It’s the Assembly that matters, stupid

Isn’t it depressing that the two main parties have this desperate need to top the poll and then read too much into it? Chris Donnelly on the differential positioning of the DUP and Sinn Fein is as insightful a commentary as I’ve read for some time. While I think Chris is too pessimistic in believing that the European results on a low poll spell doom for the Executive, it’s a fair question to ask: can the Assembly system survive the strain of its own contradictions, with parties acting as uneasy partners in powersharing, and mortal enemies in elections stretching ahead year after year?. The main advantage of “the coalition of the extremes” was supposed to be that the parties could not be outflanked. We now know this turns out not to be true, politically on the unionist side, and anti-democratically on the on the nationalist side, in the form of the revival of violent republicanism. So far Sinn Fein has been better at not letting itself be spooked by the shadow of its old self. As happened with the first Assembly, confidence in the 2007 version has declined but not disastrously as yet, according to the forthcoming Life And Times Survey. Yet the trend is worrying. A forthcoming devolution monitoring report records increasing disenchantment and concludes: In the context of a weariness with politicians and a sense of helplessnesss arising in part from recession, the real electoral question could be the degree to which politics continues to connect with voters at all” So it might be useful to refer to public opinion. The Life and Times survey for 2008-9 records fairly steady support for “devolved government within the UK” at 53|% overall, about where it’s always been. That may not seem impressive, but alternatives are not currently on offer, like Irish unity or a return to direct rule. And remember: these surveys don’t always provide an indicator of voting , as they include the growing number of the apathetic. They suggest however that the parties could take greater risks with public opinion if they prepared the ground for bolder initiatives. One set of results indicates a drop-off in support for devolved government among Protestants, and a swing back towards support for direct rule I quote from Lizanne Dowd’s analysis.

” Between 2000 and 2007 trust in most of the main parties had risen significantly (with the exception of the UUP, where trust had remained steady at a fairly high 50 per cent). Most notable had been the increase in trust for SF and DUP ministers: Catholic trust in a DUP minister had more than doubled from 2000, while Protestant trust in SF had risen similarly. But by the end of 2008 the picture was different. There was a distinct loss of trust in ministers across all the main parties and SF and the DUP thus lost much of the gains they had made between 2000 and 2007 (Figure 2).

Thinking about the ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive, how much would you trust a minister from each of these parties to act in the best interests of all the people in Northern Ireland?

2000 2007 2008

DUP 33 49 37
SDLP 43 51 40
SF 17 35 22
UUP 51 50 41

Between 2002 and 2008, responses to the question ‘Overall, do you think that the Northern Ireland Assembly has achieved a lot, a little, or nothing at all?’ became progressively less positive. From a high of optimism in 2002, when Catholics in particular were highly positive about what the assembly had done, opinions shifted.

In the latest survey, only between 50 and 60 per cent in either community felt that the assembly had achieved something . Perhaps this was to be expected: many felt the existence of the assembly at all in the early years was something of an achievement and this perhaps has become taken for granted.”

Figure 3: Respondents who think that the assembly has achieved ‘a lot’ or ‘a little’ (%)

2002 03 07 08

Catholics 86 69 69 54
Protestants 70 54 62 57

So while alternatives are not on offer thanks to the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements, the survey results issue a warning, not that the Assembly might implode due to its internal contradictions but that it would cease to be relevant to people’s lives. It’s main achievement might even come under threat. As nature abhors a vaccuum, there remain enough sinister elements around willing to fill it.

  • Nah

    “the two main parties have this desperate need to top the poll”

    Erm no that was the DUP all by themselves. I never heard the Shinners mention it once.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    The significance of the Euro results is that it shows that a sizeable % of Unionist voters (10% for TUV?) still do not like the current ‘settlement’ and have voted against it.

    If this is translated into paralysing the DUP in the assembly or the election of TUVers then Stormo will be at end and the fundamentalist Unionist rump will and the Republican dissers will both have reason to smile as the unravelling get underway.


