Why the middle needs to come together…

One of the things we want to kick around in our second blogtalkradio session tomorrow night (8.30 start, if you can make it). It’s also a theme for Roy Garland’s column in yesterday’s Irish News. He states:

The election is primarily a morale boost for the two biggest parties who can present themselves as the only shows in town. Changes to St Andrews mean the old requirement that First Minister be nominated by the largest party within the largest designation was substantially altered in the Act. This states if at any time the party which is the largest political party of the largest political designation is not the largest political party, nomination shall instead be made by the nominating officer of the largest political party. Put simply, the largest party nominates so that Martin McGuinness could lead an assembly dominated by unionists or Ian Paisley one dominated by nationalists as long as other parties remain disunited or have been eliminated.

Sinn Féin and the DUP can present the election as a straight choice between Paisley and McGuinness. Paisley can say that if unionists don’t vote for him they could have McGuinness and vice versa. McGuinness is thus being overly cautious in suggesting Sinn Féin might have First Minister in five years.

This is likely to colour the election and could result in a reversion to the notorious sectarian head-counting exercises of the past. The change apparently originated with Sinn Féin but was understandably and eagerly grasped by the DUP. Usually political parties can be relied upon to serve the interests of political parties and Tony Blair is so desperate about his personal legacy he colludes in sacrificing our hopes for a shared future so long as this antagonistic tribal marriage can be made to appear to work.

If all the ball remains entirely with Sinn Fein and the DUP, he predicts a cantonisation of Northern Ireland in to separately dominant ‘green’ and ‘orange’ fiefdoms. A solution he finds “only marginally, if at all, better” than fifty years of one party government. This requires the ‘middle ground’ to start finding political bridges:

There is an alternative. The so-called centre parties – SDLP, Ulster Unionists, Alliance and PUP – could come together in a potentially powerful democratic alliance opposing those wittingly or unwittingly about to cement apartheid. Such an alliance would be a practical expression of a desire for a shared future and could become a powerful antidote to a system based on division of the spoils between pyrrhic victors.

But such a coming together presupposes considerable courage and a coming of age, neither of which appears to exist in sufficient quantities. The centre parties seem dominated by inertia and risk aversion. They reflect sectional – if not sectarian – interests. For them, compromise for the sake of peace is good in theory but not all that attractive in practice.

Perhaps we can detect a gleam of light in the changing face of republicanism and in the cumbersome about-face of Ian Paisley. If the big parties can build a stable future even on the basis of a divided society, this is perhaps progress of a kind. Politics after all, is the art of the possible.

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  • Nevin

    The PUP, like SF, is the political wing of a paramilitary organisation. I’ve coined the term parapolitician to describe those who are ‘managed’ by their respective army councils.

    The constitutional fix in the 1998 Agreement prevents even the centre ground politicians from working together. Hence my proposal for devolution within shared sovereignty, the merger of strands 2 and 3 and no hiding place for the paramilitary godfathers. The present fix alongside governments’ appeasement has placed the ‘needs’ of the paramilitary godfathers above those of centre-ground politicians and ordinary decent folks.

  • Crataegus

    Union of the SDLP UUP and Alliance just won’t happen. (the PUP we can forget about)

    The SDLP still has hope and the UUP dossn’t realise it is fatally wounded. Alliance see themselves as the one true faith and Greens see some political breakthrough.Yet I have no doubt if such an conglomerate did form it would completely annihilate SF and the DUP.

    I can see no reason why nationalists and unionists cannot cooperate in the one party. It could happen in heaven but in NI?

    I think the parties will only consider unity if they are faced with oblivion.

  • The Clockwoman

    Could someone explain that to me again?

  • middle-class taig

    Roy seems to miss the point that SF have now colonised the middle ground.

    All the parties here are quite broad churches. If you painted an Green-to-Orange spectrum, then put that on a 0 to 100 scale, where Darkest orange is 100 (a region inhabited by rejectionist, former-Paisleyite, howl-at-the-moon nutters), and darkest green (0) is occupied by the most recalcitrant Ruari O’Bradaigh acolytes, who believe that the legitimate government of Ireland is the Continuity Army Council, you’d probably place the parties in something like the following ranges:

    Republican Sinn Fein – 0-5
    Recently resigned SF – 5-20
    Sinn Fein – 10-40
    SDLP – 20-55
    Alliance – 47-65
    UUP – 55-85
    DUP – 65-95
    UKUP – 75-90
    PUP (ie Davy Ervine) – 55-95
    Assorted Crazies – 95-100

    (Delighted to take comments on these ranges.)

