Less concentration on political personalities, more on substance is needed.

I’m struck by the fact that so much newspaper comment in the wake of Fresh Start has dwelt on the personalities rather than the issues. It’s as if the parties were still playing  the old games of direct rule and had none of the responsibilities of government at all.  Too much  comment is about  political  attitudes  and behaviour  rather than  focusing on what politicians are charged  with deciding. Has Arlene got what it takes? asks Fionnuala O’Connor with characteristic perceptiveness. Who might succeed Martin McGuinness one day God knows when?  There was an intense burst of interest in Seamus Mallon continuing  to vent the frustrations of a lifetime.  (Arguing against myself for a moment let’s hope  P Robinson does likewise but  doesn’t wait a dozen years to do it).

Was Mallon asked why he and his fellow old grump Trimble funked  the issue of suspending Sinn Fein from the Executive because the IRA hadn’t disarmed – the first and probably the best chance of creating centre ground solidarity? Or the lessons the SDLP should  learn for positioning now? Was he hell.

On second thoughts I’m not  struck at all. Personalities are much more fun and easier to talk about than issues and policies. And it’s often more agreeable to interview veterans on roughly their own terms, especially when the general memory is so short  Remember  old Tony Benn deploring the lack of debate about  “ishoos” while making his name and considerable fortune with his wonderfully gossipy diairies?. The compulsion of personality is hard to resist.  Even that scathing critic of republicanism Malachi O’Doherty has been speculating about the McGuinness succession.  Nothing  wrong with that of course. But who is writing about how the Executive will have to bite a different bullet and face up tough choices over taxing and spending? Newton Emerson on the margins. Will we hear a word about it in the election campaign? Will we hell.

By contrast, consider a very different treatment from Dan O’Brien, now a columnist with the Indo but a former economics writer with the Irish Times  and before that, the very  specialised Economist Intelligence Unit. In a rare move he has dipped his toe into NI politics with some bold judgements  worth quoting at some length.

To attribute the very large decline in politically-related violence to the institutions created by the Good Friday Agreement would be a very serious analytical failure. Those institutions came about because the main actors in the conflict wanted to end violence, not the other way around. For this reason and others, the devolved institutions should not be considered sacrosanct.

In May, the North’s voters will elect the Stormont assembly, from which the executive is formed. At least one foreseeable stumbling block in the formation of a new executive is the possibility that Sinn Fein overtakes the DUP to become the largest single party. That would give Martin McGuinness the position of First Minister. If the DUP cannot play by the rules of the game and accept losing the first minister role, there could be another period during which the Stormont institutions teeter. If they do, Dublin and London could well consider letting them collapse. A number of years of direct rule from London with strong input from Dublin would be beneficial.

There is plenty of evidence from democratic transitions around the world that the sequencing of institutional roll-out is important for the long-term durability of a political settlement. Independent institutions, such as police and equality agencies, are most important in building up trust in the state. A period of direct rule with Dublin’s close involvement could allow the trust-building effects of these non-political institutions to continue, while undoing some of the Balkanisation that has taken place owing to the nature of the Stormont institutions. That could give some real breathing space for sectarian divisions to heal.

O Brien’s main preoccupation I suspect is distaste for Sinn Fein seizing the  left pole in a new left- right polarity in the Republic’s politics  and emerging as the alternative leading party of government. I don’t myself believe or wish for collapse but it’s refreshing to challenge the indispensability of politicians whose complacency seems to be in inverse proportion to their success in government. At the very least the time for civil society to challenge deadlock is long overdue.

  • Nevin

    “At the very least the time for civil society to challenge deadlock is long overdue.”

    Tell us a little bit more about this mythical beast, Brian!

  • Dominic Hendron

    The troubles generation won’t resolve the issues facing NI and taking the ball away away through DR will prevent future generations doing it.

  • Roger

    Is that new SDLP fella not in troubles generation in your opinion?
    What’s the cut off…When is it fair to say the troubles ended? 1994? Curious on what others think.

  • Dominic Hendron

    Be interesting to see what happens there

  • Robin Keogh

    There is simply no left wing media left; not in the mainstream press anyway. media commentary along with political culture is now a case of simply running with the pack. As such it is difficult to get away from personality politics. Attacking the person regardless of ability is easier than creating a genuine argument in context when both the media and political class are working together to protect each others self interest.

  • Granni Trixie

    A post in itself.

