Devolution and the partial democratic deficit…

According to one senior journalist the former Iron Chancellor looked like a ghost in Belfast yesterday. Such are the dangers of full blown democracy. Gordon Brown got a good old fashioned kicking at the polls last week. A kicking that has put his adminstration on a two year notice. Despite its critics, our half blown version has certainly tied our political parties to some useful work. Despite the rush to judgement in some parts of the media it is likely to take another two years before we find out whether this year’s work is up to scratch… Whatever happens, mandatory coalition means we can’t deprive any of the main parties of their ministerial salaries… More over at Comment is Free…

  • Damian O’Loan

    Interesting post Mick, but perhaps you could have contextualised a little more. The democratic deficit that is inherent in mandatory coalition is justified by the greater democratic deficit that preceded it. So, for the average nationalist/republican, the idea is that it is acceptable to forego the ability to remove from power those you find incapable or insupportable, because of the discrimination that occurred under direct rule.

    The challenge for the Assembly, then, is to show that discrimination will be absent from its modus operandi. S75 is obviously the most powerful tool in this regard, and the Shared Future strategy the means of progressing finally into a new chapter.

    Why then, are we seeing little or no interest in the Shared Future strategy and mere tolerance of S75. Even SF have not been vocal in their support for S75. I would have thought that important business for the first year would have been a full audit of compliance of all Govt. departments, central and local. Yet this has not even been suggested. And events in Craigavon, for example, show that it is quite necessary.

    If mandatory coalition is a transitional phase, as it ought to be, there needs to be a clear strategy as to how to move beyond it. Who is offering that? You are right to note that the present situation is too unresponsive to be acceptable in the long-term. But how do we build the trust that will lead to the possibility of a next step.

    I would judge the first year of the new Assembly very poorly in this regard, with each fighting for their own. Have we not learned by now that the individual interest equates, in the long-term, to that of all members of society? Instead, individual members place re-election as a priority, risking the public interest in the process. I would suggest that longer electoral terms would be acceptable, on a transitional basis, to overcome this particular democratic deficit.

  • Mick Fealty

    Building trust across the base requires courage and leadership. No one can inject that from the outside, it needs must come from within. I suspect this subject will require several rounds of open debate.

    What’s in it for the parties? Well a voluntary coalition for instance would carry greater stablity, and with less parties to satisfy, carry a greater chance that parties can carry more of their original manifesto.

    The down side is that you can lose as well as win. But a confident, future focused political party should not fear that.

  • It was Sammy Mc Nally what done it

    Devolution is not what we have in Non Iron – it has the British legisalative aspects of Devolution – but this does not take into account the legislative aspects which involve the Irish government marking it out from Wales and Scotland.

    Mandatory coalition is required unitl the plain people of Non Iron ( and ROI and Britian ) are firmly and further down the road to peace than they are the moment.

  • kensei

    What’s in it for the parties? Well a voluntary coalition for instance would carry greater stablity,

    If it is, it’s marginal. It’s certainly more stable for the Assembly, but not necessarily more stable for the Government. The Republic has had plenty of unstable coalitions, and it has a dominant party in FF and not half of the other problems we do.

    and with less parties to satisfy, carry a greater chance that parties can carry more of their original manifesto.

    This is the only advantage I see. But would you stake everything on moving from maybe 40% of your program to 80%?

    The down side is that you can lose as well as win. But a confident, future focused political party should not fear that.

    No one has answered these two problems:

    1. A “normal” majoritian body leaves the possibility of locking out a single block for all eternity. Unionists would still continue to lock out SF permanently if given the option; in fact with the Alliance they might evens squeeze out a majority to keep Nationalism out altogether.

    2. Given that the biggest fears are how the other side will misuse power, what incentive is there to give up the veto? And given that a switch from mandatory to voluntary coalition will almost certainly remove one of the big parties for government, where is the incentive to acquiesce? How exactly would their electorate react.

    SF have certainly indicated no appetite to change matters. Neither, for that matter, have the SDLP. Lots of talk, but still no idea of how the situation would be produced, much less work.

  • Damian O’Loan

    That is what strikes me – the lack of confidence and leadership, on all sides. I think as that becomes established as part of the way politics is done at Stormont, it will become increasingly difficult to move to a more open approach.

    The media have an important role in this regard. Concessions will have to be part of the process, and if they were to be depicted in a positive light, could lead to greater popularity for those offering them. On the other hand, and as seems more likely, if a few members get burned, there will be great hesitation to try again.

    You are right to note the motivation – SF could, in a voluntary coalition at the moment, perhaps finish the SDLP once and for all. Yet they are not moving to do so, and I suspect quite the opposite is happening. It appears that Robinson’s approach will be to try and create a rapprochement with the UUP, so his tactics seem counter to this approach as well.

