Eight points for the future

A sum-up from me on the very interesting threads following the European election.

1. Breast beating about party performances is inevitable, but take heart.

2. STV goes a long way to ensure that a multi-party system will survive.

3. The Assembly is much more than a political chess board. The TUV phenonemon, the surge of violent republicanism and persistent sectarian attacks are reminders that the political settlement is a guarantor of peace and stability that cannot rest on its laurels. People tend to pay more attention to what they see as the opposing threat, than to assurances from their own kind. This is one of the factors that increases tension and a harder line. DUP /Sinn Fein dominance has not closed this dialectic.

4. The Euro-election shows that contrary to many hopes, the parties of the opposite poles can be outflanked on the right.

5. The future trend for or against powersharing is unknown. A bigger turnout in subsequent elections may increase or reduce it.

6. Public opinion polling is needed on this, but almost certainly, the low turnout in the Euro poll suggests disenchantment with the Assembly is greater than a wish to destroy it. The parties therefore should not stand by passively. They should seize the initiative and pull together on essentials.

7. If you chose to look at politics differently, you will see that the sectarian competition fundamental to parties’ behaviour is largely irrelevant to coalition government. The checks, balances and equality laws of the system make it difficult to impossible to chalk up sectarian victories over housing allocation, industrial location etc. as in the bad old days, other than by blocking. This marginalisation may make the competition on identity politics all the fiercer.

8. With responsibility in government, the discourse needs to change. Yet sectarian politics remain a fact of life; the Assembly is not going to turn into one big Alliance party. The first big lesson that needs to be learned is that a willingness to take responsibility for even the toxic issues like culture, symbols and parades makes them more amenable to solutions, through deal-making. This means devolving justice and policing now, on the agreed terms. When will be a better time? The second lesson is that a more coherent, strategic and dynamic approach to government can produce win:win for both sides rather than zero sum, the victory for one side at the expense of the other. When did we last see the FM and DFM trumpet an Executive success together? Key issues like academic selection cut across sectarian lines and demand a different approach. The rise of TUV warns of a potential threat to the system. The crying need for good government offers a much bigger opportunity.

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