Brexit heads the long list of opportunities for the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP to score together.

I always had a soft spot for the young SDLP. They were of an age, they were more fun to be with – and drink with – barring a few very honourable exceptions on the unionist side. And they didn’t go about being so bloody angry the whole time. They had leadership qualities, emotional intelligence and they had a life through all the pressures. They deserved better results. As their power disintegrated and their party split, Ulster Unionists tended to be more defensive  but there were many you could  do business with.

For those of us with long memories, the revival of a formal alliance between the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP (if that is what finally transpires), gives grounds for cautious optimism.   The idea has been as obvious in theory as it has been elusive in practice ever since power sharing was first seriously mooted in 1972. When they came together, as in 1973 and 1998-2002, they were outflanked by the polarising effect of violence or the threat of violence.

The UUs and the SDLP finally lost their leading role and much of their raison d’être because of Tony Blair’s frank admission that “you don’t have guns”. This was his explanation for elevating  IRA disarmament over the survival of the early Assembly led by the two “constitutional ” parties.  The idea that they should have jointly called for the alternative of  Sinn Fein’s suspension from the Assembly until the IRA disarmed,  can be left to history.

But now that the gun has been removed from mainstream politics, the UUs and the SDLP no longer have an alibi for failure.  If the DUP and SF can form a government, they can – must – surely form a co-ordinated opposition. To be sure opposition lacks the binding agent of government responsibility but the dynamic of power sharing still applies.

The only course open to them is to work at developing as an alternative government. This is not a piece of fantasy but a survival strategy. For there is another obvious logic waiting in the wings, of single unionist and nationalist parties, with something or other- probably bits and pieces- in the middle.  Even in our snails- pace system, politics does not stand still. The longer they leave building a formal relationship, the more middle class support will leech to their bigger rivals or fragment further. It is happening already before our eyes in the growing competence of the SF and DUP, just as old school rigidities survive in their own ranks.

Yes there are risks. But frankly, what have they got to lose?

The challenge

Brexit now heads the list of long term opportunities for them to act as pacesetters and mediators and change the terms of debate.  So far the “coalition of extremes” of the DUP and Sinn Fein seems stuck in their rival nationalisms.  If they remain deadlocked the outlook is poor for managing through the reefs and shoals of a new order outside the EU. The “centre ground’s ” greater pragmatism ought to be tailor-made  for strengthening the relationships for seeing through  Brexit. Whatever is the final deal, more open minded thinking is needed that reaches beyond the rigidities of  the nationalisms, giving much greater prominence to both north-south  cooperation and the British-Irish links,  and stretching beyond the narrow bounds of national  preference.  In other words, the GFA structures will be more important than ever. They should not be left to governments alone.

Granted that applying the terms “coalition of extremes “to the DUP and SF, and “centre ground” to the SDLP and the UUs can be misleading. But “centre ground” captures a less doctrinaire approach to the divide and suggests a greater pragmatism.  This allows them to differentiate with their bloc leaders through developing joint policies.  It does not require anything like a political merger, any more than the Executive parties have merged.  Communal loyalties of course remain strong but they are becoming a shade less definitive. Any jibes from the DUP or SF that each of the main opposition parties will be betraying their own side by cooperating in opposition should be seen off. What else are the DUP and Sinn Fein supposed to be doing in government?

  Step by step

Some commentators get ahead of themselves and go straight to the obstacles to an electoral pact.  Yet it is not inconsistent for Mike Nesbitt to form an SDLP alliance and yet call for an electoral pact with the DUP for Westminster seats elected by first past the post where the main opponent is Sinn Fein. Admittedly this would be more of a problem in Belfast seats which would become even more marginal after the boundaries are redrawn. A pact for transfers in Assembly elections has to be on the cards if cooperation between them is to have a real impact with the voters. It would be a major development in our politics. But it could not begin to happen until they have reached agreement on policies that would win  significant cross community support.

.So start with the issues. Since Fresh Start Executive progress has been agonisingly slow. There is a huge opportunity for the UUs and the SDLP to act as pace setters both in the committees and the chamber.

 Domestic policy

It is within their range of the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP to forge compatible positions on a range of policy.  Their criteria should be to create a common interest which identifies win: win for east and west, city and country and frankly unionist and nationalist. There is no point in remaining mealy mouthed about calculating party political dividends which too often result in deadlock. Let’s have them out in the open.

Agreements are surely attainable on same sex marriage and limited abortion;   an expansion of shared education in the classroom; and a switch in health spending to social care.  On the Troubles legacy, support for victims on the basis of need is long overdue.  On disclosure, neither has a dog in the fight.  Agreements should be reached not through inter-party secret deals but by carefully prepared civil society consultation including town meetings. Plenty will fail but some will succeed.

