Countenancing a political future?

My response to Alan Ruddock’s piece in Management Today, and printed in this month’s hard copy issue.Alan Ruddock paints a grim but accurate picture of Northern Ireland’s economic crisis. That a crisis exists after thirty years of conflict is no surprise. What is disturbing is the depth of the hole, and the apparent lack of political will to countenance never mind tackle its root causes.

During the 1980s Tory direct rule minister Richard Needham boasted that by conserving high levels of public expenditure he’d saved Northern Ireland from the Thatcherite revolution. It was a revolution that in its Irish form helped lay the foundations of the Republic’s current economic blossoming.

Much of this seems lost on Northern Ireland’s current political leadership – effectively now the DUP and Sinn Fein. Both are consumed in endless rounds of ‘political chicken’, which prioritises the sectional interest of each community over the other. It’s a game that has been handsomely rewarded at the ballot box. But ultimately it adds up to a lack of confidence both in politics and in the future.

Northern Ireland has several innate strengths, including good transport and telecommunications infrastructure and high educational achievement. Yet if it is to leverage these advantages its political leaderships must put a premium on the future, and allow the turbulent past to rest in peace.

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  • Mick, you say, “if it is to leverage these advantages its political leaderships must put a premium on the future, and allow the turbulent past to rest in peace.”

    Surely part of the problem is that when the scale of the sh>t we’re is put in those nice sounding terms, each every one of the political parties will sign up to it and agree with you.

    It’s like one of those lines – ‘The need to build a new and vibrant knowledge based economy with a sustainable mix of FDI and indigenous growth blah blah blah…” The same platitudes are in all the manifestos and in every meaningless speech that every meaningles party ‘spokesperson on the economy’ has ever made.

    What the party leaderships need is to seek advice from people who know what they’re talking about and develop some policies that might actually get the economy moving here. But of course it won’t happen, because it will mean taking a machete to the public sector and we don’t have anyone prepared to call it as it is.

  • Mick Fealty

    Platitudinous? Maybe. Trouble is none of the current parties are yet in a position to follow Miayamoto’s Musashi’s advice to ‘see distant things as though they were close and to take a distant view of things that are close’, whilst we are stuck in a political loop which allows no one egress until all are ready to leave it.

    One of the key differences between northerners and southerners today (as opposed to 20 or 25 years ago) is that the south now seems possessed of an almost ruthless capacity for looking forward. We are still hooked on a subsidised past.

    Once out of the loop, can we expect to turn Northern Ireland’s gaze forward and away from compulsive engagement with ‘where we have been’. Until then it will sound like a platitude. But, free of the grinding Groundhog Day round it will imply, as you say, certain tough choices.

    Politicians need to draw in external expertise (and hothouse internal talent) in precisely the way you say. But that is not likely to be enough. We need policy champions: politicians who are willing to take a number of political risks.

    If you look at the Republic for an example, the ever unpopular PDs come to mind. Despite having been given the most unpopular brief in the cabinet Mary Harney seems to be thriving on the adversity of the Health Department.

    As a result, there is some truth in McDowell’s claim that although they are by far the junior partner in government, the PDs are shaping a lot of the key policy of that government.

    Perhaps we need one of the smaller parties to develop a sharp interest in the business of doing government and handling civil servants and the ‘balls’ to see through tough reforms?

    To see that through, the party (whichever of the current crop it might be) must keep focus on the future, and be prepared to accept (relish even) the turbulence of the present.

  • Pete Baker

    Hmm.. to see that ‘junior partner shaping key policy’ scenario through, Mick.. we’d need a complete overall of the Executive appointments in regard to d’Hondt, as well as the entire Assembly voting structure.. and, possibly, some new parties..

  • slug

    Indeed Pete. We need all of those things.

  • Mick Fealty

    Maybe Pete. But the ministries have some degree of autonomy. I think there could be some scope for a small player prepared to exercise some vision, and take some heat. Even better one of the larger players.

    The problem will come in convincing people that it’s worth it. That’s a deep rooted pyschological problem, given the political game in Northern Ireland is mired in a profound pessimism, perhaps borne of many years of bloody sectarian strife.

    As I’ve said above, the simple replication of that pessimism in political rhetoric has been handsomely rewarded at the polls. But there is no one currently in the position of narrating the future of Northern Ireland in social and economic terms, or showing much signs of policy innovation.