    A lack of confidence is perhaps understandable. But the policies are, in great part, not there to progress. The Alliance party, despite its commitment to a Shared Future, would probably be least successful – but without Ministerial posts, nor any tangible influence, what have they to lose.

    Let’s hope the changes of leadership that have occurred, and hopefully will be followed by more – I’m thinking in particular of Danny Kennedy – will allow greater flexibility, vision and progressive action.

  • Debbie

    What a strange thing we have here, when it is the media who see themselves as the only effective opposition, and the electorate cannot really punish parties at the polls. A change of leadership will hardly make any difference to this situation??

  • ulidian

    D O’L – what exactly are you referring to in Craigavon?

    As for the work of the assembly, it is hamstrung by the MLAs – few if any are really up to the job. Most were elected to keep someone else out and ability was neither a requirement nor pre requisite.

    As for S75 and the Shared Future Strategy, neither have any real supporters. Most Unionists see S75 as a stick to beat them with – similar to the equality legislation which they perceive to anti-unionist and as for the Shared Future Strategy, all politicians, with the possible exception of the Alliance party, see this as aspirational, motherhood and apple pie. So they ignore it and continue speaking only too their traditional supporters, with the odd anti-other the side comment thrown-in to keep the natives happy.

    Fundamentally, sectarianism is endemic in NI, I personally believe anyone born and reared in NI that is sectarian and all the efforts of the great and the good to overcome this will fail as long as we have segregated schools and a conflict over nationality, a struggle, which can, best and most easily, be explained by using religion.

    The challenge is, are we individually willing to admit our own defects and address them, rather than trying to sort out everyone else’s problems?

    Likewise are we willing to tolerate difference?

    The Shared Future Strategy, along with the “neutral” working environment, only leads to avoidance rather than tolerance, thus our problems persist and continue.

    Mick is correct; it will take leadership – real leadership to overcome our problems. Sadly this ain’t coming from our present MLAs

  • kensei

    What a strange thing we have here, when it is the media who see themselves as the only effective opposition, and the electorate cannot really punish parties at the polls. A change of leadership will hardly make any difference to this situation??

    This is repeated, but is also wrong. If both the DUP and SF were reduced to the levels of the UUP and SDLP, that would be a big punishment. They would still just about cling on with one or two Ministries, but their veto would be gone, their influence in committees would be vastly reduced. In SF’s case, it would take a huge hit to its finances. If catastrophic results were posted for one or other of the parties, they could lose

    I fancy neither party would choose the “non punished” situation of the SDLP or the UUP. It isn’t perfect, but what is being pushed by “the real opposition” is complete hyperbole.

  • Greenflag

    Debbie ,

    ‘A change of leadership will hardly make any difference to this situation??

    Ulidian,

    ‘Likewise are we willing to tolerate difference?’

    Kensei,

    ‘Given that the biggest fears are how the other side will misuse power, what incentive is there to give up the veto’

    Mick,

    ‘ a confident, future focused political party should not fear that. ‘

    To all of the above Mr Peter Weir has answered for the DUP in the ‘Newsletter’ Note the use of the words ‘trash’ in reference to the Irish language .Note also ‘the very sight of them(SF) up at Stormont is hard for people to stomach’ Note also the use of the word ‘sabotage ‘

    I quote below some of Mr Weir’s ‘defence’ of the DUP. Any Irish Nationalist or Republican who is even remotely considering moving from ‘mandatory’ coalition to ‘voluntary’ coalition in the interest of ‘more’effective democracy or democratic choice in Northern Ireland needs his/her head examined . Northern Ireland is not a democracy and may never be one . But what is clear is that despite all of the ‘peace’ hype and feel good factors being promulgated by some the political reality is that there is no short or medium term alternative to the present arrangement . In 100 years Mr Weir’s grandhchildren may have a different mindset but frankly I would’nt bet on it !

    More of Mr Weir’s combative assertion of DUP ‘supremacy’ in the Newsletter here below .

    ‘Not only have the DUP trashed the concept of an Irish Language Act but we have also advanced the interests of our own community. We have closed the funding gap between Irish and Ulster-Scots and been the principal driver behind the new compensation arrangements for Orange halls’

    Delivery for the Loyal Orders is a long-standing DUP commitment. Through the reform of Community Festivals funding we have ensured an increase in funding for Loyal Order cultural activities.

    And Arlene Foster, at the Department of the Environment, has presided over the ongoing Review of Public Administration and has introduced protections for unionist minority communities in the west of the Province in the new council arrangements.

    The establishment of devolution has also secured the position of academic selection, ensuring our excellent grammar school system will not be destroyed, as proposed under Direct Rule.

    I acknowledge that there have been things that have happened which have caused concern to unionists.

