The bewildering electoral road to peace….

We’ve just gone through the most bewildering election of our shortish, constitutional history. Bewildering because it not actually clear what it was for, other than to affirm the bare bones of what remains an unfinished deal.Having planted a poisoned chalice of directly imposed rates calculated by house values, and a new, hypothecated water tax (allegedly undoable if the parties don’t agree to share power by the 26th March), the Northern Ireland Office clearly hoped to inject some self interest in the process of voting. It had the not-altogether-unpleasant effect of drenching us in debating policy detail on the media.

Consolidation of the two leading parties was the one thing that was reliably on the cards in this election. But perhaps more importantly was the dog that didn’t bark: on this occasion the dissidents, both Republican and Loyalist. They’ve all been remarkably quiet since they were ‘counted out’ in the electoral tallies.

Some in Sinn Fein are muttering about the inordinate amount of time the mainstream media spent on the dissidents. In fairness, however, what we saw on the Republican side was the final step towards the democratisation of large numbers of those still holding out against the settlement contained within the Belfast Agreement. They may not agree with the settlement, but the question seems no longer to be whether to go back to war or not, but how to engage a population intent on a democratic rather than a revolutionary future.

For those on the Loyalist side, there now seems nowhere to go. Those closest to the paramilitaries worked either for mainstream pro St Andrews Agreement parties, or for Dawn Purvis, David Ervine’s successor as leader of the Progressive Unionists. In prosperous North Down, Bob McCartney lost his seat to Northern Ireland’s first Green Party MLA. One of the best hopes for the Anti Agreement lobby, Leslie Cubitt, told the BBC that he had stuck to his principles but that the people had spoken. He left on Friday afternoon for his holidays.

There is now no doubting that the settled will of all but a few die-hards on both sides, is for a peaceful settlement based on a principle of consent.

All in all, the best day’s work was done by Sinn Fein. They took four extra seats in what many of us predicted would be a tough battle over some very narrow ground. In the event, they won all their publicly stated target seats and were unlucky not to take another directly from the Ulster Unionists, in David Trimble’s old constituency.

Their nationalist rivals, the SDLP, only lost two seats but it looks as if it will cost them one of the two places they previously held in the Assembly’s Executive. It’s a strategic blow that may outlast the largely marginal lost constituency ground.

The DUP did well too. It made the largest seat gains (six) and pushed their vote up from the last Assembly election in 2003. Strangely however, where the party faced most of its, admittedly, low level, resistance (ie in the West and in rural areas) to a deal it did well. In Belfast it lost one seat through low electoral registration and lower turnout than in Gerry Adams’ West constituency.

But as Kevin Connelly from the BBC put it:

We’ve now had 35 election or referendum campaigns in 34 years. If you are asked to vote that frequently, it is hardly a sign that you live in a successful democracy.

Indeed. Northern Ireland has not (until this moment) been a success in democratic terms. As, perhaps the most vilified Irishman of the 19th/20th Century, Edward Carson once warned:

“We used to say that we could not trust an Irish parliament in Dublin to do justice to the Protestant minority. Let us take care that that reproach can no longer be made against your parliament, and from the outset let them see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from a Protestant majority.”

Northern Ireland continues to enjoy that Protestant majority – and according to the last census figures will looks set to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. If things play out the way the British and Irish governments intend, the new power-sharing arrangements the two parts of our northern community may finally have the means to live under a shared standard Carson once counselled.

The deciding factor in reaching that settlement is no longer dissent, but the size of the financial package both the DUP and Sinn Fein are asking for. Is £10 billion too much to ask from the Chancellor of the Exchecquer to have done with the UK’s most intractable (if now relatively minor) constitutional ‘difficulty’?

Over to you, Gordon!

  • Avalon Sunset

    It really scares me to think what the DUP will do with the DFP ministry, especially of they get £10Bn from Gordon. Will we see a re-run of the instantaneous wage hike of the last assembly.

    Personally I don’t believe that the DUP have a MLA of ministerial capability with a sufficient grasp of economic priniciples to handle a corner shop let alone NI.

  • Mick Fealty

    Which of our parties would not scare you on that basis AS? Seriously!

