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.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London