    The notion of Unionism once again indulging in it’s favourite sport of self destruction is unsurprising but as a Nationalist I honestly take no great pleasure in it. In such a scenario the political environment only further destabilises and ‘sinister’ elements predictably then come to the fore. If Unionism lurches further to the right you can bet that others on the extremes of Republicanism will capitalise and take advantage of that. They will say that the Northern state is a failed political entity if the Executive does collapse on Unionist intransigence. As we all know events can dictate events and as we have seen in the past it quickly degenerates. Do we really want to go back there?
    Could TUV voters or ‘disillusioned’ Unionists please tell us exactly what their objectives and aims are? It appears to many Nationalists that it is simple anti-Catholic bigotry and hatred. The mute response and indeed lack of outrage within Unionism to the killing of Mr. McDaid in Coleraine only further confirms that. There appears to be a 17th century Witchfinder General mindset within Unionism that undercuts everything else particularly accomodation with Catholics. There is definately a problem with many Unionists getting their head around and accepting Catholics as equal or deserving of holding power. They can’t hide behind the IRA campaign as an excuse because Unionism NEVER had any problem using or cavorting with Loyalist terrorists in the past. Unionism NEVER had any conscience or morality when it came to voting PUP & UDP politicians into political office ESPECIALLY when the UVF & UDA were indulging in their orgy of Catholic blood letting. So I would appreciate if anyone in that camp would enlighten me as to their discontent and obvious unhappiness?
    I also don’t think Unionists can take comfort in the fact that a Tory government will probably be returned at the next election BECAUSE with Obama in the WhiteHouse and Hilary in the State Dept. the US will NEVER indulge or shore up Unionist bigotry and anti-Irish Conservative politics. I don’t know about a Fine Gael government in the South though, they would probably let the Executive collapse AND blame Republicans for it.

  • Driftwood

    If Stormont disappeared tomorrow, who would know or care? Apart from the gravy train riders. It’s not even political, it’s economic. It is a complete waste of money.
    And the sooner it goes (as it will) the better.
    We have a Northern Ireland Office, and a select committee on NI affairs at our national Parliament.
    We need nothing more. Local councils (though extemely wasteful)can be given more powers, though no more money.
    Then we dispense with all the useless quangoes. (Equality, Human ‘rights’, Scots brogue, old age children etc).
    But common sense is cast aside by the guardians of well paid ‘community workers’ to safeguard their non-jobs.
    Still, hopefully less than a year to wait for David to dispense with this moneygoround charade.

  • latcheeco

    What about the half of NI (majority in four of six counties) that disagrees with you? Do you just keep a stiff upper lip and ignore them?

  • latcheeco

    What about the half of NI (majority in four of six counties) that disagrees with you? Do you just keep a stiff upper lip and ignore them?

  • Feryu

    It appears to many Nationalists that it is simple anti-Catholic bigotry and hatred.

    They can’t hide behind the IRA campaign as an excuse because Unionism NEVER had any problem using or cavorting with Loyalist terrorists in the past.

    You plead ignorance about why some people support the TUV then say that it cannot be because they oppose Provos in government because unionist’s hands are dirty.

    You are mixing the empirical with the normative. Morally chastising unionists and then using this alleged moral fact as the basis of an empirical deduction.

    What you need to “get your head around” is that a fair chunk, though not all, really do oppose ex terrorists in government. At the extreme of that position there are I don’t doubt a few who would go the whole Conor Cruise O’Brien path – they would actually prefer a united Ireland to being ruled over by Sinn Fein. That is not a “no taigs in power” position. If you are mentally incapable of accepted that that position empirically exists amongst a certain proportion then I don’t know what to say to you. You asked your question and got your answer.

  • We have a Northern Ireland Office, and a select committee on NI affairs at our national Parliament.

    Your problem is that at least 45% of your fellow citizens – at the very, very, least – don’t see the world this way. You seem willfully ignorant of why the unionist/nationalist debate in Northern Ireland is fundamentally differnt to that in Scotland and Wales. And even there, a Tory government couldn’t prorogue the Parliament or Assembly without provoking a constitutional crisis that might over through the Union.

    Still, hopefully less than a year to wait for David to dispense with this moneygoround charade.

    Do you really think that?

    And you do realise that what you’re calling for isn’t so much ‘Simply British’ as ‘Simply English’?

  • Driftwood

    Ask people if they would rather money is spent on Stormont or hospitals. Anyone.
    Guess which has more relevance to peoples lives?

  • That is not a “no taigs in power” position.

    It isn’t in theory. It is in practice. And people who don’t want a fenian about the place are more than capable of rationalising things to say “oh, no I have no problems with responsibility sharing with nationalists and some of my best friends are Roman Kethlicks”.

    While still not wanting a fenian about the place. And having spent decades arguing against power-sharing with the SDLP. Because they don’t want a fenian about the place.

  • Driftwood

    And you do realise that what you’re calling for isn’t so much ‘Simply British’ as ‘Simply English’?

    Fine by me.

    Its English money. And I have no idea what genetic difference separates the people of the UK.