    That of course depends on getting out of this apparently endless loop. Then and only then, there will be a gap in the market.

  • Pete Baker

    “Maybe Pete. But the ministries have some degree of autonomy. I think there could be some scope for a small player prepared to exercise some vision, and take some heat. Even better one of the larger players.”

    Yes Mick.. and there lies a major problem with the current system.. where, given the minimum requirement of securing a Ministry, even a party with a minority of support can exercise autonomy over an entire department – regardless of what is happening elsewhere in the Executive.

    The junior party shaping key policy in a coalition government was the starting point of this conversation, Mick. I think that’s a great idea.

    We’re nowhere near that scenario.. and the current system of Assembly/Executive prevents rather than encourages its development.

  • Pete Baker

    Just to expand on that, Mick.

    A party couldn’t offer such a policy at the polls, because they have no way of knowing what Ministry they will gain autonomy in.

    The Executive doesn’t offer the kind of influence you have in mind – the shaping of key policy within government – it only offers the opportunity for a solo run against the grain of the rest of the Executive decisions, which can’t be offered at the polls[see above].. it’s not, to use the catch-phrase of recent times, joined-up government.

  • Mick Fealty

    I think there are ways around those for a party with some drive and imagination. Realistically, you are right about the limits on your specific manifesto promises of course. Then again that is a problem faced by all of the parties. But there are ways to mitigate that too, especially if the party is on for two or more briefs. There are likely to be useful consonances that can be found for some joining up.

  • Pete Baker


    I think the problem of finding a way around the Executive structure exemplifies the entire problem with the chosen system of government we have.

    It’s one which in order to work well depends, ultimately, on the co-operation of political parties which are more opposed in their political perspectives than just about any others I can think off.

    That’s why, in my opinion, it repeatedly failed, and will continue to fail.

    What we needed [and still need] was a system of government that can operate in a joined-up manner despite those opposing perspectives – not one that depended on parties abandoning their perspectives to co-operate in the first place.

    Basically, we have a system that relies on the belief that, fundamentally, everyone really wants to get along with everyone else.. against the evidence of a few million years of the history of the human race.

  • Mick Fealty

    I’m not sure that on 18 months of working you can say definatively that it failed. You can say it has irksome irritations, and after working it for a time, there are things that can and should be taken to the electorate for reform by the time of the next review (if there is a next one).

    The gist of my piece above is that the problem lies in an across the board failure to imagine and engage with the future. In such circumstances it may not be practical to invent the perfect machine first. Instead we might more realistically look for vision emerge in one quarter then slowly work an effect through the system.

  • Pete Baker

    Well, I was about to add a second thought on that, Mick..

    And it’s this. The suggestion that a single party could work the system of government to imagine and engage the future has another implication, which also highlights the problem of the system itself.

    You’re assuming that such an imagining would be for the betterment of society as a whole.. there’s no guarantee nor any checks or balances to ensure that.

    Given the minimum requirement of securing a Ministry through d’Hondt, any party, at any time, could pursue any policy within those autonomous ministries for any purpose.. and there’s little we as an electorate could do about it.

    btw it’s not about attempting to construct a perfect machine.. the Assembly we have is an example of such an attempt.

  • Mick Fealty

    I’m assuming that provides someone with an opportunity to do something with it. I’m thinking of one of the minor parties, because they are all struggling for a purpose in the aftermath of November 03.

    It could also be destructive. But the point of democracy is surely to provide accountability; not to preclude people from committing folly, surely?

  • Pete Baker

    The issue of accountability doesn’t quite gel with the idea of autonomous ministries, Mick.

    Democracy should provide choice as well as accountability.. the imagining you suggest, taking place beyond manifestos, is not a choice that we as an electorate would be given.

    [Taking it as an issue beyond the question of what form such an imagining would be] It would also, in the case of a minor party, be imposed on the majority of the electorate who would not have voted for it even if it had been in a manifesto.

    What’s missing, and has been for too long, is a Bill of Rights to measure policy against. With that in place, choice could freely be offered to the electorate without the current attempt to construct the perfect Assembly machine.

  • Mick Fealty

    Bill of Rights? In what form?

