Murphy’s law leads us into a cul-de-sac

I’m exploiting my privileges to rework my response to Pete’s interesting thread on Patrick Murphy’s article in the Irish News, “Irish history tends to be a rerun of same events .” Does Murphy’s honestly argued piece reveal wider disenchantment with the whole Assembly experience among thinking nationalists? I hope not. He makes a rod for his own back by overrestricting his definition of democracy and overplaying the role of history. He asks for instance:

Do nationalists benefit by having nationalist ministers? For example, would our roads policy be different if Arlene Foster replaced Conor Murphy as regional development minister?

With no disrespect to Miss Foster or Mr Murphy for that matter, most certainly it might, if you really believe history is fated to repeat itself. Protestant roads might go to Protestant places unless you have cross community responsibility for where they go. In the old days we used to call it “Government for Glengormley”

Murphy might look harder at what’s been achieved at the sharp end and instead encourage the fragile dynamic for progress: the long overdue disarmament of the loyalist paramilitaries, the successes in managing the marching season, the tacit agreement not to split fundamentally on dealing with the past. The next big test will be implementing the sensible agreement on the devolution of justice and policing if the DUP can nerve themselves up to do it. It is an illusion to think all this can be achieved in a back office deal between the FM and DFM. It needs maximum community support.

Murphy’s argument, if it goes anywhere, seems to point towards the dangerous zero-sum options of going all out for winner-take-all democracy like the old Stormont, or else abolishing the “ artificial ” state within which it operated. This is overplaying history with a vengeance. We surely passed those crossroads a long time ago. Perhaps Murphy is doing no more than letting out one long moan of frustration. For that I have some sympathy. Only now (perhaps) are the UDA and UVF disarming. But I would urge patience and more constructive thinking than dwelling obsessively on the past.

I don’t accept Pete’s assertion that the status quo necessarily or even actually retards the process of reaching enhanced democratic administration. This is jumping to conclusions. It’s a feature of NI life that we are better at criticism than prescription. Unfortunately perhaps, there is no system which can suddenly create your own nirvana. Instead, we are in for a long haul. One key question is: what’s the alternative?

1.Arend Lijphart, the theoretician of this form of powersharing would concede that it is not ideally democratic or technically effective.

2. One alternative is straightforward majority rule but with added protocols for cooperation and HR protection. Any takers?

3. Another is an AV (alternative vote) Assembly once mooted by our own Wilford and Wilson which compels a second choice vote, hopefully to strengthen the centre. But AV’s effects are not agreed by experts.

4. A variant of today’s system is the informal powersharing of 1973. With today’s inclusive participation, this might become the voluntary coalition of dreams, with a constitutional requirement for cross community government by inter-party agreement rather than by mechanism; an Assembly shorn of designations with a say, 70% weighted majority for key decisions, perhaps giving Alliance and other minorities leverage to break deadlocks. In practice, would it be so very different from what we’ve got? And what would make it happen, other than a transformation in voting and party behaviour? Do you really see the Tories renegotiating the Agreements to try to make it happen?

5. My further point I have argued before turns Murphy’s on its head. The system with all its checks and balances, watchdogs and supervisors, allows little room for sectarian victories except by blocking. That’s why blocking plus contests outside the Executive sphere still dominate what passes for politics. Inisde the Executive’s responsibility, there is great need for constructive politics to achieve win:win rather than zero sum victory or defeat.

6. There are signs – inconclusive I admit – of better cooperation ( post- Massareene, post- McDaid after a stumble and now with the UDA/UVF disarmament). The pressures of recession , so far partly deferred will require more effective government through painsharing, some unity in adversity and planning for a better tomorrow. Most political systems turn gratefully to thinking about better tomorrows, if they’re shown how to do it. This is a fruitful line to develop. It’s a big sub-theme, but I do not take any party’s visionary political rhetoric too literally. Does anybody?

7. The clincher is that if you look at the big picture, none of the main parties have any interest whatever in bringing the whole thing down. What they need is constructive pressure and specific advice to do better. In Churchill’s eloquent phrase, “we keep buggering on” and stop searching for idealised systems that will never happen.

8. Finally, after all this time and the waste of so much blood and treasure, we should resist the reflex appeal to particular versions of history and anecdote every time we discuss politics. It is self-defeating. Why so? Because it is a record of (in)glorious failure which is becoming about a relevant to our future as Bonnie Prince Charlie is to Scotland’s. (I exaggerate just a little). I’d just like to nail this two nations thing. I’m certain it overstates the differences. The obsession with founding myths and basic texts mirrors Paisleyite biblical fundamentalism and shies away from contemporary analysis – what about life NOW? There have always been numerous points of contact between the two sides and lots of shared experiences. Try two tests: whom does a Prod or a Mick more resemble: each other or a Cork person? Whom does a Brit looking on think they most resemble: himself or each other? Many commenters on Slugger who enjoy history (and I do too, believe me) over-exalt the politics of identity to the exclusion of almost everything else. At best, it might be a form of communication through swapping differences. But on its own, this search for stability through the prism of the past is doomed to failure. Without taking due account of changing lives and outside forces, it may breed pessimism, cynicism and helplessness and may have more to do with the characteristics of bloggers than anything else, who sometimes sound like a school of medieval alchemists arguing about how to squeeze blood out of a stone. Just a touch self-indulgent maybe.. no great harm done unless you take it too seriously? But why not set history in its own context and give the future a chance? There’s a universe of ideas and experience out there that isn’t contained in Bunreacht na hÉireann or the 1st Book of Kings. Sad to say, much of it in C20 passed Ireland by and must now be rediscovered.

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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

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