Why bridge building (not merger) is exactly the right strategy for the new Opposition…

One of the problems with trying to set up cross-community political agreements (you know, just to get some stuff done) is that everyone is quick to point out what you haven’t done, and how it will never work.

Owen Polley is a veteran of the attempt to merge the UUP and the Conservative party under David Cameron and Reg Empey will remember the wave of negativity unleashed on the Tory leader of the opposition for daring to believe anyone in NI would vote for his party.

All kinds of things went wrong with that merger.

Neither leader seemed to have prepared their own people for the cultural change. Some Ulster Tories seemed to think the large injection of cash and resources gave them bragging rights over the old democratic stagers of the UUP.

The odd incongruities between the two brands mattered too. Centre right in a devolved administration which has no tax raising powers is of limited appeal, especially when your main rivals have occupied the right on constitutional matters.

In the News Letter today, Owen turns his experienced (nay, somewhat jaundiced eye) to the new relationship between the SDLP and the UUP. And he starts with one major incongruity that seems only to have grown since the Brexit vote:

The most obvious difference – on whether our constitutional future should lie with the UK or the Republic of Ireland – could have been surmounted more easily prior to the ‘Brexit’ referendum.

After all, Eastwood pledged that, under his leadership, the SDLP will try to “make Northern Ireland work”, despite its long-term goal of a united Ireland. However, the British public’s decision to leave the EU has revived nationalist hopes of loosening links with Great Britain and binding us more closely to the Republic of Ireland.

The SDLP has promoted the idea of a “special status” for Northern Ireland that preserves elements of EU membership and dilutes ‘Brexit’, as it is likely to be implemented in the rest of the United Kingdom. [Emphasis added]

And he notes:

The UUP campaigned for ‘remain’, but it cannot reconcile its unionist principles with the idea that a nationwide vote is not binding in certain parts of the UK. Likewise, the party can’t justify taking part in Enda Kenny’s forum about the future of the island after Brexit, while it’s styled a ‘national conversation’ that purports to tackle policy for Northern Ireland. [Emphasis added]

Now this is true. But only up to a point. In the case of the Dublin civic dialogue (as it is now belatedly being called), the cock up was more on the wider Republican side as on fading violet unionists, as Nesbitt’s presence at the IIEA in Dublin on Friday indicates:

As for the SDLP’s hard line on Brexit, I’ll judge it by its fruits. The relationship between SDLP and the UUP is not a merger. Rather what they need to do is map out their points of convergence and understand their points of mutual departure, and develop a narrative which can account for both.

But the relationship between SDLP and the UUP is not a merger. Rather what they need to do is map out their points of convergence and understand their points of mutual departure, and develop a narrative which can account for both.

If the Tories and the UUP couldn’t do it, then maybe it is too much to expect the SDLP and the UUP to do it. But the incentives are different. Northern Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement cannot work without a coalition of the willing.

It stands to reason therefore that, under those terms, a united Ireland is simply not achievable without first making Northern Ireland work. Owen is surely right to point out that Brexit makes that a much tougher challenge than before.

But from a nationalist or Republican point of view it must also be obvious that much that could have been achieved in terms of building practical bridges between the northern and southern jurisdictions has been left undone.

Nationalism could do worse than to learn the seminal lessons from a generation ago when Frank Millar, Harold McCusker and Peter Robinson penned their An End to Drift document in the wake of the Anglo Irish Agreement.

Our various discussions pointed to the need for action to arrest a widely perceived drift in our affairs. The temptation in such circumstances might be to do nothing. However we would consider this the ultimate abdication of responsibility.

For our part we are confident that Unionists have the ability to recognise the point in negotiation beyond which the search for consensus about the future government of Northern Ireland becomes damaging to the Unionist interest.

Negotiation need not be the precursor to “sell out” or “betrayal”. Indeed the assumption that Unionists must inevitably be bested in any negotiations can only reflect the judgment of those who have already sold out and accepted defeat.

We must give hope to a community dangerously immune to disappointment and defeat. [Emphasis added]

Today’s circumstances could, almost, be reversed. The, at times, shrill nationalist overaction to Brexit seems to have come at a time when it’s becoming obvious that despite promises of ‘united Ireland’ jam tomorrow, nationalism is getting repeatedly bested at Stormont.

The best ‘open’ Nationalist response would not be to double down on failed past strategies, but to look for ways to develop the social and economic outlook of Northern Ireland by putting serious and durable footings from which to bridge the potential void between north and south.

What ended the UCU – NF experiment was an unmoderated internal clash of political cultures, but probably more importantly a profound lack of seriousness on both sides. Those exact same dangers lurk in the not so deep waters of this liason too.

They will be judged by the seriousness (or the lack of it) of their policy offerings and the durability of the bridges they build. 

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  • Colm Heaney

    Surely an SDLP/Alliance merger makes more sense with the former redesignating as other. If such an party could replace SF as the second party then obviously the GFA would have to be revisited, but that was always going to be the case.

  • 1729torus

    The SDLP are basically the descedants of the IPP in NI; the Alliance the Ulster Liberal tradition. It isn’t obvious what they have in common. That said, FF being a Republican party is both Liberal and Nationalist in theory, and could act as a keystone of any such arrangement.

  • mickfealty

    Some clarity of thinking in the matter would do both parties good. Where’s the space that interests you, with whom and what interests does it connect you with and how do you move into it?

    Mergers generally are a sign of political weakness. Many argue that the Coop Party’s amalgamation with Labour in 1927 was a means for the Unions to extinguish the influence of a rival leftist tradition.

    The advantage of bridge building is that:

    – 1 in post conflict NI they are still pretty badly needed if some of NI’s larger aspirations are to be fulfilled;

    – 2 you retain control of home ground (which must be solid for the bridge to stand a chance of working) whilst providing influence outside that home hinterland.

    Problem is that people generally prefer to talk about building bridges rather more than the hard work it takes to make them happen.

    There was a guy from the Dundalk Chamber at the #allislanddialogue who said he’s views Newry and Mourne as part of the same region.

    I don’t doubt his sincerity, but in the Narrow Water bridge we had a valuable local cross jurisdictional project which failed not just because it lacked political will (and Sammy Wilson’s subsidy) but also the hard grinding prep work that would have ensured it did happen.

    They also means that both you and your bridge building partner have the means to move back and forward across the new shared space. So in some respects you have to feel more secure in your own objectives if you are going to risk doing it.

  • tmitch57

    The biggest challenge to the new opposition is the lack of suitable legislation. The Stormont Assembly is still organized around the idea of enforced power sharing with any party over a certain size having a seat or seats in the Executive. What is needed is a compromise between the needs of enforced power sharing and the principle of defeat in elections. This can be done by making the losing party within each sector (unionists, nationalists, other) leave the Executive. The next big challenge is that the Shinners have for decades argued that Northern Ireland is ungovernable as an entity and they have little incentive to help prove themselves wrong. Although they might find that making Northern Ireland would be a faster route to a united Ireland than their previous strategy of obstruction. The final big challenge is that the Northern Ireland electorate tends to be very conservative and sectarian and it is difficult for old dogs to learn new tricks.