Stormonts: new and old

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana). I want to propose a different and some might say odd way in which we are, with the new Stormont, failing to remember one of the old Stormont’s failings: the lack of any realistic possibility of the parties of government being replaced. The DUP have suggested a keenness to change the nature of Stormont government and indeed both the SDLP and especially the UUP seem to have, at various times, considered opposition. The nature of the current lack of opposition is, I would suggest, one of the current executive’s fundamental flaws. In a strange way this parallels one of the flaws of the old Stormont. Yes; clearly the anti Catholic discrimination was the overwhelming problem. However, the lack of any proper opposition with a possibility of replacing the unionist government; at least in part caused by said unionist opposition to nationalism / Catholicism, was a further corrupting influence on the body politic.

To say that a lack of opposition was Stormont’s great flaw would of course be a hideous misrepresentation of reality. Unionists may argue that the nature of the old regime was not quite as bad as nationalists proclaim. However, we as unionists must face up to the fact that Stormont was a highly discriminatory system. It is true that when I take the boys to the Mo Mowlam play park and then walk up the hill to Carson’s statue and my favourite bit: Viscount Craigavon’s tomb, I do become a bit misty eyed. However, the reality was that our little statelet was flawed. Although I was aged 1 when Stormont was prorogued; I have to recognise that it was people of my sort who gained the most. Maybe we (the quite big house Prods) were not allowed by the real leadership (the proper Big House Prods) to have real power. The professional, managerial and big farmer set of Ulster Protestants did, however, gain greatly and excessively from the Stormont regime. For that we must apologise to our fellow citizens.

I would submit, however, that alongside the anti catholic discrimination and indeed the discrimination against the working class Protestant population; the lack of any opposition also utterly flawed Stormont and helped result in it being a failed political entity. The area I was brought up in just sneaked (I think) into the North Londonderry County constituency (though is part of South Londonderry in most local people’s terminology, including mine). As can be seen, there was only one candidate at many of the elections and from 1958 to 1972 Joseph Burns was elected unopposed. Had we been in Mid Londonderry (and I cannot be bothered to work it out exactly; it does not change my argument), the story is not that different with a Nationalist Paddy Gormley being repeatedly elected unopposed.

If one looks at the area where my wife lived: Lisnaskea, Viscount Brookeborough was consistently elected until replaced by his son. Looking at where the rest of her family are from, the South Fermanagh constituency, there were only elections on two occasions. Here we see in four essentially randomly chosen constituencies that there was no prospect of different people being elected.

I am not casting any aspersions on these MPs; what I am pointing out is that they were guaranteed to be perpetually re-elected. Whilst there are many safe constituencies in GB the major difference in Northern Ireland was that Mr. Burns or Viscount Brookeborough were always going to be in the party of government whilst the likes of Mr. Gormley and Cahir Healy were always going to be in opposition. There is a frequent tendency for countries (even democracies) with what is essentially one party rule to have endemic corruption, a tendency seen in the likes of Japan and definitely seen here under Stormont.

My concern is that the new Stormont is also, due to d’Hondt and the mandatory coalition, fated to have what is in effect one party rule (albeit with multiple parties) but with no real prospect of change. In this even proportional representation does not help. No matter what is there any realistic likelihood of removing the major political figures? Even the disastrously incompetent like Ruane, Poots and McGimpsey are in effect guaranteed to remain MLAs (even if we get rid of them as ministers and of course that is at the whim of their individual parties and not in any real way in the electorate’s gift) whilst a few of the foot soldiers, such as for example, Esmond Birnie, may fall by the way side; the more prominent (even if incompetent) will survive. Except that is, I guess, if a political party reaches epic levels of incompetence such as the SDLP’s spectacular self-destruction in West Tyrone.

As such we have all the ingredients to replicate one of the problems we had in the old Stormont, namely the lack of any effective opposition with a prospect of getting elected.

Since we cannot have meaningful competition for votes between unionist and nationalist parties and indeed we must for the foreseeable future have power sharing; it is essential to create intra nationalist and intra unionist competition, whereby the electorate have some realistic choice of political options.

The UUP, having briefly flirted with the idea of being in opposition, now seem rather less keen on it. I suspect that the leadership of the UUP realise that the chances of the current UUP leaders such as Empey and McGimpsey having power is inextricably linked with the current arrangements. Going into opposition might (just might) with new leaders one day result in the UUP being once again the majority party in unionism; for the current generation of UUP leaders, however, this is as good as it gets. Just as turkeys do not vote for Christmas; much as Empey and McGimpsey might (if they are politically farseeing enough) understand the potential advantages of having a proper opposition, they are well aware that the going into opposition would end their personal chances of having power and might well speed the end of their own political careers. Alternatively they may lack any political vision at all and simply be trying to survive from day to day. I guess it depends on whether one regards the current UUP leadership as merely useless and incompetent or useless, incompetent and stupid. The SDLP are of course in a very similar position to the UUP in this regard and again nationalist turkeys rather like unionist ones seem disinclined to vote for Christmas even if it is for the good of Northern Ireland as a whole or future generations of SDLP leaders.

A further major problem when the DUP call (in my view) very appropriately for an end to d’Hondt is that SF probably see this as a devious attempt by the DUP to engineer coalition government without SF and possibly as a manifestation of “Not having a fenian about the place”. As such they are extremely suspicious and unlikely to accept it.

Hence, I suspect that the DUP’s proposals for an end to mandatory coalition are most unlikely to get support from outside the DUP itself, no matter what their undoubted merits. Even if the DUP were to promise to share power with SF after elections, I suspect that would not help as it would be an epically large stick for them to hand to the UUP and TUV; that is even if SF believed them. In addition I suspect the British and Irish governments would be highly suspicious of anything that might rock the boat. They want Northern Ireland to become politically quiet. The fact that the system will inevitably produce useless government and rampant corruption is of no great concern to them and neither Mr. Ahern personally, nor the Scottish Labour Party from which Mr. Brown hails are exactly strangers to incompetence and corruption.

As such, I suspect this plan of the DUP’s is doomed, and the only way by which we can actually create a good government if not “one of the most successful governments anywhere” (to quote what must be one of the most disingenuous remarks made by Mr. Woodward) is to rub the whole thing out and start again. There are of course in my view many things rotten in the State of Denmark and this is just one of them.

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