Progressive politics or feudalism?

Tom Kelly runs a measuring stick over the various institutions that have developed out of the consensus of the Belfast Agreement and wonders if it’s simply to accommodate the interests of politicians at the expense of the people they propose to represent.By Tom Kelly

If you are old enough to remember comedian James Young, you are probably much older than you have admitted to friends. Young’s humour was distinctly northern and his characters were intended to convey our differences with the rest of the UK and for him our distinctness from the rest of Ireland.

He was a unionist propagandist who used humour to level the playing field. He did not have to look far for inspiration and his characters were often based on people we seemed to know. Some were distinctly sectarian. Others hopelessly dreamed of an Ulster Utopia.

Time has dated some of the humour in the same way it has been unkind to Cherryvalley. Today, Orange Lilly is more likely to be a UDA drug dealer with blonde highlights and a perm-a-tan. The ‘serial protester’ is probably a High Court Judge. Mrs O Condriac is most likely a Sinn Fein health minister, and as for Ernie the shipyard worker – well that was and is an oxymoron.

Yet Young must have been an optimist. One of his parodies contained the lines about a paradise Ireland that he looked forward to in 1987 and with gusto he sang: ‘We are all ecumenical now – Ireland is heaven in 1987 and we are all ecumenical now’. Seventeen years on, it does not seem that ecumenical.

Writing in 1973, the national stadium by 1987 would be Croke Park but the national game would be cricket. Dublin would also be home to a statue of Terence O’Neill, Brian Faulkner and Jack Lynch. However of all Young’s characters, Ian Paisley is the only one still enduring.

No doubt even Young would find it humorous to find the ‘scourge’ of liberal unionism on the cusp of being first minister with a former IRA man as his deputy. But Ireland is still far from heaven. Agreement is being tortuously being wrung from the protagonists with all the generosity of Young’s miserly Ballymena farmer character.

The DUP has studied the Sinn Fein game well and are intent on making parity of esteem the political equivalent of the kill all or cure all – caster oil. Some republican foot soldiers, like their ‘official’ antecedents, seem to be concentrating on the privatisation of their activities.

These days the leadership of Sinn Fein seem to attend more black tie functions than a guild of masons. The Ulster Unionists are catching up with light reading, courtesy of Jeffrey Donaldson. The SDLP are pinning their hopes on a rebirth, following the restoration of an assembly. And, for a change, Alliance finds themselves the DUP’s poodle rather than the NIO’s. But then again the DUP may deliver the elusive ministerial seat the ‘Mini-Me’ party so desperately craves.

But have we reason to be optimistic?

Firstly it is good news that at least they all seem to want to get back to full time work. The assembly has been suspended for more than two years and in that time salaries and office expenses are still being drawn down.

It is hard to imagine those virtuous members of the former public accounts committee being too happy about government or non-government bodies continuing the authorised payment of taxpayer’s money for 30 months of non-activity. Surely one of the many oversight commissioners they abnegated responsibility to has something to say about value for money – if they remain out of office much longer?

Secondly, the imperial ministers increasingly appear to be taking a deliberately more provocative stance. First, they announced the highly unpopular proposals to impose water charges. The resulting opposition from all parties created more consensus than we have seen over the past two years.

So yet another reason to be cheerful.

Last week ‘Iron Ian’ – Pearson not Paisley – sent shock waves through the political parties by proclaiming we should only have seven local authorities. Again the resulting consensus was remarkable in its opposition to the proposals. Therefore in the parlance of ‘Humeism’ – consensus is always good. Whether or not any party has proposed any radical restructuring of local government is a matter for another day.

Apparently it does not matter as at least they are agreed on their dislike of the imperial blueprint. From public comments, they are all also in favour of a new ‘national’ or regional stadium. They are not so sure what to call it; where to locate it or who should play in it – but they are agreed we should have one.

No matter, the consensus is that consensus is good.

The breakout of ecumenism in opposition to any change seems par for the course in the north. But if and when the assembly is rerun, let’s hope there is consensus on the need to change its modus operandi.

Successful government is about progressive politics, partnership and enabling legislation. Against these bench marks, how successful was what went before?

Should they find themselves back in the seats of power rather than the corridors they now wander, there should be a moratorium on excessive consultancy reports. For example, given the amount of time that has already been spent on the review of public administration and the amount of consultation needed before any implementation could take place, we will be lucky to see any changes before 2015.

This would mean millions wasted over 20 years on unneeded administration. The over government of the north is not healthy and is not very progressive. It is structured more like a medieval feudal system and that system suits the local parties much more than it serves the public.

It is a fact in this matter that local politicians are not best placed to oversee the reduction in public administration in the north as they have a vested interest in the status quo. The great US mantra of “government of the people, for the people and by the people” could hardly be transplanted and placed above the doors of Stormont.
At the moment we have government over the people, in spite of the people and certainly, not by the people.

But unless the natives get their political acts together with a common agenda for positive government, we will be condemned to UK dictates that won’t be to our liking.

As James Young used to urge his audiences: “Will yis stap, yer fightin’, will yis!” Let’s hope we don’t have to wait quite so long as it’s not even funny anymore!

First published in the Irish News.