘Forward faster’ and ‘Better sooner’. More accurate slogans would have been ‘Just the same’, ‘status quo forever’ or ‘nowhere fast’. They, along with the SDLP and UUP, truly lack vision to take brave steps and recognise that their current strategies amount to a continuation of their own marginalisation. They are the authors of their own stasis. If they had leadership (and I am operating in the realms of fantasy here) they would consider being brave and stop propping up the weird edifice of the Assembly. The Alliance Party in particular is culpable for the continuation of a dysfunctional polity. It claims to want a different sort of politics for Northern Ireland, one that is post-nationalist and post-unionist and is aimed at uniting people. Essentially, by taking ministerial positions (that the other parties usually don’t want) they have been bought off.

Clearly the mid-sized parties have different political agendas – especially on constitutional issues. But there is a lot they could agree on, especially in relation to public policy issues. By working together, they could form an effective scrutinising bloc that could make life difficult for the two main parties, and suggest that a new type of politics is possible.

The UUP, SDLP and Alliance have a chance to be brave. They won’t take it because they want one or two of their members to be Minister for Table Legs.

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