  • Zig70

    I’m coming to the opinion that politics on this Island will be driven by republicans inability to see the bigger picture. The strength of SF in the north will make it impossible for them to achieve their goal because movement from the south will give to much political capital and be suicide for FF or FG. They were cracking jokes on 2fm this morning about scary nordie accents, funny, but has a hard bite as it opens the wedge driven between the two societies by the troubles. I don’t see SF overtaking DUP but that’s irrelevant. It’s not where the play is at. Even in the South it’s not about winning for SF, a solid position will be a big step forward. In the north backing the DUP into a corner is what it’s about. I would put my money on a brick wall for SF in the south in the low 20% never enough to be kings. I’m really interested to see if I am right and how they handle it. Especially as their position at that level means FF or FG would be gifting them government on unification and why would they do that.

  • Robin Keogh

    But the point is that things change. Who would have thought even ten years ago that FF would be reduced to the chaotuc mess it is now. Twenty years ago nobody believed SF would ever be a serious force in Irish politics. Thirty years ago few would have predicted tge strength abd warmth of tge relationship between Dublin abd London.

    You fall into that trap of trying to predict the future based on current circumstances. Today’s reality is no indication of tomorrow’s potential. FF it seems are determined to set up shop in the North because they believe that unity is possible at some future date, which answers your question.

    Whatever its faults FF are a party of Irish Unity, that is unlikely to change. We dont know yet what SF will look like after the conflict generation have left the stage but people Like Mary Lou, Pearse Doherty and Peader Toibin have the confidence of tge public a confidence that SF have yet to cash in on.

    Irish accents in Cork and Kerry get as much ribbing as those in the North be it Donegal or Donaghadee. So I wouldnt put too much weight into a radio show’s shenanigans. The wedge between north and south only exists in the minds of those who want a wedge to exist.

    Sinn Fein would be very happy to settle in the low twenties. For now.

  • Greenflag 2

    “I’m struck by the fact that so much newspaper comment in the wake of Fresh Start has dwelt on the personalities rather than the issues.”

    Indeed . Its an Irish way of solving problems of long historical standing . And now a Northern Ireland political survival technique 😉 In theory it works because once people have talked about the personalities for long enough the actual issue is forgotten or something else comes along to divert attention from actually resolving the issue . ( In the background the civil servants do enough damage limitation to keep the show on the road ) . In practice it doesn’t work for the issue remains unresolved and mysteriously is resurrected years or decades later and people seem surprised and politicians astonished . Coincidentally I came across a link to an article by Ivan Yates a former FG Government Minister who elaborates a bit on the same theme . Yates has been through the political and bankruptcy mill as it were so his words have some relevance mind you he overboils the pot a bit . That the contagion has spread North should be a cause for comfort of a minor sort suggesting even growing political sophistication if not normality ? On the other hand perhaps not what the patient needs at this juncture .

    Here’s the link http://cached.newslookup.com/c

  • Kevin Breslin

    Our local media and commentators have nothing substational to offer but their personalities. If we want something substational we nee to give up entirely on them and ask an expert or consultant or do the research yourself. I would have to say at least our media is mostly modest, with a couple of exceptions.

    Why to we need to respect our media’s opinion? Why do we have to care about their opinions on real issues? Let’s just let them just celebritize themselves and politicians and hope they don’t bore us by attempting to rise above their level of expertise.

    How often do media focus on substational issues only to find their five minute opinion has nothing practical to offer, often misinterprets the facts and quite often serves as nothing else but ego fuel.

  • Slater

    Dan O’Brien is absolutely correct to say, “To attribute the very large decline in politically-related violence to
    the institutions created by the Good Friday Agreement would be a very
    serious analytical failure. Those institutions came about because the
    main actors in the conflict wanted to end violence, not the other way
    around.”

    However it would be more accurate to substitute the IRA for “the main actors”.

    As some 80% of the people have been seriously brainwashed into thinking the GFA was the reason for the war largely ending, until that changes or the IRA return to war, our toytown parliament at Stormont will survive.

    I suppose it is a small price to pay but watching deluded people thinking they have a democratic system is distressing. Luckily the money flows in from all quarters to keep the fiction alive and the people prospering.

  • eamoncorbett

    The assembly election will be fought on the same issue that every election has been fought to date , I wish people would stop going on about the economy , the health service , youth unemployment and all those irrelevant issues.

  • eamoncorbett

    Agree.