  • Pete Baker

    Well, we’ve had 8 years to come up with an answer to that question, Mick.. and, as you know, it’s no nearer.. in part because of the continual wrangling over constructing the perfect Assembly machine.

    My own view is that it should be one based on the rights of the individual.. there are some precedents available which seem to be reasonably effective..

  • Mick Fealty

    I’m not sure how that would affect parliamentary accountablity other than restrict political choice?

  • Pete Baker

    Parliamentary accountability isn’t what the Bill of Rights is about, Mick.. it’s about restricting political choices which would infringe those individual rights.. and it’s why it should be based on the individual not on the already too prevalent group-based mentality.

    With those restrictions in place, accountability and choice can be put in the hands of the electorate – with a solid justice system to back it up.

  • Mick Fealty

    The Human Rights debate seems to gone dark somewhat since Brice left post, but a lot hinges on the precise nature of the new draft Bill. Particularly any additionality to the European Convention.

  • Mick / Pete I’ve just tuned back into this and I’m glad I did. Where this thread has gone typifies, to my mind, what is wrong here.

    You start a conversation on making difficult economic choices and putting economic development at the centre of politics here and within 18 posts we’re talking about the Bill of Human bloody Rights.

  • Alan


    Pete is quite right in what he says about Human Rights, because the thread is about making hard political choices. Restricting those choices is something that Government has been doing for years through equality legislation, regulation – even back to taking kids out of the mines.

    It is about preventing abuses and discrimination, something we should all support. I was part of a delegation to the Dail Sub Committee and what was interesting there was to see politicians who understood the realities of a constitution that restricts political choices. They didn’t fear it the way many politicians brought up in the British tradition do. Mind you some of them were also happy to restrict the rights of disabled people, rather than progressively implement change!

    It is time, by the way that the Gov’t got the finger out and called the parties to the Round Table on the HR Bill as long promised.

    On the core issue of whether current parties can lead in the search for economic success through unpopular measures, I just don’t see the green and orange parties being able to achieve that on any level, because there is no opportunity to build real coalitions. The idea of one maverick making a major difference – forget it – you need a cross departmental approach on every major issue in today’s system of governance.

  • Mick Fealty


    Given the original premise (which Urq has kindly reminded us of), you seem to be arguing against any radicalisation of the body politic, and for the sumpremacy of law over the legislature.

    Now, neither yourself nor Pete have yet qualified the precise need for the Bill, or indeed quantified the extent of effects over the executive, so I’m guessing a bit here.

    We need to re-visit Ruddock’s original:

    …the politics of the province remain mired in confrontation and mistrust, with no immediate prospect of resolution. When Northern Ireland seeks new investors, it cannot present a united front. Its politicians have refused to take the lead, preferring to play out their tribal differences while ignoring the economic opportunities.

    If the executive is to be held within rigid boundaries (additional to those in which it already operates), what is the incentive for ambitious men and women to take up politics in Northern Ireland in the first place?

    With the necessity of locking everyone (but the non aligned) into government there are already severe parliamentary checks on what individuals can do.

    Besides, what we are talking about here is addressing economic problems that most agree exist, but few are prepapred to take a chance on.

    Returning to the ‘unpopular’ PDs. These guys raise people heckles, but Harney and McDowell are driving major modernisation programmes in health and policing, which previous ministers in other parties viewed almost as a punishment from the Taoiseach.

    They do so because they (unusually for anyone in Irish politics) did some of the big picture thinking long before taking office.

    I submit they provide an example for how a small, middle class based party to get in and get their hands dirty in Northern Ireland – on jobs that need doing, but others dare not touch.

    Who knows, maybe one of the two big parties will surprise us yet?

  • Pete Baker

    I see we’re not quite on the same page, Mick

    “With the necessity of locking everyone (but the non aligned) into government there are already severe parliamentary checks on what individuals can do.”

    Here’s the thing. My point is that the current Assembly machine actually prevents the emergence of the kind of party you’re imagining.

    Take the PDs for example, the reason why they could influence key government policy is because they were able to offer something to FF – their votes to keep both parties in government.

    The situation in the assembly is that no such trading could take place.

    While parties may agree on the economic problems, their solutions will be wildly different.. that’s how it should be.

