I recently looked at what I feel is increasing confidence (with good reason) within unionism. I have also looked at the need for an increase in civility within unionism and previously on the unionist consensus for a way forward in Northern Ireland. The question is can we be civil enough to one another and can we have the confidence to think about what would be required to make the unionist consensus vision a reality?
The consensus seems to be in favour of an end to mandatory coalition and some form of more normal political system with weighted majorities to ensure no return to a simplistic majority rule which nationalists rightly remember as being discriminatory. The problem of course is that this very real and very reasonable sense of grievance and fear of unionist dominance means that nationalists are not going to leap at the prospect of dismantling the ugly scaffolding of our current arrangements. The rapid back tracking of Mark Durkan after he made the comments about dismantling the ugly scaffolding show that there are severe dangers in this for nationalists. Those unionists who expect the SDLP to play the role of collective Uncle Toms allowing a cross community veneer to cover a return to the halcyon days of Viscount Brookeborough are sorely mistaken. The SDLP are of course efficient and competent politicians, they showed themselves the match of the unionist politicians in negotiations prior to the Belfast Agreement; indeed one could suggest that for many years in the 1980s and 1990s John Hume ran rings around unionist politicians. If unionists think that the SDLP would meekly take up the proffered status of junior partner in order to make a weighted majority workable they are also surely mistaken. Again the SDLP are far too clever to buy into such a system. In addition if by some incredible chance they were that stupid they would of course be decimated at the polls in the next set of elections.
If unionists are to persuade nationalists and especially the SDLP of their bone fides and indeed the advantages which would accrue to the whole community from a radical change to the current system, they need to consider just how much massive outreach would be needed and just how much we would need to be willing to concede. To appeal simply to nationalists public spiritedness and point to the current chaos, deadlock and inertia which passes for government is not enough. The offer of increased competence in government or additional power for SDLP ministers is also not enough. Rather unionists need to be willing to consider massive and radical outreach on issues with specific resonance to nationalists. These issues would need to be placed very clearly on the table beforehand. To be specific we need to consider an Irish Language Act, movement on the devolution of policing and justice, cross border bodies and the like; maybe even the issue of the Maze stadium. Furthermore it would not be simply a case of offering nationalists a set of predefined positions on each of these issues, rather it would be to tell them that we would negotiate and agree compromises on these and other issues of concern to nationalists, compromises which would be considerably more pro nationalist than they are now.
For parties such as the TUV and DUP to assume that in a weighted majority system we would have to make less concessions than now would be extremely naïve. It is abundantly clear that we would be unable to convince nationalists of the merits of such a system and as such would be unable to get the British government to agree to it. The CUs may feel that they can move beyond unionist / nationalist politics and offer a new future. That may be the case but short of some sudden seismic shift that is extremely unlikely in the short term. As such they too need to understand that in moving towards a system of government closer to a normal understanding of democratic norms, we need not merely to offer nationalism concessions but allow nationalism to choose the issues and concessions they want. Whilst I am not suggesting that we concede to every demand nationalism might place upon us we would need to be willing at times to move to a place wherein we would be less than wholly comfortable. Let us remember that we would be asking exactly the same of nationalists.
If we could do that and persuade nationalists of this then there would be considerable benefits for unionism in terms of competence of governance. However, those nationalists who might putatively enter into government would also have to feel likely to gain from government and that means not only gain power for themselves and their party, nor merely improve the competence of government but also forward the nationalist agenda. If that were to happen those nationalists might well gain electorally at the expense of those unwilling to enter into such arrangements (realistically likely to be SF) but that would only be by having advanced not merely the cause of good governance but also the specific interests issues and concerns of the nationalist population of Northern Ireland.
We need to understand and respect that the SDLP are not nationalist lite but nationalists green in tooth and claw, in favour of a united Ireland, proud of and fully entitled to that. They have enormous advantages over Sinn Fein in terms of ability, lack of support for the criminality of the past and a willingness to engage properly in attempts to make this society work for the benefits of all its citizens. In addition none of them are about to suggest that a future generation of their supporters might have to go back to violence, nor are any of them remotely likely to justify the existence of the IRA army council. They are not going to go and talk to the IRA after they murder someone and come back and tell us that it was not really the IRA. In addition absolutely none of them ever murdered any of our kith and kin. However, they are nationalists with an aspiration to have a united Ireland, an aspiration to persuade us to enter into that united Ireland and a desire to promote moves towards that unity. They want to promote Irish culture and heritage here within Northern Ireland in ways which at times we might not like.
If unionists want to persuade nationalists of the benefits of voluntary coalition we would need to be aware that the issues mentioned above are the sorts of things we would be implicitly and quite possibly explicitly signing up to. In addition it would be absolutely no use agreeing to such suggestions beforehand and then reneging on them afterwards. That would most likely result in the nationalist partners collapsing the whole agreement and us unionists being blamed for it, or if by some chance the nationalists were willing to stay in it, their electoral annihilation at the next set of elections.
I like many unionists believe in voluntary coalition and an end to the current system of government. However, we need to understand that it is not an option that involves no pain for ourselves as unionists. In addition if a confident unionism is to pursue its fairly consensus goal of voluntary coalition within a renewed power sharing arrangement then we will need to rediscover the willingness to be civil to one another and not simply grandstand every time the other unionist coalition partners make a deal with nationalists which is not exactly to our liking.