    As such, my argument would be that, at least on the nationalist side of the fence, there’s really only a small sliver of the electorate that is beyond SF’s reach these days, so that any coming together of the middle ground risks being unionist-heavy unless it reaches out to SF. On policing, power-sharing, cross-border cooperation, immigration, multi-culturalism, finance of public works, etc, SF is now firmly middle-ground. Indeed, what is there left that SF is “extreme” on? OTRs? Dail representation? CRJ?

    Roy needs to take off his binary spectacles. The only zero-sum extremists left are in the DUP.

  • Nevin

    MCT, your ranges would appear to suffer from a green shift. Haven’t you been to Spec …..? 😉

    The notion that the SDLP is a little bit orange is very funny and that there are no green crazies is – crazy ….

  • abucs

    Agree with MCT that SF are fast moving in from what many people would have called ‘the extreme’, this is why they have gained votes. One the unionist side the UUP moving more into the centre had the opposite effect.

    Also agree with Crataegus that parties will only merge if they are on the point of oblivion. Tricky part is though, that they both have to reach oblivion at roughly the same time.

  • middle-class taig


    RSF and fellow travellers occupy almost the entire crazy green field to my mind. Orange crazies are a far more disparate bunch.

    Also, I thought I’d been generous to SDLP at the other end. I think they do attract some light unionist support, and compete with the Alliance for more than just a few apple-flesh green “taigs”. It honestly wasn’t meant as any kind of insult. Quite the contrary.

  • One ray of hope in the past that Roy omitted to mention might be seen in the ‘coming together’ of various political strands to back independent candidate John Gilliland in the last European elections. His supporters at least crossed a few political parties, and I think even his most vociferous opponents would admit he did reasonably well.

    Aside from that, both the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements were both designed to lead to sectarian carve-ups. Can anyone think of any other ‘democracy’ where elected representatives are forced to declare their tribal identity in such a devisive manner? Would Americans stand for it if their politicians were forced to declare themselves ‘black’ or ‘Asian’ or whatever, and then vote in a racial bloc? No – they’re all ‘American’.

  • lib2016


    The problem is that NI was set up as a ‘one-party-state’ and the only practical alternative to one party rule is powersharing. That situation will continue even if nationalists become an internal majority since it could take several parliamentary sessions before they could realistically hope to win a border referendum, indeed it has been claimed that they will never win a such a referendum.

    In the meantime we need a solution by which we can govern ourselves. An agreement on powersharing is a huge step forward and our politicans are nearly there. Maybe they deserve our congratulations just for once.

  • Nevin

    MCT, might you be confusing tactical voting for the SDLP/UUP candidate as support?

  • J Kelly

    People have short memories in the previous executive Trimble and Mallon/Durkan shared offices as far as possible apart and very rarely broke breath. The middle ground is a falacy that the NIO peddle in hope. The SDLP problem is that they are running after Sinn Fein and becoming greener by the day and Green does not suit Durkan or Attwood at all.

  • Token Dissent

    There is a need for a major re-alignment of the centre ground, perhaps involving the establishment of a new party. We need a political force that –
    1) accepts the constitutional position outlined in the Agreement, and gets on with addressing social and economic issues.

    2) is strongly anti-sectarian, and genuinely seeks to attract cross-community support.

    3) isn’t a middle-class/golf club pursuit.

    Clearly due to its’ structures and history the UUP will never be able to act to fulfill this role.

    In fact both the SDLP and the UUP are continuing to play tribal politics in a desperate attempt to recapture voter that have moved to the right.

    In the short to medium term events, such as the SDLP’s arrogant declaration that Orde is their man, will act to make it even tougher for the co-operation amongst the parties that Roy hopes for to emerge.

    Alliance for all its efforts is lacking in direction, personality, and leadership.

  • Belfast Gonzo

    Perhaps, as Tony Blair once suggested to Alliance (and the SDLP, as it happens), the problem is that it doesn’t have any guns?

  • Can anyone think of any other ‘democracy’ where elected representatives are forced to declare their tribal identity in such a devisive manner?

    Belgium, Lebanon, Fiji…

  • aquifer

    I’m sick of this soapy Peacenik nonsense.

    The middle does not need to come together at all.

