Thoughts on Voluntary Coalition

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.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    Too many people or political parties fighting over limited and declining (negative demogrpahics) resources will always lead to tension between them and is evidenced by looking at the TUV website where the main enemy is not really SF but the DUP.

    The DUP has what the TUV want and is increasingly getting – Unionist voters – and the statement “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” is certainly a good idea for Unionism but only for the Unionist party that already has the votes and has the momentum.

    The warfare to continue and to intensify with the extrmely controversial issue (for Unionism) of Police and Justice coming to a head over the next few months.

  • Just to be unhelpful, it’s bona fides, not bone fides.

  • joe

    hahahaha at the state of this piece, what a joker

  • Dec

    Turgon

    Given that your desired outcome from voluntary commission is to isolate SF from power, at the expense of a few concessions and Unionism accepting the principle that being a Nationalist doesn’t (necessarily) equate with having two heads, I’d be interested in finding out how you propose convincing SF, under the current mandatory coalition, to accept voluntary commission?

  • fin

    “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.”

    so the SDLP just have to find a unionist party that behaves in the same manner about UDA. Any suggestions?

  • Greenflag

    Turgon ,

    Not a bat’s chance in hell . This Assembly won’t last much longer and IF there is any replacement it will be even more disadvantageous to the ‘unionist ‘ position .

    I don’t believe ‘unionism ‘ is ‘confident ‘ nor can be saved or reformed or is even worth saving or reforming nevertheless it’ll be on life support for quite a while yet.

    ‘we will need to rediscover the willingness to be civil to one another’

    It might have helped decades ago for unionist politicians to have been civil to the other side of the fence . But it never happened .Captain O’Neill and Brian Faulkner tried and both failed . They were both taken down by the groundknucklers of backwoods unionism.

  • Only Asking.

    The logic is get rid of sinn fein and get good governance, what a joke. There was never good governance even before the dawn of the shinners. Pure fantasy.

  • Coll Ciotach

    No attempt at devolving power here will work, unionists are incapable of making the necessary concessions they have to make to placate nationalists into co-operating with their demise.

    If unionists fully recognised and gave proper status to the Irish culture and identity they would have the union on more secure ground. But to them this is British only territory. Live here and be British is the message, and nationalists will not buy into that.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    As there is no need for 2 pro-agreement parties on the Nationalist and the SDLP are in steady decline – Unionists had better be careful what they wish for as SF may soon(ish) equate to most of Nationalism. SF might only need cut a deal with a small Unionist party e.g. the as yet to be formed Unionists-who-dont-feel-the-need-to-march-up-and-down-every-summer-Party – as there must be a growing bunch of decent secular(ish) Prods who would prefer not to turn the clock back 3 centuries.

  • Greenflag

    ‘The SDLP are of course efficient and competent politicians, they showed themselves the match of the unionist politicians in negotiations.

    It requires more than efficiency and competence to climb to the top of the heap in NI politics . Any Unionist politician 1920 -1972 or even any of the present bunch could tell you that .

    As for ‘efficient’ democracy ? Democracy is a messy form of government but so far it beats the alternatives . Unionist politicians never had to think too much about politics or efficiency . Just as long as they waved the right coloured flag at election time was enough to secure a seat at Stormont . It’s become a little more difficult nowadays for they have to be seen waving the right coloured flag more enthusiastically than their unionist opponents as each competes vociferously to avoid the ‘lundy ‘ tag .

    It seems as if Nationalists are much entertained by the spectacle of ‘unionists ‘ trying desperately to outunionist each other while purporting to reach out to Irish nationalists ?.

    Just one more in a long line of Unionist contradictions to add to the pile

  • fin

    Turgon, it might be worth looking at this from another angle, when the SDLP was the dominant nationalist party unionism wouldn’t play ball with them, nationalists deserted the SDLP for SF, I can understand why unionism would wish to return to the old days but its not going to happen. That leaves us in the present, unionists love crowing about how they’ve done SF over, so whats going to happen are nationalists going to revert to a more moderate party, or will they start looking at the next more hardline party along to represent them. Eirigi, 32CSC, RSF all said/say that SF were mugs to try and work with unionism, same as SF use to say about the SDLP. What are the chances that in a couple of years you’ll be blogging here yearning for the time unionism dealt with SF and not those militant sods in Eirigi/RSF/32CSC.