    I and my party have no love of Sinn Fein and the very sight of them up at Stormont is hard for people to stomach, but the truth of the situation is that the best way unionist interests can be protected is through using the devolved institutions to push our own agenda and to sabotage theirs.’

    Wonder what the SF response to the above will be particularly that ‘sabotage’ remark ?

  • Damian O’Loan

    Ulidian,

    what exactly are you referring to in Craigavon?

    http://sluggerotoole.com/index.php/weblog/comments/strange-happenings-in-craigavon/

    “As for S75 and the Shared Future Strategy, neither have any real supporters.”

    Yet they were key aspects of Good Friday, which received 71% support at referendum.

    “and continue speaking only too their traditional supporters” (sic)

    Which was my point above.

    “similar to the equality legislation which they perceive to anti-unionist” (sic)

    Forgive me for quoting myself from above:
    “Have we not learned by now that the individual interest equates, in the long-term, to that of all members of society?”

    “as for the Shared Future Strategy, all politicians, with the possible exception of the Alliance party, see this as aspirational, motherhood and apple pie. So they ignore it”

    No, not a single party has a policy against it. You are right, though, in as much as that many are hypocritical on this issue.

    “I personally believe anyone born and reared in NI that is sectarian” (sic)

    Your are right that sectiarianism is a blight, but I think that is overly pessimistic.

    “all the efforts of the great and the good to overcome this will fail as long as we have segregated schools”

    I quite agree, which brings us back to the issue of leadership and long-term strategy in the wider interest.

    “Likewise are we willing to tolerate difference?

    The Shared Future Strategy, along with the “neutral” working environment, only leads to avoidance rather than tolerance, thus our problems persist and continue.”

    I suggest you read the Shared Future strategy. It is not about effacing unionist culture. It is about creating a shared space, to live and work in, in which everyone can express themselves freely. However, if you think that S75 is a “stick to beat them [Unionists] with,” I suggest you read with an open mind and a vision of the society the strategy could lead to.

    “Mick is correct; it will take leadership – real leadership to overcome our problems. Sadly this ain’t coming from our present MLAs”

    Again, I agree with you, with the caveat that there are some exceptions. They ought to be given more support from the media, whose corporate ownership would be best served by selling news to all, and not half, the population.

    Debbie,

    “What a strange thing we have here, when it is the media who see themselves as the only effective opposition, and the electorate cannot really punish parties at the polls.”

    I think each branch of the media see themselves more as the messengers of the parties with whom they share customers/voters, rather than a united opposition.

    “A change of leadership will hardly make any difference to this situation??”

    Why not? A new leader could push a new program, which could entirely shift the direction of travel at Stormont.

  • DC

    “Why then, are we seeing little or no interest in the Shared Future strategy and mere tolerance of S75. Even SF have not been vocal in their support for S75. I would have thought that important business for the first year would have been a full audit of compliance of all Govt. departments, central and local. Yet this has not even been suggested. And events in Craigavon, for example, show that it is quite necessary.”

    Damian the Shared Future strategy largely places responsibilities on executive/government agencies (Roads Service, Housing Executive, etc); S75 is the good relations duties on Public Authorities, much of which is not political philosophy nor ideology but more so taking appropriate steps in the particular working context.

    New political leadership is required which sits outside these documents; however, that said the SF strategy is a bit more than just better co-ordination to tackle the manifestations of sectarianism but is no where near a new political mandate for NI.

  • Damian O’Loan

    DC,

    “Damian the Shared Future strategy largely places responsibilities on executive/government agencies (Roads Service, Housing Executive, etc); S75 is the good relations duties on Public Authorities, much of which is not political philosophy nor ideology but more so taking appropriate steps in the particular working context.”

    Thanks for the lesson DC – I know what they are and your description of S75 in particular is just wrong.

    “New political leadership is required which sits outside these documents”

    This was my point too.

    “however, that said the SF strategy is a bit more than just better co-ordination to tackle the manifestations of sectarianism but is no where near a new political mandate for NI.”

    That’s a bit of an empty sentence – what is this strategy? How are you linking the two?

    I’m not sure you’ve understood – I’m talking about the Shared Future strategy, and embracing the spirit, of it as a means to begin to move towards a more responsive form of democracy.

  • DC

    “I know what they are and your description of S75 in particular is just wrong.”

    Good Relations
    Under Section 75 of the Northern Itreland Act 1998, public authorities are required to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity:

    Between persons of different religious belief, political opinion, racial group, age, marital status or sexual orientation;
    Between men and women generally;
    Between persons with a disability and persons without; and
    Between persons with dependants and persons without.

    Re Good Relations:

    Public authorities are also required to have regard to the desirability of promoting good relations between persons of different religious belief, political opinion or racial group.