  • latcheeco

    I was with you until you started the “our national parliament” crap. Then, from years of bitter experience, I just couldn’t trust you anymore.

  • aquifer

    The DUP cannot defend the Union without defending secular democracy first.

    i.e. They must publicly stand shoulder to shoulder with catholic democratic nationalists.

    The free lunch is over.

    They will have to find guts or go.

  • Driftwood

    secular democracy
    catholic democratic nationalists

    Why not….
    secular democracy (hell yeah!)
    democratic nationalists (fine!)

    Presumably (in your world) all democratic nationalists have to be catholic? Atheists, jews, agnostics are excluded?
    That’s ok, I get the mindset.

  • latcheeco

    At least his mindset is honest. He doesn’t dress taking away nationalist rights in cost-cutting clothes.

  • DC

    Chris’ negativity chimes with the problems that are inherent in both the DUP and SF.

    It has been a government which has lacked the ability to project self-confidence, partly because both parties have been discredited by some of the compromises made – the arguments put forward based on bravado and on SF’s change mantra have been unconvincing. The electors aren’t stupid.

    But the self-confidence issues arise mainly to do with the mean spiritedness of both parties and the personal behaviours of key ministers namely Ruane, Campbell and Robinson have cemented this image.

    Characteristics of dourness, dullness and at times stances highly patronising, the electors can judge that this set-up hasn’t delivered any new programmes to the benefit of the people at large, or in terms of NI’s wider image and reputation as a place to live or do business in. SF still harks back to 1998 and the buzzing Blair years where the political capital was all built up via Downing Street, the constant appeal of winning out of negotiating always going to go in their favour helped the appeal of moving forward to the goal of getting together to govern.

    So, there’s been no buzz. It is the inability to compromise, the inability to project a sense of moving forward together that means as time goes on with both parties standing still you can only go back, at least as a collective entity. SF are more robust but with the DUP you see they have been staking out the ‘positive’ ‘strong leadership’ thing, so it is backfiring on them, probably because they have more morally charged pundits pressing them.

    So self-confidence problems breed doubt, doubt breeds other parties to move in and pretend they can do that bit better if given the chance to serve. And the TUV is a repetition of the same style and strategy that the DUP once used and clearly still carries some effectiveness as not enough time, convincing arguments nor political progress has passed in the DUP’s favour.

  • latcheeco

    But DC,
    It’s like turkeys voting for Christmas because everytime there’s a renegotiation unionism (arguably) comes out worse than it was before so unionists can swing to the right forever and SF still benefit.

    This is not least because each time it happens it reignites the perpetual process and the “talks about talks” guff that is SF’s bread and butter and gets everybody out of having to actually legislate. The process eventually becomes legislation by crisis.

    The smart move for unionists would have been to vote DUP (not wishing to be patronising) and keep things as they were i.e. going nowhere. They’ve handed the Sinners another crisis requiring new negotiations.

  • the future;s bright, the future’s orange

    Somehow, I can’t see the DUP walking away from the assembly. SF on the other hand…

  • Sunningdale1973

    We are at an interesting phase of democracy in Northern Ireland (and ROI/UK). The growing disenchantment with politics, beyond the narrow political elites in many western democracies suggests that something isn’t healthy and needs changes with how we conduct politics.

    I heard Prof Vernon Bogdanor recently on Radio suggesting that constitutional reform has so far redistributed power only between (political)elites, not between elites and the people and that there is increasingly a sense that the public considers itself to be disenfranchised.

    Interestingly in a Westminster context he said that this was actually because the big issues are increasingly matters of degree as opposed to fundamental differences of ideology.

    I would suggest in an NI context our problem is more profound. Our bigger parties (apologies to Alliance) still identify themselves primarily in shades of green and orange and often give the impression that beyond the constitutional questions they have limited idea of what to do now that they have a degree of power and importantly how to bring change about in an assembly that by its design requires agreement to function.

    What seems to be happening is that, as wider society in a post ceasefire NI tries to get on with real issues such as a global recession, our politically active minorities are becoming increasing composed of the jihadists for whom the extremes are the most comfortable spaces (as demonstrated on a daily basis by many commentators on this website).

    This isn’t surprising as during the troubles and entire generation of people who might have been politically active in university and beyond instead either left the country sick of the murder and hatred or else became disconnected from politics and the old touch stone issues. This does not mean that they don’t care about the sovereignty issue it is just that there are more pressing issues.

    Much of this lost generation has found itself working in business, trade union or voluntary sectors while seeking to accomplish quasi political objectives.