    In short the old easy days are gone, today will soon be gone, if unionism doesn’t grasp the opportunity now it mightn’t like whats around the corner.

  • Sean

    Turgon

    Interesting post and its nice to see you are atleast appearing to show flexibility in your thoughts about the Irish and nationalists but how is this any different to “smash SF” except you have added a with their consent clause? Mostly because you have had to under the present and any going forward scenario?

    In theory if all other parties and I mean all other parties agreed couldn’t they over ride SF even in the present assemblies as SF is just shy of the necesary veto numbers?

  • oisineire

    “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.”

    Why couldn’t you just have said “the SDLP”?

    Do you seriously think that “those Nationalists” would hold even a shred of competence in the view of the vast majority of Nationalist voters? It would only drive the SDLP to extinction, and further polarise the communities of NI. In fact, Sinn Féin would probably gain.

    Fin, you are absolutely right.
    At this present time I can’t see support for those parties rise in any substantial way. But what Turgon is proposing would cut of the Nationalist electorate, and indeed drive many of them to hardline parties.
    That will only destabilise any government that the Unionists try to form.
    The simple fact is that Nationalists deserve an equal say in Government and they do NOT want a voting majority which would probably alienate SF in the assembly. The voting majority would not need to have the consent of the largest Nationalist party – therefore your suggestion is absurd and unworkable.

  • Faha

    Turgon,
    Your analysis, and the replies to your analysis, appear to be based on the assumption that there will always be a unionist bloc majority in the Assembly. It is by no means clear that this will be the case after the 2011 Assembly election. Indeed,in the 2007 election if Joe Boyle of the SDLP had received only 32 more votes in Strangford then there would be only 54 unionist MLA’s in the current Assembly, one short of a majority. Mark Durkan of the SDLP was correct that mandatory coalition will not be needed in the future- he just does not have the election outcome yet to prove his point- but it may occur in 2011. Peter Robinson’s proposal is the DUP’s desire to have the best of both worlds: eliminate the Sinn Fein veto while retaining the unionist veto. I agree that the current system of mandatory coalition is unstable and leads to endless deadlocks over various issues. The total elimination of all vetoes and voluntary coalition is the only viable long term solution. If the Assembly collapses again in the future, mandatory coalition may be eliminated by the British ( probably Conservative )government.If the unionist bloc has 53 or fewer seats after the 2011 Assembly election then such a proposal will be a viable alternative to the current arrangement. One needs to look no further than the Belfast City Council to see what the results would be. The Alliance Party has held the balance of power since 1997 and there have been unionist as well as nationalist( including Sinn Fein ) mayors elected with Alliance backing. The same would occur in the Assembly. The current system of mandatory coalition provides a strong incentive for Sinn Fein and the DUP to cooperate for without mandatory coalition they would be forced to negotiate with the Alliance Party in the future if mandatory coalition was abolished.

  • aquifer

    Unionist Unity? The all-class sectarian bloc entrenches division, bolsters the provo narrative, and so dooms the union.

    Loyalist protestants are alien others as far as the English Welsh and Scottish are concerned, until their politics tackle social and economic issues that can engage catholics and others.

    Hanging tough? Tackle abortion or water tax.

    Sectarian is so schoolboy, craving identity and solidarity. When brits pick the team, kick the pope bands will not be on it. Get over it, get out more, and move on.

  • dub

    Turgon,

    You are thinking rationally, outside of the victims forever, defensive in the corner attitude.

    I think you might find that some sort of UI would be preferable to all the pain that Unionists would have to go through in your scenario. There would be more dignity for all concerned.

    Greenflag,

    Why does an uncharacteristic outburst of rational thought from a unionist scare you so much? Why are you going on about what happened 20 or 30 years ago? You seem to fear anything which threatens your 2 tribe ne’er the twain shall meet fixed view. From a recent post it could be surmised you have some kind of nostaglia for a Home Rule for Ireland that never happened. Are you the Cruiser reborn?