In putting together these post election profiles it is obvious the degree to which we arriving at a common Irish political culture based on the use of the Single Transferable Vote system of PR north and south. It concentrates the mind of political parties on the precise needs of their own voters (almost to the exclusion of all else) to a much greater degree than under systems elsewhere.
It also makes matters difficult for external pundits to figure out what’s going on with political parties, and complicated for the political parties themselves to figure just exactly where they stand with voters. The often complex relationships involved require constant attention and care. It’s one reason why the ubiquitous constituency office is so prominent in Northern Irish high streets.
In 1992 in his longitudinal study of the first twenty years of regional democracy in Italy Robert Putnam wrote…
“…institutional changes were (gradually) reflected in changing identities, changing values, changing power and changing strategies. The new institution nurtured a more moderate, pragmatic, tolerant elite political culture”.
Given how Northern Ireland’s headlines in the last few years have been dominated with disputes over flags and thwarted Orange marchers, and the seemingly dysfunctional relationship between the First and deputy First Minister, it’s difficult to read such a rosy prognosis from Northern Ireland’s newly fledged political institutions.
David McKittrick recently compared Peter Robinson to David Moyes. I see where he’s coming from (Paisley’s former deputy was never going to fill his old master’s ten league boots), but Robinson has been in charge for a couple seasons now and though he’s shipped a few knocks along the way, he has put in a sound performance in terms of where his team is in the league.
That would be exactly where big Paisley left it, right at the top of what passes for Premiership politics in Northern Ireland.
What this analysis seemingly neglects is that for all the imagined peace and harmony of the Chuckle Brothers short lived era there was not a great deal happening at Stormont at the time, and that this as much as the big man’s fraternising with McGuinness was causing some disquiet amongst party activists.
Under Robinson’s tenure his party has busy in almost every department they have had but his own. DUP ministers have put in action broad reforms of primary care in the NHS, seen substantial rises in FDI and begun a substantial reform of social housing seeking to bring in major housing associations from England.
More controversially at Simon Hamilton’s Department of Finance and Personnel they’ve managed to snag a block to some of the more impactful aspects of the Tories’s Welfare Reform much of which has not been available to Wales or Scotland. And aside from abolishing the bedroom tax it is unlikely that a new Labour administration will roll many of these reforms back.
Very little of this detail ever figures within the media coverage of Stormont. Opposition is mostly couched as a simple no thanks, we can’t touch this.
Sixteen years after the Belfast Agreement, it is still Prods versus Micks on the streets of Belfast that sells newspapers, gets out the film crew and rocks the political world. The disinvestment of the BBC’s coverage of live proceedings in Stormont doesn’t help. Nor does the FM and dFM’s own joint decision to reduce their own exposure to the Assembly to just once a month each.
Outside the democratic institutions, the failed Haass negotiations over the tripartite issues of flags, parades and dealing with the past is likely to give rise to further edge to a nasty Hobbesian gridlock, particularly in some of the interface areas where the party’s loyalist support now annually faces off with Sinn Fein’s republican base on the streets.
And yet, for all the frustrations of being unable to settle these long term and ongoing disputes, the party’s leadership position within unionism is still undisputed. The performance of their sitting MEP improved even if it still lagged behind the party’s falling share of the vote in local elections (from 30% in 2005, 27.2 in 2011 to just 23.1% this year).
That fall in vote share at this stage seems to be as much to do with the diversification choice within unionism as any loss of (non existent) momentum. Losses in the party’s share of the unionist vote have to some degree been compensated by the general innervation of the unionist electorate by the decision by the Belfast City Council to end the flying of the Union flag all year round.
If anything, whilst reversing a very long term trend for falling turnout in working class unionist areas in Belfast and beyond, the flag dispute also seems to have left many ordinary Catholic voters relatively cold.
That said, Mr Robinson is what he always was, a technocratic general, more often bent over a map and micromanaging the movement of troops and resources than out in the field leading them. Or as Rick Wilford put it on BBC NI’s The View recently he’s more of an engineer than an architect.
He has little of his predecessor’s wit to level out what usually comes across in public as a rather dour and begrudging manner. If he has less of his ego, sense of mission and eschatological certainty, he also lacks Paisley’s common touch.
But at this stage, Robinson and the DUP have two ‘interesting’ problems going forward:
- One, he enjoys the near absolute enmity of a media that not alone dislikes Robinson but is far less afraid of him than it ever was of Paisley, or indeed remains of Adams. Paranoid or not they are out to get him, with or without the help of his old boss.
- Two, although the gains made under Robinson should not be underestimated they are far less tangible to the public than those made under Paisley. Conquest of the office of First Minister resonates more deeply than its consolidation.
Much of his party’s collective and individual demeanour still resembles that famous chant of Millwall’s of the 70s “No one likes us and we don’t care”. Of course, Fianna Fail prospered in the Republic under those conditions for years, knowing that their own voters understood the rules of their compact with the party even if the Dublin based media didn’t.
The problem is though, once again, they have lost that larger narrative thread they were trying to weave about representing all the people of Northern Ireland. As one DUPer put it to Slugger a few months back, “every time we try to get ourselves out of the front door someone kindly starts a fire in our backyard”. Those backyard fires are not going to go away.
If the DUP are not afraid to exercise power they also suffer from a severe lack influence both within the media and in broader civil society. Yes, they have smart urbane new generation players coming through like Simon Hamilton, Gavin Robinson and Michelle McIlveen along with highly capable rural conservatives like Mervyn Storey.
But the opportunities to deploy any larger, longer term and, dare I say it, more generous strategies seem remote whilst there is no prospect of a genuine two party occupation of the power sharing institutions.
One way of short circuiting the impasse could be a campaign of ‘unreasonable graciousness’. Rather than submitting themselves to endless rounds of fruitless (or worse) negotiations, start putting some precious items (the Irish language, say) on the table capable of attracting popular support from all sides of the community (‘reverse the polarity’ as Jon Pertwee’s Dr Who might have said?)
The likely response would probably consist of that old Machiavellian saw that it’s better to be feared than to be loved. That, and of course the fact that Robinson already has a handy get-out-of-almost-any-fix-in-Unionism-free card after he changed the terms for choosing the First Minister from largest block to largest party: vote for us, or you’ll get Martin?
Yet for all the talk of shared spaces, bitter past experience leads most people in Northern Ireland to prefer the safety and security of ‘living amongst their own’. And they vote accordingly. It’s the nature of our politics and the broader political reality that has to change, rather than further techno-tinkering with the institutions.
As Putnam noted more than twenty years after the onset of the Italian reforms, “factionalism and gridlock, inefficiency and simple incompetence still plague many regions”. Robinson knows there is no alternative. He knows too that there are fewer points to be earned by him or his party for abandoning the offices of power to join the rabble on the street.
Without a willing nationalist partner in power though, changing the subject is likely to take a very long time.