    But there’s nowhere in the current system for the choice of solution to be offered, never mind endorsed – it relies entirely on the belief that all parties can agree and co-operate on the same solution to deliver joined-up government – as anti-democratic, and unrealistic, a situation as I can think of.

    As for the Bill of Rights, admittedly I don’t have all the i’s dotted nor the t’s crossed, but I envisage it as not acting directly to restrict an Executive, more as being present to restrict the possible effects of policy.

    The Magna Carta Memorial at Runnymede, erected by the American Bar Association has an inscription which may be a good guide for those nervous of such a document – “To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of Freedom Under Law

    With that freedom we could make an attempt at something closer to democracy than we currently have.

    In short, when Blair made his speech ushering everyone onto the train, ‘it’s leaving the station’, what most missed was that we were getting on the wrong train.

  • Mick Fealty

    I think the missing detail on the BofR is crucial. It’s not a factor at the moment, and all the BA suggests is that the Commission review the possibility: ie it simply may not happen. In any case, this, surely, is a major disincentive to any but the most conservative politician:

    “…more as being present to restrict the possible effects of policy”.

    You might be right about the impossibility of radicalising politics. Or you might just be guilty of the kind of pessimism that, I have argued, currently pervades Northern Irish politics.

    In either case, how do we rise to meet Urq’s challenge to imagine a politics that can countenance and take tough decisions on the economy, if everyone is constantly forced to run for cover?

    PS, the decision to close the Tyrone Hospital shows that when in power some actors had the capacity to understand the need to take tough decisions. But the lack of public debatee around it suggests an ideological disjuncture between stated policy and executive action.

  • Pete Baker

    I don’t see it as pessimism, Mick – naturally 🙂 – more as optimism that there is a better alternative.

    My point, in response to Urq’s challenge, is that we can imagine all we like.. but the current system actively works against such an imagining becoming a reality.

  • Pete

    I can’t agree with your assesment of why somone like the PDs could not have a similar impact in the North. You say “While parties may agree on the economic problems, their solutions will be wildly different…”

    In my view the problem is that the parties have NO coherent view on what the solutions should be. We have a political class whose entire motivation has been the constitutional issue and the response to provo / state violence. Ability or ideas on how to improve the economic situation has no value within the political parties, so we haven’t had the chance to see whether such talent would be valued by the voters.

    The PDs’ impact in the Republic is based in part on the electoral math you talk about, but it is much more than that. They are driven by ideology and have clear plans for dealing with the various problems there. When no one else has the plan or the ambition, that junior partner is able to drive change.

    There is no reason why the same situation could not happen in the context of a functioning Executive. When the ‘senior partners’ here have no economic plan and aren’t bothered by the detail, the ‘junior partners’ who do, could deliver real change.

    Mick hit the nail on the head earlier in the thread when he wondered when some of the ‘big two’ (I’m assuming SDLP and UUP here Mick!) would wake up to the opportunity that exists and start to build on it.

    As long as we have the nationalist block as lazy centre-left and the unionists as lazy centre-right, your negative assesment stands Pete. When those politics are challenged, that’s when I think we could start to see the sort of progress Mick’s talking about.

    But as long as discussions on economic development and radical reform end up mired in Human Rights talk within 18 contributions, we’re going nowhere!

  • IJP

    There are two key points here.

    It is not quite that people are unwilling to be readical, but rather that they do not think long-term. One reason for this is that we are polled almost every year, there are always elections on. Another is that the largest four political parties are specifically based on the narrative of a divided past, and cannot afford electorally to risk anything other than a divided future.

    Would a Unionist going to the polls saying ‘You know, really we didn’t do much during the War and, in any case, it was 60 years ago’ get very far? Would a Nationalist saying ‘Actually Connolly and the lads were terrorists stabbing us all in the backs and we should be ashamed of them’ get very far? No, best retain the mythical historical narrative of ‘our heroes’ versus ‘their shame’ – meaning that plans for the future are based on myths and division. Oh dear.

    The second point, to be blunt, is that the Agreement sets up a Human Rights Commission to consider whether or not there should be rights beyond the European Convention on Human Rights given the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland.

    Would any Unionist dare take the Human Rights issue on at all? Would any Nationalist dare to go to the polls and say ‘No’.