Brexit, inevitably 

While it is futile only to preach doom, Brexit is a setback that could even bring the whole House down. (Mr Eastwood please note.)  The opposition parties should insist that the Executive begins to work on common interests rather than party differences. To do that they need to agree between themselves. On North-South cooperation the absence of unionists in Enda Kenny’s forum is clear evidence of a lack of mutual understanding in spite of the existence of the GFA institutions. In the medium term there are the myriad implications of Brexit to work out – the future of farm subsidies, fishing rights, the integrated energy market, environment policy.  The list goes on, beyond the competence of any one party or even jurisdiction to solve on its own.

Author’s  rather obvious message        

On institutional reform the two parties should campaign for an end to the unionist, nationalist and other designations – but over time, on the basis of mutual confidence and with some indication of public approval. They should not be put off by DUP support.

Only through trust and mutual support can momentum be built up to create an alternative Executive. The aim should be to ease the new “restlessness” of the nationalist people feared by Colum Eastwood as a result of Brexit and moderate the “the Union and only the Union” neurosis that has been a prime obstacle to unionist delivery down the decades.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • chrisjones2

    Or not. Sadly the High Court in Belfast has advised them all that they have wasted their money

    “it is the court’s view the prerogative power is still operative and can be used for the purpose of the executive giving notification for the purpose of Article 50”

    so off you go and play with the buses.

  • Kevin Breslin

    If north south civil co-operation without (big U) Unionists is bad, where are the moral outcries about civil co-operation between Great Britain and Northern Ireland without (big N) Nationalists is also wrong?

    I would doubt the DUP would want a Civic Forum even in the heartlands of North Antrim to discuss the benefits of Brexit open to people from all of Northern Ireland simply because they don’t want to be subject to public scrutiny from anywhere or from anyone, they would prefer a drowned out debate on the Nolan Show or soapbox the issue on Spotlight or The View with not much public engagement.

    Big U Unionists didn’t shy away from putting their points to civic society in the Republic of Ireland before.

    To me part of the issue with a civic conversation is that usually labels and identity are often ignored.

  • chrisjones2

    A Civic Forium to talk about what exactly? The negotiations will be done at National level on National issues and the fact that Wullie John or Seamus is worried what level of subsidy a particular field will attract isnt something that can realy be debated at this stage.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The fallout of the decisions will be made at civil society level. Surely civil society has an ability to share their experiences, insights and opinions about what the vote to leave the European Union has done to their life.

    Business Leaders, Community groups and Border Communities are stakeholders in this decision and they not only have a right to be advising the Republic of Ireland government’s position, possibly the SDLP, Sinn Féin, Alliance, Fianna Fail, Greens, Labour etc. but to develop networks to anticipate any number of multiple outcomes that could be coming out of either London or Brussels.

    It may be academic but it will help people weigh up their options with a change none of them were really prepared for.

    What would be so harmful to such a debate if a pro-London (whether pro-EU or anti-EU) opinions in the debate were made. Would you want to leave that to George Galloway or someone to show up and make it?

    Likewise I would encourage People before Profit to make their participation here too.

    Some attendants may be quite hostile to the European Union, I completely disagree with Arlene being prejudicial of who would be at the meeting and who would not be if the event takes place without her.

    I think it is quite hypocritical for politicians who spoke at gatherings of “Grassroots Out” Events and rabble rousing about politicians and elites being out of contact with the general public to then turn around and say, well actually none of this EU stuff is going to have any Grassroots level involvement anyway, in other words … we were just using you.

    Grassroots Out is a perfect example of a civil co-operation between Great Britain and Northern Ireland without (big N) Irish Nationalists (with the possible exception of George Galloway, would that be a small “n” like Alliance’s small “u” unionist Paula Bradshaw?)

    I also question however how “Civic” it actually was.

    There was no emergent Civic face from the organisation … heck the Unionist Forum gave us Jamie Bryson and that was significantly smaller.

    But I’m a social democrat … I don’t partition society from democracy into separate blocks.

    I also find it strange the DUP are happy for residents and Orange men to have discussions about letting a group of people down the road, even though it’s down to the Parade’s Commission not to them.

    Then attack Enda Kenny for setting up another forum where surely one of the topics debated would be discussing how people and goods going down their roads too.