    Bill Clinton understood the need for political ‘triangulation’, identifying issues that are off-axis in terms of existing political identities. These are the issues that can unbalance old stagers and catch new votes.

    Non sectarian parties need to bite gouge and scream at one another over issues that don’t involve the constitution of NI, which is more or less settled in the GFA arrangements. They also need to treat the DUPSF coalition for non-governance with sneering contempt.

    Alliance are too tolerant, always willing to make up the numbers for the next ethnic deadbeat convention. They are also a hopeless agglomeration of interests who cannot make their mind up on anything. What would they do in government? I have no clue and I’m generally interested in politics. They need to adopt extreme policies of any ilk to get traction, but they will never do it. Lets just forget about them.

    Parties should not collude with sectarian gangmasters in pretending that the GFA is not a done deal that the Brits are now obliged to impose. They could line up together and blame the Brits, but they should then use the press conference to attack one another vociferously on economic policies.

    Stage a fight and the media are around like flies around shite. It worked for both Ian Paisley and SFPIRA, didn’t it?

  • confused

    I can not see UUP and SDLP coming together on a formal basis to represent the middle ground.
    They will however work at election time by tactical voting to frustrate the extremism of SF and DUP.
    Where UUP have no chance of getting elected they will support SDLP to keep SF out and the same thinking will apply to SDLP voters.
    This trend will develop over the years.

  • IJP

    Sorry, because Roy’s a well-meaning chap, but this kind of stuff is just annoying (and frankly dangerous) claptrap.

    The UUP, SDLP and PUP are not centre parties. Get it?

    The UUP is for Unionists only, the SDLP is for Nationalists only, the PUP is for Loyalists only. The UUP and SDLP don’t “come together” because their objectives are totally different!

    There is only one party (Alliance) which attempts to encompass the lot.

    What on earth is so difficult about that?!

  • Greenflag

    There is no ‘middle ground’ in Northern Ireland . There can’t be when you have such a huge divide as regards Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. If the Trimble/Mallon executive could not hold then why would anyone expect a Paisley executive to be anything more than a brief honeymonn followed by another quick divorce.

    Face the truth lads -the Northern Ireland State is a failed political entity . There are only two practical and possible solutions . One is a UI which Unionists don’t want and the other is Repartition which will happen anyway as a result of Hain’s seven council redistricting plan.

    But the NI politicians need to hurry up about it.

    With Dubliners and people from the Republic now buying up investment property in Northern Ireland it’ll only be a matter of time before the ‘last colony’ of the British Empire becomes the first acquisition of the fast growing Republic.

  • Greenflag


    ‘I think the parties will only consider unity if they are faced with oblivion. ‘

    By which time it’ll be too late anyway.
    This election will see a continuation of the trend to a two party sectarian carve up of the NI State which IMO will eventually result in de facto and de jure ‘repartition’ .

    It’s a solution so perhaps instead of hoping for a revival of the UUP or SDLP we should hope instead for their final demise as political forces in NI.

  • Crataegus


    I think I said, “Union of the SDLP UUP and Alliance just won’t happen”.

    (oblivon)By which time it’ll be too late anyway.


    In many ways I am not as pessimistic as you re cohesion in NI. If we can get a few year of relative normality behind us I thing you will see change. In the circles I move there is certainly much more flexibility that would have been the case 20 years ago. Positions are not set in concrete.

  • Nevin

    “the Northern Ireland State is a failed political entity”

    So very Charles Haughey, Greenflag. IIRC some of his associates assisted the formation of the Provos and he didn’t take the tough line with these militant republicans that Lemass had in the earlier troubles.

  • Anyone who thinks the PUP are a centre party has been partaking of too much of the stuff their pals in the UVF sell.

    As for centre parties needing to take extreme positions on socio-economic issues to survive, yes that’s the strategy that has led the Workers’ Party and the Tories to dominance in the NI party system.

  • confused

    You mention two options. There is a third namely integration with UK and being governed by Westminster directly just like the people of Finchley.
    After all NI is a part of UK and Westminster is sovereign.

  • Greenflag


    The fact that NI is a failed political entity has nothing to do with CJ Haughey despite the latter’s association the term . The State was destined to fail from it’ very outset . Carson knew that a 9 county Ulster could never be politically stable which is why he opted for the 6 County State . Northern Ireland (6 counties) in 2007 now has the same demographics as 9 county Ulster had in 1920 . Being a Dubliner-Carson might of course just have been better at predicting and making the numbers make sense 🙂

    Anyway it’s about time for another’partition’ . Let’s hope this time they get some ‘professionals’ to draw the new line properly. Rather that or Direct Rule than a useless sectarian based Assembly with a 17th century fundamentalist cleric as First Minister!
    There is nowhere at this time for Unionist voters to go except further into the DUP cage .