    We might have still had a more effective Assembly if the NI Civil Service was capable of helping Ministers formulate real policy changes that will effect change in how ordinary people live their lives, unfortunately the NICS is a zero risk bureaucracy which is capable of spending a lot of money but by and large doesn’t have a clue how to develop policy. For example in the teeth of the worst of the recession it has been extremely slow to respond and is far more concerned at senior levels with (out of date) corporate objectives, sick leave and avoiding the slightest conceivable risk for fear of being hauled before the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee.

    Three Questions to finish with:
    1. Are the current parties capable of reforming/refreshing themselves by broadening their base and seeking to define themselves by what they are for in terms of real issues rather than dogma?

    2. Do we need to bring in fundamental change to how the Assembly Operates – for example on post primary education why not have a referendum to break the impasse?

    3. Do we need a much more creative and innovative culture in the Civil Service that is capable of delivering the kind of fundamental shifts in policy or should the parties send their next generation of bright young things back to school to learn how to posture a little less and develop well thought out solutions to difficult real world issues?

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    the futures bright, the future’s orange

    are you the same Orangey chap who bet with me that Wales would finish above Ireland in the 6N? If so you owe me (well Slugger) a tenner.

  • Laughing (Tory) Unionist

    Are you the same Plastic fellow who blethered that the TUV wouldn’t even get 20K? You’re certainly the gimp who, because you’re incapable of understanding even basic constitutional law, droned on and on for years in his single transferrable post dat ‘da Brits couldn’t do dis, dat and da other’, and now’re you’re the shameless fibbing nonce who mewls that ‘da Brits’ shouldn’t do all these terrible things. You’re also the tick well advised to keep on running.

  • “Because they don’t want a fenian about the place.”

    Sammy, you seem to be obsessed with that phrase 😉

    Would a fenian/Fenian really want to be about the place? Surely the proponents of self-imposed apartheid – separate education – have a real difficulty with the label Castle Catholics. I think you’re not giving due recognition to the consequences of the Irish Nationalist aspiration, especially for those who cherish it. How can they bed down that which they wish to destroy?

  • the future;s bright, the future’s orange

    that’s me – i was so in shock at you winning a bet that I went on a 2 month drinking binge to forget it!

  • “(apologies to Alliance)”

    Is there a more useless party in Northern Ireland? It looks good on the tin but when you open it there’s nothing of substance inside.

    I’ve had a number of dealings with the party during the past year re. the Rathlin ferry scandal. Sometimes there was no reply; even when there was an indication of action it rapidly fizzled out. As a consequence their EU candidate dropped to near the bottom of my list whereas formerly the Alliance candidate would have been at the top or near the top.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    the future;s bright, the future’s orange,

    are you going to pay up? or shall I give you the chance of double or quits – I say that that the UU/Tory crypto alliance will get a smaller % of the vote than last time out?

  • danielmoran

    LURIG… msg 3 i was thinking about this last night after hearing the political commentators predicting the outcome of the euros from the verification process.
    i have come to the conclusion that even if dodds squeezes in past allister, her election is still a disaster for the dup. everything else she declared loudly that she wanted not to happen looks like it will. [allister might even top the poll in north antrim]
    if that comes true, it will force them to entrench themselves at stormont and become even more pigheaded, even though that has done them no good at the euros.
    so, how are they going to have any confidence in doing well in westminster elections if they have to campaign while at stormont with shinners?.
    i think they will have to find a pretext to pull out, or risk going back to their status before 2003. a small rump party. i hope paisley survives to see his dreams turn to dust.

  • Sunningdale1973


    I don’t disagree. My point was that Alliance don’t identify themslves on the basis of orange or green it was not to comment on their ability – which to be fair is patchy.

    But then isn’t this the issue – we identify with parties as blocs – therefore when we have a good/bad experience with an individual politician we tend to look at the whole party in the same light.

    This is a key flaw in party systems I can’t see what point there is in monlithic single issue parties in NI.

  • Laughing (Tory) Unionist

    Be shure to pay stuck-record Sammy in sterling*. It’s still here after all, unlike, natch, his years of monoposting BS about what ‘da Brits couldn’t do’, but now mysteriously can. Take your lumps Sammy, or, alternatively, keep on running.

    *Though think how much you’d be taking the Stuck one for if he had put his flapping gob behind his TUV predictions – they, said the bould Plastic fellow, aren’t going to make 20K . . .

  • Sunningdale, I took a range of factors into account when I voted. Diane Dodds would have been further down my list had it not been for the positive role played by Mervyn Storey in the Rathlin saga. Alban Maginness didn’t drop despite the negative role played by Declan O’Loan.