  • Kevin Connolly’s comment is stupid. In large parts of England they vote for local councillors every year (district councillors in thirds and county councillors in the fourth year), as well as Westminster and European elections and maybe parish councils.

    In Switzerland they vote on referenda several times a year as well as having a federal and canton parliaments, local councils and even town meetings in some of the more hicksville places.

    In the USA, they never stop voting. If they’re not voting for President, there’s an off-year primary for precinct dog catcher.

    More elections does not mean a less successful democracy.

  • barnshee

    “Personally I don’t believe that the DUP have a MLA of ministerial capability with a sufficient grasp of economic priniciples to handle a corner shop let alone NI. ”

    here here waht a bunch of economic [removed – mod] they ALL are.

  • Mick Fealty

    It does make sense though when you look at product, surely Sammy?

  • Nope – we don’t have lots of elections because we have a failed political system; we have lots of elections because we have four tiers of government; so do lots of other places (e.g. rural areas in Germany have five). We have a failed political system (at least so far) because we have a deeply divided society with insufficient consensus on the basic rules.

    We’ve only had three referenda in our history, including one on UK membership of the EEC. The Republic, it ain’t, let alone Switzerland.

  • middle-class taig

    Oh bugger. Where else are we going to find evidence that “Northern Ireland” is not a succesful democracy?

  • kensei

    “Their nationalist rivals, the SDLP, only lost two seats but it looks as if it will cost them one of the two places they previously held in the Assembly’s Executive. It’s a strategic blow that may outlast the largely marginal lost constituency ground.”

    The SDLP are in serious trouble. It is not largely marginal. They are vulnerable all over the show – below quota in West Belfast, North Belfast, South Antrim, just for starters. They didn’t get anywhere near their target seats. They cannot keep losing a percentage points to SF or the next election will be crisis point.

    This isn’t a good thing for Northern Nationalism on the whole, either in terms of competition of ideas and performance, but also that it is going to cost Nationalism seats – they have already done it in West Tyrone.

    Why has no one noticed this? Why is no one talking about it?

  • slug

    With the new elections to the replacement for the House of Lords we will have even more!

    The model for these elections will be PR based in all parts of the UK. It seems that the Commons want a 100% elected upper house and that the EU constituencies may be used. That could mean 5 or 6 members being returned every 5 years from NI on a PRSTV, each serving a 15 year term.

  • slug

    “This isn’t a good thing for Northern Nationalism on the whole, either in terms of competition of ideas and performance, but also that it is going to cost Nationalism seats – they have already done it in West Tyrone. ”

    This is something that other nationalist posters such as MCT mentioned. I too think that its good to have competition for ideas within nationalism and within unionism.

  • Ian

    Another BBC article today attempts to explain how d’Hont works but gets it wrong:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/6389409.stm

    “For example, the largest party may make a first choice with 30 seats, but before it makes its second choice its total number of seats is divided by two. It makes a choice then on the basis of having 15 seats and can only make the selection when no other parties have more seats than that figure. For a third choice, 15 is cut by three. If another party has more than five, it gets the choice.”

    That’s not right, is it? It is the total, original number of seats that gets divided each time by 2, 3, 4 etc. (i.e. in the example, 30 becomes 15, then 10, then 7.5 etc, not 30 becomes 15, then 5, then 1.25…)

    According to their version of the d’Hont mechanism, the ministries would be allocated as follows:

    DUP 3, SF 2, UUP 2, SDLP 2, Alliance 1 (!)

    Maybe that would be a better system??

  • Mick Fealty

    It might be Ian. But since the SDLP have been firm advocates of D’Hondt, I can’t see such simple common sense coming to their aid. Not sure that Alliance want to come in from the oppositional cold either.

    Someone’s got to scrutinise what the government is up to!! 😉

  • The best system would be Saint-Laguë, which is just like d’Hondt, except the divisors are 1,3,5,7…

  • JohnT

    Is there any chance at all of the moderate parties going into opposition, and offering themselves for election next time as an alternative coalition?

    I have more in common with the UUP and SDLP, than with the DUP and SF. This is the new faultline in NI.

