Launching the Slugger O’Toole Politicial Awards 2009…

Today we launch the Slugger O’Toole Political Awards for 2009. After last year’s roaring success, this is looking like it’s going to be Slugger’s big annual social (we’re holding the awards night on the 24th November), and we’ll be publishing the award categories gradually over the next few weeks.

As with the 2008 awards, we are keen to retain an emphasis on positive strokes for our politicians. It’s not that they don’t need a damned good nip on the heels every now and again, it’s just that the public ‘carrot’ is, in these days of rampant cynicism regarding representative democracy, is as important, if not more, than the ‘stick’ .As was the case last year this depends on your input. There are no stuffy rules (besides the usual ‘play the ball’ one), no stuffy judges on a pompous panel, no stuffed shirts on the night, just politics and your commentary – lots of it.

From the obstructive trenches of daily politics, it’s not always easy to retain perspective: the very least we can say is that our current settlement is better than the (many) alternatives that went before them. We don’t kill over one hundred people each year any more, for instance.

At first glance, it may seem to have been a fairly unproductive year for Northern Ireland’s representative democracy – not least in the continued deadlock over policing, education, shared and better futre, the Maze and the lack of agreed flagship policies…

But there was a united response to the Masserene and Lurgan killings, they enabled UDA and UVF decommissioning, secured cross-party agreement on a new Chief Constable; and they responded swiftly to the downturn (only to discover the toolkit was empty); they paid out to wet flood sufferers swiftly and again to those experiencing fuel poverty (although a tad less swiftly); and even took a lead on MP / MLA double-jobbing and so on.

The health of politics here will also depend on active engagement from civic society. It’s not good enough for us to pat politicians on the back after each election and say ‘see you in four or five years time’.

Tomorrow’s Evolve event and the local dissemination of Jack McConnell’s experience, the Stratagem/CBI gig on 6 October (with Icelandic participation), and BMF’s seminar last week in Stormont on what the incoming Conservative government is likely to mean for us, in future all point to a new openness and a willingness to learn from other spaces.

Yet, as Conall notes on Slugger today, this legislative Assembly has clocked up nearly 20,000 hours of devolved government. Councils across Northern Ireland have sunk countless hours on trying to get broadly based consent for a range of developments, from redevelopment of Newcastle town centre to the sighting of a ‘energy from waste facility’ (regional incinerator) on Belfast’s northern lough shore.

Politics in future, whether all of our politicians yet fully realise it or not, will be about how well they conduct our business in their government. The stakes will be raised considerably with local government reform. That requires them to get closer to the people who’s complex interests of the local they seek to represent and at the same time balancing wider interests.

Not for the first time do Edmund Burke’s speech to the electors of Bristol come to mind:

“Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.”

That’s a tall order in a polity where most of us define ourselves by a national allegiance to somewhere else. But having had the endorsement of the population of the island, north and south, the only way forward our increasingly professional political class is to start to demonstrate that they are focused on the job they were elected to: building a future capable of delivering the very things our shared and violent past signally failed to do.

Our purpose this year, as last, is not to poke through the wreckage of what might have been, or what should have been, but deliberately look for occasions when our politicians were caught out doing something good. That’s not to obscure the current problems, but to help set aspirational standards for politics where it really matters: at home.

Each Monday over the next two months we’ll open a nomination thread both here and over at the Slugger Awards site. Today we start off with the

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty