The Stormont Prisoners Dilemma

I blogged the other day about a big question facing the DUP and Sinn Fein; cooperate or defect?

Is there any incentive for both parties to coalesce around a shared vision for this region or is the greater return to be found in thwarting each others ambitions for short term selfish gain?

Back in 2002 Mick Fealty and Trevor Ringland analysed this dilemma within unionism. Nationalism is now in a similar situation. To date short term defection for selfish gain has paid off for Sinn Fein and the SDLP’s long term cooperative strategy has led to electoral defeat. However, it appears we have reached a point where in order to succeed in government and deliver for the people parties need to find a way of cooperating for mutual gain. Is this the UUP and the SDLP’s big opportunity or can Sinn Fein and the DUP find a way of working together?

If the academics are right, in this Stormont Prisoner’s Dilemma, those who choose to reciprocally cooperate should win out.

  • Jer


    Cooperating avoids the punishment and allows both to get off lightly but that depends on each party believing the other to be strong enough not to break, strong enough to stick to the high risk strategy that cooperation is.

    Who makes that judgement? The electorate!

    It may be comforting for the SDLP to consider itself as the party of cooperation, the party of real vision etc with certainly SF neither capable of compromise or cooperation. A Nice theory on paper.

    The problem is the electorate believe that the SDLP is the prisoner who would end up in jail rather than the prisoner who wins or manages to come out equally as good.

  • aquifer

    If there are parties of the less sectarian centre, they should perhaps develop a joint programme for government and be prepared to put their proposed ministers together on a platform in a press conference. This should include a security minister.

    This could be before the next assembly elections or when the DUPSF wranglers threaten to play the walkout card.

    SF already have a privileged position of guaranteed inclusion in government, but only IF ELECTED in numbers. This is the GFA.

    The problem in this is the UUP. They wear their Orange sash over their business suit, making negative remarks about cross border business co-operation and trying to out TUV the TUV. For a party that used to BE local governance, this is pathetic and destructive.

    The only crime in politics is stupidity.

  • DC

    More fool the electorate.

    A case in point was that the electorate voted in Arlene Foster as a local councillor to do triple jobbing as Minister, MLA and now Councillor (despite Arlene having to give up council work previously).

    All of this though more importantly against the background of her legislating against double-jobbing when environment minister, so in principle she is against it but in practice she worked it.

    Even hypocrisy counts for absolutely nothing in certain sections of the electorate. Not good.

  • Dave

    “If the academics are right, in this Stormont Prisoner’s Dilemma, those who choose to reciprocally cooperate should win out.”

    Not quite. The outcomes of PD are determined by its specific parameters which give a rational option and an irrational wherein a person gains if he acts irrationally rather than rationally. It doesn’t mean, as you seem to think, that co-operation toward a mutually interest is always (or even generally) a better option than pursuit of selfish interest. PD has no application outside of its particular matrix, so it shouldn’t be cited as a reason why we should all ‘just get along’ and build the fabled ‘shared society.’ Anyway, if you have to resort to game theory to prop up the GFA, maybe you have more fundamental problems, eh?

    The prisoners want to throw each other in jail, i.e. they both have separate goals of maintaining the union and destroying it. Outside of that, you would need to construct a matrix whereby both players gain by acting irrationally within the ‘shared society’ model , e.g. one player acting irrationally by seeking to improve the status quo (as this is not the best way of undermining support for the status quo and thereby undermining the union) would be followed by the other player acting irrationally by having a fenian about the place and thereby improving support for the status quo among supporters of the other player but also undermining support for the status quo among the player’s own supporters where the status quo has both a external and an internal dynamic.

  • igor

    Isn’t the point in this that the parties (by and large) are each using this to fight their true enemy rather than ‘the opposition’ ie the punch and judy version of politics is SF vs DUP but the real battles are SF vs SDLP and DUP vs UUP (while waiting for Allister to get the gloves on)

    Did anyone mention governing in all of this? solving problems? making things better?

  • Dave

    In case that is a bit obtuse: a Shinner on the average industrial wage wants to water the rose garden in his holiday home but, alas, it has been a long, hot summer (okay, no one would believe this is in Ireland) and water is in scarce supply. The Shinner must now decide if he should water his roses or conserve water. The selfish thing to do is to water his roses. This is also the most rational thing to do since the roses will perish if they are not watered – it would obviously be irrational not to water them. If the owners of the other holiday homes (probably on a tad more than the average industrial wage) decide not to water their gardens in order to conserve water, then El Presidente may rationally conclude that one person watering his roses will not unduly deplete the water supply. If the rest of the owners of the holiday homes also put their selfish interest first and water their gardens, then it would not be rational to think that one person exercising restraint will preserve the water supply. However, if everyone in Donegal decided to act rationally and put their selfish interest first by not conserving water, then the water supply would be depleted and the roses will all die anyway. The co-operation in this is that El Presidente must guess what all others are likely to do. If they all act rationally, then they will all suffer. So, if he acts irrationally (and does not water his roses), then they will die; and if he acts rationally (and does water his roses), then they will die if others act rationally and deplete the water supply. Outside of those parameters, it doesn’t matter if folks cooperate or act selfishly.

  • percy

    yerp Dave, we must wake up and smell the roses.

  • GavBelfast

    The eternal optimist in me says that, having given SF and the DUP a chance to cut THE deal on their behalf, and now endured the entirely predictable mess that that pair would create, those voters who are actually prepared to share power and try to make things work will reject SF and DUP in sufficient numbers next time to enable others to have (another) go.

    And therein perhaps allows an opportunity for UUP/C, SDLP, Alliance (if they can hold their noses!) and Greens, etc.

    Of course, this being Northern Ireland, SF and DUP might just redouble their efforts to appeal to the respective LCDs, succeed in doing so and help to turn-off everyone else.

    But things as they are cannot be sustained – Direct Rule was not and would not be less attractive than what we have.

  • DC

    I would settle for joint direct rule absolutely, thereby pissing off both camps respectively and cutting off their money entirely.

    Reducing the number of Westminster seats to 6-8 here.

    Hell slap it up ’em then. We’ll soon see how long Dave’s shitty analogy holds out then!!!!!!

  • DC

    With the Sinn Fein project losing its electoral base in Ireland, no politics in the north, no stormont no need for NSMCs etc because of joint direct rule, the money saved would be significant enough to save a few front line services.

    I think society is close to a consensual stage to perhaps allow this: co-decision of a small team of MPs/Irish ministers taking decisions on behalf of people here for mutual benefit.

    Maybe have an irish justice minister telling the RIRA where to go would be nice too.

  • fin

    If its going to be an opportunity for the SDLP depends on who the new leader of the party will be after Durkin steps down next year

  • igor

    If they went would we miss them? I mean that seriously. The entire costly edifice of multi councils and assembly is only there to place politicians with jobs and create a system big enough to lubricate fair shares of paid posts and expenses. One medium county council sized organisation could easily do it all – easily and at far lower cost.

    Suppose NI politics ceased to exist. Would we feel ourselves bereft if we had an efficient civil service to run the services?

    Sometime politics is just too expensive an too much to be bother wed with

  • igor

    Just read Durkan’s statement.

    I think he has read the runes on the Assembly and thinks that it won’t last or will be in such stalemate that it wont deliver anything worthwhile.

    Now if Robbo decides that he too will stay at Westminster and play with the big boys the Hill is in deep trouble

  • percy

    no more petebkr posts on sunday with youtube’s of sunday interviews 🙁

  • Pandee

    The Assembly is a farce built on a lie.

    Robinson, like Trimble before him, jumped into bed with Sinn Fein on the understanding that they had “gone away you know”. This is now known to be nonsense given that SF’s past and future friends are arming up from SF bunkers (supposedly ‘decommissioned’).

    Even being charitable to the shinners and allowing that they may have missed a bunker or two with Slab’s cut-price concrete they will be aware who knew the bunkers’ locations and could have passed this info on to the police.

    Given that their pals are drawing down arms with the same level of difficulty that I would have buying a bag of pasta from Tescos this information appears not to have been forthcoming.

    The unionists have been played for fools (again.) If a local assembly must involve the toxic ‘politicians’ of Sinn Fein then the only solution is direct rule from Westminster.

  • Mick Fealty

    The problem in an iterative (ie where both party’s are stuck with one another long term) Prisoner’s dilemma is that you can never predict how someone else will behave.

    Choosing to co-operate when the other player defects does not increase levels of co-operation, if anything it leads to more defection.

    The one person in the executive who has played a strong hand of ‘tit for tat’ Margaret Ritchie, who ended up punishing BOTH SF and the DUP when they both tried to defect on her over their inability to deal with her ultimatum over CTI funding.

    That said, there is the possibility of setting up positive clusters, which only encompasses players who are prepared to co-operate; who can build clusters of ‘prosperity’.

    But co-operation will only build if co-operators consistently and openly punish defection with defection.

  • Crow

    The prisoner’s dilemma is only solved by trust. The goal being both prisoners avoid the maximum punishment (i.e. prison time) and not screw your accomplice at the same time. To extend the analogy further if both the prisoners were from rival gangs who happened to commit this crime together, then the equation changes as they not only have to fear prison but also retribution from their gangs. This is why the analolgy breaks down and why it is very difficult (but hopefully not impossible) for Peter and Martin to build some level of trust. In the end we are all the prisoners.

  • Mick Fealty

    I think the relevance of the dilemma is that there is no immediate prospect of release. The appeal of games theory is that it provides a robust strategy precisely where there is no trust.

    It’s the readability of Tit for Tat that gives it its power in situations where the ‘partners’ have NO readson to trust one another. Start with a positive, and respond with a positive to a positive and a negative to a negative.

    Veer off that and the strategy gets difficult for rivals to read. It has the bonus of rewarding people for taking paths that entail some element of risk both for themselves and for their rivals.

    That you must punish a negative move from your opponent means you have to think and act more aggressively to follow the more positive path.

  • Dave

    Mick, I’m sure it’s my poverty of imagination, but I can’t envisage any practical application of PD in Stormont whatsoever. Can you help me out and construct a matrix that will produce good government (co-operation) in even just one small area?

    Also, would it not be better conditioning lab rats to choose from the specific options in the matrix or using an algorithm since this would be equally effective and would be considerably cheaper than electing politicians to Stormont?