  • Greenflag

    In the case of NI more elections are just indicative of longer term constitutional ‘uncertainty’ and the obvious inability of the parties to agree on anything other than what day of the week it is -if that!

    No elections usually means a totalitarian one party state a.k.a kleptocracy!

    ‘We have a failed political system (at least so far) because we have a deeply divided society with insufficient consensus on the basic rules.’

    Actually there is consensus on the ‘rules’ i.e the political status of NI cannot be changed without the support of a majority of voters in NI. There is also a growing consensus that a return to the ‘gun’ will not help either cause but will instead hinder both aspirations. The electoral performance of republican and unionist dissidents has shown that much at least. There is however a ‘democratic’ deficit in that there is no agreement between the two main parties on the constitutional future of the present NI State with the DUP wishing to maintain the union with the UK and SF wishing for a UI.

    Both parties are ‘stuck’ between the proverbial rock and a hard place . The rock being their diametrically opposed constitutional aspirations and the hard place being the oncomig ‘de facto’ repartition of the two party state into two one party ‘fiefdoms’.

    Paisley is the leader of two thirds of NI Protestants . Adams is the leader of two thirds of NI Catholics .We all know what Adams is for . But as Crataegus points out we are less certain what Paisley is ‘for’. Paisley has cast himself in the role of ‘uber Protestant’ despite the fact that at least a third of NI protestants did not vote for him or his party . Of those who did vote for him possibly from one third to one half were probably nominal ‘protestants’ but actual secularists.

  • Yokel

    John T

    We shall wait and see. Reg is in some diffs with teh UUP. Two MLA’s have publically raised the idea of opposition, their only MP was scathing over teh entire election campaign and wasnt exactly hot on an endorsement for Reg.

    If I understand correctly, Reg wants to take his minsteries, others don’t and it could be a serious dispute within the UUP.

    The problem for them is that it won’t really fly unless the SDLP go with them.

    The possibility for the whole Stormont show grinding to a halt own the line because of procedural vetoes etc is very real. If the UUP & SDLP are brave enough, its worth taking the risk that SF & the DUP will basically mess it up.

    If nothing else the executive will have difficult day to day political decisions and some will not go down well with the electorate.

    Kensei, correct and it spreads to their other side of the fence as well. If both the UUP & SDLP really start going to the wall (as yet they still have something of a base) then a proportion of the electorate who wish to support their basic cause (nationalism & unionism) but who would never vote SF or DUP may in effect just drop out. It’s a sizeable minority.

  • Greenflag

    Power sharing ‘Reality’ for slow learners Part 1

    When David Trimble and Seamus Mallon were First and Deputy First Ministers it was difficult enough to get them to agree on anything, even down to the design of number plates for Northern registered cars.

    They operated from opposite ends of the huge Stormont building and communicated as little as possible.

    How much more improbable will communication, let alone agreement be between the putative First and Deputy First Ministers, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness?

  • kensei

    “How much more improbable will communication, let alone agreement be between the putative First and Deputy First Ministers, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness?”

    It could equally be said – how much worse can it be?

  • I think Paul Bew’s comment is hard to beat of yesterday:

    “The British government insists that all will be well. British officials acknowledge that neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein is exactly focused on reconciliation, but they believe that the power-sharing structures of the Good Friday Agreement are so strong that they will have no alternative but to compromise, in a dictatorship of political correctness presided over by the province’s leading ethnic warriors.”

    Maybe they’ll get on like a house on fire !

  • PaddyReilly

    Northern Ireland continues to enjoy that Protestant majority – and according to the last census figures will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

    The census does not actually make predictions. It’s up to us to do that.

  • Greenflag

    Kensei ,

    How much worse ?

    Consider some of the ‘flavourful’ comments of your First Minister in waiting (until the begging bowl is filled maybe ?)

    Some thoughts of Ayatollah Paisley in then and now format

    Then :

    I think the only thing that Protestants (in Northern Ireland) are legitmately afraid of is a dirty underhanded deal done behind their backs , because while we have the majority we have absolutely no political power whatsoever. We’re in the hands of our English masters . And we understand they are not our friends . They would like to destroy us .’

    Now :

    ‘I’m in deep shit Gordon . Ah go on gizza a billion. I did’nt mean you when I made that comment a few years back . Anyway you’re Scottish sorry I meant British and not English so don’t take my remarks personally ‘

    Then :

    ‘As far as Catholicism is concerned in Northern Ireland , Catholics don’t want a share in the government of Northern Ireland . They want Northern Ireland to be destroyed and to have a United Ireland . Their only agitation for a share in Government is until such time as they can destroy it.

    Now : And this is why I now may accept power sharing with Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein having opposed the David Trimble’s power sharing with Seamus Mallon of the Uncle Tom light green party. I’m nothing if not consistent !

    Then :

    ‘I am certainly anti English politician And no doubt about that . I utterly detest them . Because all we’ve had in Northern Ireland since Direct Rule is a bunch of liars . . They won’t tell the truth and they’ve been proved lying over and over again . I’ve said this to Mrs Thatcher straight and plain . ” Let’s have the truth Mrs Thatcher ,no more nonsense . Let’s stand and talk the truth ! And because I say these things I’m not liked . I am not a beggar with a begging bowl going to an English politician and asking for a mess of potage

    Now : I’m meeting Gordon this week or next to see how much ‘pottage’ he can spare to help me keep this farce going for a while longer .

    The psychology of political protestantism which is intent on keeping Northern Ireland out of a United Ireland at all costs , is quite different , antagonistic even to the psychology of Unionism , which is intent on keeping NI within the UK at all costs . If James Molyneaux’s full integration of NI within the UK had taken place Paisley’s ‘political protestantism ‘ would have lost it’s main purpose and disintegrate . For “protestantism’ to exist as a political force , Northern Ireland must exist as a State .

    ‘I’ve no ambitions as an elected leader of Northern Ireland to talk to the leaders of the South . We’re poles apart . There’s no such thing as reconciliation . When you marry Christ to Beelzebub then we’ll be ready for talks with them .We’re poles apart.

  • Mick Fealty

    Amended accordingly Paddy.

  • Greenflag

    Addendum (error above last paragraph )

    Further Revelations from the Book of Ayatollah Paisley

    Then :

    ‘ I’ve no ambitions as an elected leader of Northern Ireland to talk to the leaders of the South . We’re poles apart . There’s no such thing as reconciliation . When you marry Christ to Beelzebub then we’ll be ready for talks with them .We’re poles apart.

    Now :

    I like Bertie Ahern . He does a nice cuppa tea and biscuits . God told me that Christ married Beelzebub a couple of years ago and so it’s okay now for to visit Dublin.

    Then :

    There is no use people talking about a guarantee . The only guarantee in this country (NI) is the strength , will and might of the majority. You can have a majority in a country but if you don’t have the will , the courage and the might -it’s finished . The message now to the British Government is that the protestant majority have had enough . We’re not having any more .

    Now :

    18% of the Northern Ireland electorate supported the DUP in last week’s election and if that isn’t a majority then I must be talking through my new hat ( Nice one was’nt it the broad brimmer -made me look a bit like yer man Lee Van Clef in ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly)! As the protestant majority not having any more ? This is true . We have no more ‘majority rule’ thanks to the efforts of both the UUP and the DUP and our friends at Westminster . The good news is that Sinn Fein have been defeated which ios why that smirk faced bastard McGuiness is sitting in the Deputy First Minister’s office down the corridor and watching my every move . Can’t even go for a piss without that cunt wanting to share the newly decorated Orange and Green urinals . It’s the only place where we can have a faeces to faeces discussion and not be photgraphed by journalists !

  • Biff2

    THERE CERTAINLY SEEMS TO BE A LOT OF IF ONLYS IN THESE POSTS !! OH DEAR WHAT CAN THE MATTER BE ?

    I often wonder would the Unionist parties of all shades regret destroying what they had in the 1974 Assembly . Looking at the situation now it seems that they were very arrogant & stupid . It seems to be true , WHAT YOU SOW YOU REAP , BUT THERE IS LITTLE LEFT TO REAP . I have posed this question on numerous occasions ,and had no response
    IS IT REALLY SUCH A DIFFICULT QUESTION TO ANSWER ?.