    This election may prove to be the UUP’s final burial ground . The SDLP political demise cannot be far away either .

    What Albion wants -Albion eventually gets –

    A divided Ireland 1920
    A divided Northern Ireland 2020 .

  • Nevin

    Greenflag, the actions of Haughey and his associates helped protect the southern state from the ‘socialist revolution’ but the price paid here was a very heavy one for a lot of people.

  • Greenflag


    ‘There is a third namely integration with UK and being governed by Westminster directly just like the people of Finchley. After all NI is a part of UK and Westminster is sovereign. ‘

    You are of course correct in theory . There is no good reason as to why NI could not be governed just like Finchely . Enoch Powell made this very point and James Molyneux former UUP leader was also an ‘integrationist’. Unfortunately for both Powell and Molyneux while they were integrationists no British Government since 1920 has even hinted at that situation ever being a possibility -even the Iron Lady herself who IIRC made the notorious Finchley comment .

    If you are confused as to why this ‘integration’ cannot or won’t happen vis a vis the NI 6 county State you should not be . It’s the way Albion/HMG works . But don’t worry this does not mean that HMG does not NI as non British it’s just that some parts e.g Finchley are more British than others .

    Just another little ‘confusion’ to add to the long list of HMG’s ‘confusions’ in Ireland ever since yer man the Archbishop of Canterbury managed to squeeze that Laudabiliter from an English Pope that allowed Henry II to claim the Lordship of Ireland to add to his growing titular collection.

  • Greenflag


    ‘In many ways I am not as pessimistic as you re cohesion in NI.’

    I’m not a pessimist just a skeptic 🙂 I’ll believe when I see proof! I don’t doubt that there can be societal /economic cohesion both within NI and between the Republic and NI as time passes etc etc . However I don’t see this farce of an Assembly as being necessary or even desirable to that end .

    ‘Positions are not set in concrete. ‘

    This is true however they might as well be for all practical purposes . States once assembled find it notoriously difficult to ‘unassemble ‘ themselves. We’ve seen this phenomenon in Eastern europe and in NI 1920-1972. Left to their own devices would the UUP ever have disbanded Stormont ? Unfortunately it usually takes a violent revolution or societal economic implosion (USSR 1989) before the politicians in power finally admit that the game is up !

    Part of the reason for NI’s relative economic decline 1970 through to the present has been the inability of it’s political leaders (both sides0 to admit that the game was up ! Both Unionist political pretense and Republican wishful thinking are both games in which there is one winner and one loser . And don’t kid yourself Paisley and Adams are still at it 🙁

  • Greenflag

    Nevin, the actions of Edward Carson and his associates helped establish the Northern state abut the price paid was a very heavy one for a lot of people.

    Nevin , the actions of HMG in Ireland down through the centuries in as they strove to protect the western approaches to Britain from other european powers no doubt helped protect the English people but the price paid here in Ireland was a very heavy one for a lot of people.

    And when you look at the numbers the actions of HMG outnumber the results of the former and those of your own action reference by a factor of hundreds to one

  • Token Dissent

    Greenflag, enjoying your posts as ever.

    Stating that “there is no middle ground in Northern Ireland” ignores the fluid nature of unionism and nationalism. These two blocs include a variety of identities and political ideals that allow for common ground to develop. Look at the high numbers who transfer votes across the divide. Add in the low turn out, plus Alliance et al, and you can see how an alternative to the tribal polarisation is possible.

    Admittedly don’t be holding your breath for dramatic signs of it in this election!

    A small question regarding historical fact: what evidence have you that Britain wanted a divided Ireland in 1920? Partition was a last resort in order to avoid north-south conflict, it wasn’t their desired outcome. Even then it was seen as a temporary measure. The forces that partioned Ireland were INTERNAL.

  • Nevin

    Greenflag, I understood the decision to leave the UK came from Irish nationalism; afteral, they had played a wrecking hand in UK politics prior to the formation of the UUC.

    London, Dublin and Belfast did a deal in December 1925 – and Dev reneged later.