    So we are left with the severest restrictions on political dialogue. We cannot take on Unionism without being deemed ‘anti-Protestant’ or take on Nationalist without being deemed ‘anti-Catholic’. We cannot take on the existing equality legislation without being deemed ‘anti-equality’. We cannot take on the notion of a Bill of Rights without being deemed ‘anti-Human Rights’ (or even ‘anti-Catholic’, given the interest groups and the communitarian nature of it all).

    That is why I have challenged many of these notions. Why should Nationalists or Unionists be represented where they have no elected mandate, just because they are ‘Nationalist’ or ‘Unionist’? Why should ‘human rights’ be based on a communitarian approach and require an actual ‘bill’ or ‘all-island Charter’? But far more than any of this, why should Nationalists and Unionists not collectively be challenged for their abject failure to show, by deed not just by word, that when they talk about ‘mutual respect’ they understand what it means, when they talk about ‘justice’ they understand what it means, and when they oppose ‘violence’ they understand the nature of state-sponsored force?

    The whole debate has become warped to the restriction of real democracy. The ‘rule of law’ is not understood, the ‘market economy’ has become a dependency culture, ‘democracy’ has become agreeing to disagree while ensuring that we never actually agree.

    Is anyone prepared to stand up for democracy and ensure we have it by, let’s say, 2016…?

  • IJP
    You begin your post claiming that the problem is that the four main parties are stuck in a narrative of the past and then go on to spend the full post complaining about what has gone on to date.

    Your post is again sadly typical. You find time to look down the nose at the big 4 parties but not a second to address the subject at hand – what needs to be done to radicalise thinking on the economy here.

    You say, “Why should ‘human rights’ be based on a communitarian approach and require an actual ‘bill’ or ‘all-island Charter’? But far more than any of this, why should Nationalists and Unionists not collectively be challenged for their abject failure to show, by deed not just by word, that when they talk about ‘mutual respect’ they understand what it means, when they talk about ‘justice’ they understand what it means?”


    Pete, forget about my optimism earlier.

  • IJP



    Firstly, what I refer to is the period since the Agreement that we are currently trying to implement. In other words, I am talking about the present not the past.

    Secondly, you suggest that I have done nothing to radicalize thinking on the economy. Before making such statements against me, you should read statements from me that are in the public domain within the past year.

    These have included:
    opposition to £134m PEACE III funding (we need wealth creation, not dependency);
    opposition to the campaign to lower corporate tax to 12.5% (as a waste of time because it isn’t going to happen);
    closure of significant numbers of schools and leisure centres and their replacement by facilities used by all the community; with subsequent re-allocation of that money partly to other public services, and partly to the abolition of water charges, rates hikes and tuition fees (i.e. I oppose water charges, rates hikes and tuition fees and, unlike others, I can fund it);
    – refusal to invite parties to participate in political panels ‘because they’re Nationalist’ or ‘because they’re Unionist’;
    – abolition of the term ‘political opinion’ from Section 75 Schedule 9 and its replacement by the term ‘national affiliation’;
    – answering the question as to whether NI requires rights supplemental to ECHR with a clear ‘no’;
    – abolition of InterTradeIreland but introduction of an all-island energy regulator;
    – insertion of teaching and policing to the Equality Act;
    – opposition to any requirement to produce written Government documents in any language other than English;
    – etc etc.

    These are all radical, and I am on record as having said them all in public in the past 12 months (even if some were, and still are, presented as ‘ideas’ rather than something that must happen).

    Do you think they find much support among the ‘Big Four’, or indeed among the politicized public?

    Not yet…

  • briso

    Well, this is quite an extraordinary thread. There are so many statements made as if they were self-evident facts that seem utterly wrong to me.

    I’ll start with the d’Hondt system for electing relatively powerful autonomous ministers against the ‘Voluntary Coalition’ (VC) model so beloved of the unionist parties and Alliance. Let’s pretend Alliance aren’t unionist. They use the term ‘cross-community’ consensus but won’t say what that means. Slug helpfully suggested in another thread that normally these VC systems need 60-70% support. Having personal experience of VC government in three countries, all of them needed only to have more than 50% of the votes in parliament. Indeed the current coalition in Italy received less than 50% of the popular vote! The only thing we know about the system proposed by Alliance is they would abolish the system of designation so one wonders how ‘a cross-community vote’ could be judged without communities.