  • nilehenri

    brexit opportunities. you’re having a laugh. today’s shenanigans showed that the ulsterman’s tolerance for abuse if infinite.
    first off we had to suffer arlene gubbing it about gay cakes and weddings. if she wants to control definitions she should get a job in a dictionary factory. then some judge said that he ‘couldn’t see’ any impediment within the gfa as regards brexit:
    point 1. (i) if he could have been bothered to look for it.
    just for added clarification, i’ll post the government propaganda (for that is what it now is):
    i’m disgusted in general at how the voices of the people of the north are being completely ignored in these discussions. as for sf, has marty got a throat infection or something? it looks to the voters of the nineties, those people who had the sense to vote yes and stop the madness that was the north, that they are being completely totally and utterly tramped over, completely disdained, with dublin and london seeming to be the voices of authority on decisions that directly and uniquely affect us. god help us all.
    if the only positive thing that we can take from this situaiton is the opportunity to show how usleess these two parties are in a useless institution then it is a sad day for ulster indeed, whatever your political creed.

  • Katyusha

    British democracy in action. If only we had even a smidgeon of the democratic power that Wallonia has. Kind of demonstrates that as far as “taking back control” is concerned, the real entity usurping people from control over their own affairs lies in London, not Brussels.

  • ted hagan

    The current SF/DUP coalition is like two opposing soccer teams playing for a scoreless draw.They are pathetic.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I found that it was quite apt you had “Little Brussels standing up to big Brussels” memes coming out on Twitter.

    “Little London” standing up to “big London” may soon follow.

    I find it really strange, to official Britain … its press and political class … groups like Grassroots Out and Momentum are both treated almost like eccentric foreign entities in British democracy.

  • chrisjones2

    Opposing?You are joking arent you

  • chrisjones2

    He couldnt see any impediment as there isnt one. NI was and remains part of the UK – thats the bit of the GFA SF dont tell you about.This is a national UK matter

  • chrisjones2

    Bad example.Wallonia caved in today

  • chrisjones2

    “what the vote to leave the European Union has done to their life ”

    Well it has done something for yours Kevin as you are never off here with mnore and more outlandish alleagtions of doom and gloom about the impact.

  • Kevin Breslin

    They had agreed on an addendum to the deal which addressed regional concerns over the rights of farmers and governments.

    Paul Magnette highlighted the issue …

    “Wallonia is extremely happy that our demands were heard,” he said.

    “If we took a bit of time, what we achieved here is important, not only for Wallonia but for all Europeans,” he added.

    UK seems to be at the same time reacting to the Leave vote, by suggesting it should piggyback on the EU Customs Union for six years.

    And possibly piggybacking on CETA too, if it’d save Bombardier jobs.

    So I take it that means a lot of Eurosceptics were wrong about Johnny Foreigner having no clue over what they were doing.

  • eamoncorbett

    One things for sure Kevin , no multinational firm from NI will get a package like Nissan got from Mother Theresa . That single action alone shows where the British governments priorities lie.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Bombardier also employ people in Britain … I’m aware there’s considerable apathy shown to Northern Ireland on this issue.

    It is likely that Nissan like “state aid” decisions here will be left to the under pressure Stormont Administration.

    That may be justified.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I make no apologies for being a vocal Brexitsceptic … perhaps some Eurosceptics don’t like criticism and being under the spotlight themselves.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Also “Mother” Thresea … Brilliant!

    What would Andrea Leadsom say?

  • Oggins

    Kettle, pot black chris… if its green your mean, if your challenged you ravage, if your questioned, you claim all will be well old chap.. (sorry rhyming skills are limited)

    Point withstanding

  • nilehenri

    unionism is your sect, not mine mate. only a unionist could defend the potential destruction of a country because of a power struggle between david cameron and boris johnson.
    i was born (in europe) with enough brain cells to see that europe has been and continues to be a positive force for good. show me a major building, bridge, road, or institution here that wasn’t/isn’t funded by europe, they even pay for marching bands (through the ifi). go ask theresa for the money for that. she’ll probably tell you to look for dee stitt or willie frazer.
    the whole brexit is a horrible notion, the ‘roll your sleeves up and get stuck in’ false bravado is like something from the ww1 celebrations we were forced to suffer through recently, a farce that gets more bizzarre by the day.

  • John Collins

    Well at least some of their concerns were satisfied.

  • Angry Mob

    They didn’t get a package, they got assurances.

    Which, if you stop and think what they might be; it could potentially include staying in the single market which would mean all firms from NI would still benefit…

  • ted hagan

    No, they loathe one another but each knows what serves their best interests.

  • nilehenri

    wouldn’t be the first time a judge from the north has bent to whitehall’s bidding. uk is a political construction which seems to have outlived its use and come to the end of its life. where do i send flowers?