    When the going got too hot in NI in the late 60s Dublin did a deal with the ‘Catholic-Ireland’ faction of the IRA to protect its own backyard.

    And we currently have the hypocrisy of Ahern who, if I can paraphrase Adams, doesn’t want a Fenian about the place ie in a FF coalition.

  • Greenflag


    ‘Stating that “there is no middle ground in Northern Ireland” ignores the fluid nature of unionism and nationalism’

    I agree that each has a fluid nature . So has a waterfall . Problem being that the nationalist/republican waterfall flows into the Irish Sea whereas the Unionist waterfall prefers to flow in the direction of the British ocean.:)

    ‘Look at the high numbers who transfer votes across the divide.’

    High numbers ???? Apart from a few instances of tactical voting whereby a few unionists voted SDLP to keep out SF these ‘numbers’ are insignificant to the final sectarian result which is inevitable in any election in the failed ‘entity’.

    ‘what evidence have you that Britain wanted a divided Ireland in 1920? ‘

    Britain refused to accept the democratic vote of all the people of Ireland as seen in the 1918 General Election when the pro independence party SF won 75% of the seats .Britian took no action to ensure a democratic independent Ireland became a reality and in fact did everything possible to defeat and intimidate the Irish people during the War of Independence . Likewise Britain stood ‘idly’ by while UVF loyalists took up arms to impose their 6 county State in the north east.

    Britain would of course much rather have preferred for all of Ireland to have remained within the UK . But at the time a fifth of a loaf was seen as better than no bread at all. And in any event Britain had much more pressing needs being the World’s superpower at the time .

    Although it would be true to say that the forces which ultimately led to the actual partition of Ireland were mainly internal it is also true to say that the partition of Ireland did serve British defence interests at the time. Some would say they still do.

  • Greenflag

    ‘London, Dublin and Belfast did a deal in December 1925 – and Dev reneged later.’

    So it was all Dev’s fault the cad . Imagine that -reneging on a deal with HMG. All I can say is that using the word ‘renege’ in the context of political relations between Britain and Ireland is probably not a wise choice unless you believe that these ‘relations’ began in 1925. From Laudabiliter to the Treaty of Limerick to the Act of Union the words Britain and renege in Irish history- go together like horse and carriage.

    The difference between ‘hypocrite’ Ahern and hypocrite ‘Paisley’ is that the former does not need SF in order to become Ireland’s longest serving Taoiseach whereas the latter cannot become NI’s First Minister without SF support .That’s the political reality .

    When Ovid said ‘in medio tutissimo ibis’ he was not referring to Northern Ireland . The middle ground in NI is a political desert as can be expected in any State in which the two halves of the population have diametrically opposed political aspirations .Thus a ‘repartition’ solution presents itself as the only practical solution sooner or later.

    I’ve no doubt in my mind as to which is the biggest hypocrite

  • confused

    To Greenflag
    I am always amazed at how Republicans hark back to the General Election of 1918 for legitimising subsequent criminal acts.
    That election was not a free expression of the will of Irishmen when you think of the number of Unionists murdered many of them at their homes and in front of their families.
    These candidates were denied the opportunity to state their case before the electorate.

  • Greenflag

    ‘I am always amazed at how Republicans hark back to the General Election of 1918 for legitimising subsequent criminal acts.

    The struggle to free Ireland or any other country from colonial oppression was not criminal . If that were the case you would have to classify most of the countries in the world as ‘criminal’.

    With respect the British /French/Spanish and Italian Empires were the true ‘criminals’! What gave them the right to plunder and steal from the peoples and nations of the world ?

    ‘That election was not a free expression of the will of Irishmen ‘

    It was more the free expression of the will of the Irish people than the Act of Union which was passed by a corrupt and degenerate bunch of bribed parasites and absentee landlords !

    ‘These candidates were denied the opportunity to state their case before the electorate. ‘

    So the Penal Laws backfired eh ? Strange how when the mass of people decide enough is enough those who have held on to their priviliged position for generations suddenly discover ‘democracy’ – ‘fairness’ and the ‘rule of law’.

    Yes it was unfortunate that unionists got the rough end of the stick during the 1918 election but rough as it was it was a lot less rough than what the Irish received from HMG for a couple of centuries !

    PS -I’m no republican if by that you mean somebody who favours a UI. I would prefer an agreed and fair Repartition of NI by a neutral international Agency . I am a Republican if by that you mean somebody who would rather not have an unelected aristocrat as head of State.