    Note the word ‘regard’ and ‘desirability’ and also note the Public Authorities i.e. it is not party political ideology at stake but a shaping of good relations largely in the working environment and conduct of service delivery of functions of public authorities.

    Re the Shared Future, it is a good document but it sits in an administrative sphere of government rather than outside of it in terms of a political party that has a narrative linking division to a new shared vision making the Shared Future policy in essence easy to implement.

    What is missing is the vision at political level, which is understood at voter level in order to give a shared future a robust implementation around the executive table.

  • Damian O’Loan

    DC,

    It wasn’t the good relations part I challenged; if promotion of equality isn’t a political philosophy, I don’t know what is. ‘Regard’ and ‘desirability’ contribute to the establishment of this in law.

    I agree with your assessment of the reality of the Shared Future strategy, indeed it may be over-generous, but again, this is due to the hypocrisy of various parties – who claim to support the policy but do nothing to implement it.

    I see we’re mostly all agreed on the failure of leadership that’s becoming the hallmark of our Assembly. I expect nothing to change under Robinson.

  • DC

    I do share your frustration. I think A Shared Future policy has in it large parts to fill in small part a new political mandate but it is insufficient on its own, so is the S75 stuff because they both are really to assist with embedding better approaches to lessen potential for conflict or visible sectarianism, largely at an executive agency level in terms of operations and at a public employment level.

    If you are talking about a shared future, what better way than to educate children together at least in primary level perhaps then diversify thereafter into specialisms, beit academic, religious, or vocational multi-purpose schooling.

    To me this would out do the A Shared Future policy as is, but this requires the political consenus which isn’t currently there and a party old or new would need to connect into a vote base which has been given coherent direction as to how this sharing is to operate at a political level, given insecurities out there. SO, in order to get that kind of broad support for appropriate change better explanations are required which I believe remain relational and intentions need to be explained to the electorate in terms of north south, east west, internally, visions for the future must also offer assurances over identity and recognise the bare essentials of each others specific cultures.

    This is the difference between an electoral mandate consisting of a shared vision, and A Shared Future policy document, and in many ways highlights the problems with S75 because it rests with public authorities and not with private social interactions; people tend to come out of their homes to endorse democratically elected politicians who seem to return the favour by keeping up with a certain degree of politics of difference.

    Time to connect with people who want real change and if this happened there would probably be little need for A Shared Future policy.

  • DC

    Sorry just to add:

    “if promotion of equality isn’t a political philosophy, I don’t know what is.”

    Well actually it is ‘equality of opportunity’…that interestingly has no fixed definition over which we could debate about the precise process involved and the potential to change outcomes under that concept.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equal_opportunity

    It is an aside, but it still sort of supports the need to convince people of actual intentions in order to prove just where we are going and whether they are able to back it come election time.

    Constructive ambiguity is over, time for politics of substance now that a form of constitutional politics is functioning somewhat, how do we now want to change or improve upon that? The basis, however, is now there though and I suppose that is the legacy of Blair and Ahern et al, despite old political-morality being displaced as the process moved in.

  • Damian O’Loan

    It is a bit of an aside by now, but I read a very interesting article on the dangers of equality of opportunity under our Western democracies. The tenet was that as the idea becomes an assumption of reality, each individual considers that his/her achievements are entirely self-made. Therefore, society becomes increasingly individualised, as this contributes to a reluctancy to share the gains of whatever position has been attained. This can be seen in resentment by business owners at having to comply with equality legislation, for example.

    While such a trend is definitely not be encouraged, it would have the side-effect of decreasing the role of constitutional politics in the electorate’s priorities, and therefore facilitate the move towards conventional democracy.

    This raises the issue of what aspects of the ‘politics of substance’ you mention could have the same effect, but in a more positive way. And while I do support the right of faith schools to exist, I think attempting to de-segregate our schools gradually would be on around the right timeframe to produce a generation ready to move beyond mandatory coalition having embedded some kind of social justice.

    As regards your point that “better explanations are required,” Mark Devenport described the BBC’s difficulty at selecting a best communicator at Stormont, due to the dearth of talent. This is a serious problem for the Assembly and the electorate, as, drawing from the posts, almost all here I think would agree.

  • Realist

    I don’t think that Mr Weir actually wrote the article in the Newsletter. He probably just signed it off. It represents one of the first broadsides in the new DUP leaders policy of getting tough, in public anyway!! There will be a clear understanding between DUP and SF that any Prod muscle flexing will have no potential to bring the Assembly down. In any case the DHSS couldn’t cope with all the unemployment benefit application from the unemployable anywhere else MLA’s and their army of family and party member “researchers”. How many of these people give up good jobs to work in Stormont? I bet that they are glad that they didn’t pay more attention at school or they might be out actually earning an honest living in the big bad real world.

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