    The d’Hondt system has tremendous strengths and indeed those strengths are precisely those most on this thread (Pete Baker above all) identify as weaknesses. Before I go any further, I think it’s important to note that the system has not been tried. An alien reading this thread would assume that the parties here have been responsible for economic policy in NI when that is simply and obviously not the case. We have had a brief sunny period among the constant drizzle of Westminster economic, cultural and social (mis)management. To base any argument for reform on the basis that the current situation shows the failure of the assembly system is ridiculous.

    Back to d’Hondt. The best thing about it is the fact that everyone with a mandate is represented in government and there is real scope to effect change. It is precisely because of this system that Peter Robinson was able to push through the bypass at Toome, Martin McGuinness was able to abolish the eleven plus and Bairbre de Brun was able to assign maternity provision to the Royal. These decisions were taken against various vested interests but the ministers went ahead. The objections to this are to the policies and are being dressed up as objections in principle. Unionists didn’t like Babs favouring the Royal, Nationalists didn’t like PR favouring internal roads rather than the Dublin-Belfast corridor. To be brutal, “Tough shit!”.

    As for the matter of ‘joined up’ government, what is so great about that? Another name for
    it in this context is domination. The PM decides what happens and interferes in everyone elses department to ensure it does exactly what he wants in the way he wants it. This is not better. In the case of our system, the budget is crucial. What a minister can do depends on how much money he gets to do it. After that, he and his party stand before the electorate. The question of not knowing which ministries are to be taken by the party for which you are voting could be bettered by requiring all parties to choose their preferences for their ministers in order before the vote. I consider this to be a superb system which could be recommended to others. I certainly believe we need to wait for at least the election after next before proposing a change.

    The disadvantages of the VC system are legion and well known. In the Netherlands, the tiny
    centre party held the balance of power for fifty years post war. They formed a government with whichever of the left or the right was in the majority and looked after them best. This permanent influence far in excess of their mandate was profoundly anti-democratic and led to great resentment. Finally, a ‘Paarscoalitie’ was formed, where left and right combined to exclude the centre. This coalition won two elections and proved that the ‘extremes’ can work together and was indeed taken up by other countries (Belgium for example I think?). I utterly reject the idea in this thread that we need a small middle-class party (said apparently without embarrassment!) which knows better than the electorate which rejects them what we all need. See here (subs needed).

    Lets get specific. In our case we’re talking about Alliance, the party that inexplicably considers itself the radical alternative. The whole thrust of this argument is to allow the exclusion of Sinn Fein, despite the level of their mandate. This is irrespective of the percentage of seats required to form an executive. What remains unclear to me is whether the proposed system would allow a DUP, UUP and Alliance coalition. Alliance are, in their own description, cross-community so I have a horrible feeling that even this anti-democratic abomination may be considered acceptable. Of course, anything else would be impossible. The DUP will never ‘voluntarily’ share power with SF and the UUP and SDLP know that the exclusion of either SF or DUP would mean the extinction of one of them. So it’s back to majority rule. No thanks.

  • Hey IJP, calm down. I don’t know a damn about any statements you’ve made in your life and I’m not bothered – I’m referring to your posting on this thread. And my point stands.

  • IJP

    If you’re not going to engage in honest debate, why bother at all?


    Your point quite evidently does not stand.


    It really would be helpful if we stopped this ‘victimized nonsense’.

    Does the British electoral system ‘exclude’ the Tories? Does the Scottish system ‘exclude’ the Scottish Nationalists? Does the southern Irish system ‘exclude’ Fine Gael?

    Alliance has, uniquely among the five Assembly parties, spent the past 30 years opposing outright majority rule in all its forms. Are you seriously suggesting Alliance would contemplate a DUP-UU-Alliance coalition?

    No one’s ‘excluding’ anyone. We are saying the people of Northern Ireland should have the same democratic rights as everyone else in the Western World – including the right to elect and remove a government/governing coalition. Why are you so afraid of real democracy?

    The fact that you try to pigeon-hole Alliance merely shows an inability to think outside the sectarian political box. Again, why so afraid of real political debate rather than representation by tribal marker?

    Many people in NI simply (and correctly) do not see the world in this ‘tribal’ way. That’s why so many of them don’t bother with politics or voting.