Some questions for Margaret

Taking her claim that the SDLP is “ brimming with ideas” at face value, may I put some questions about what might be thought distinctive about Margaret Ritchie’s SDLP leadership bid?. Thanks to Conall for the text. Unless the party can work up something to broaden the agenda and woo voters with a USP or few, her thoughts will stay what Margaret says they are – personal visions. I’m suprised she has nothing to say on how the SDLP would exercise justice and policing lawmaking powers, especially when the party is furious about being sidelined…

“We want more economic independence from Britain – and ultimately our own taxation and welfare regimes. Northern Ireland needs to be able to retain the gains made through better economic management. We believe in devolution so we want more of it. Broadcasting and Telecoms too.”

Before we get to the further future, what are Margaret’s tough choices for public spending cuts? Or will she stick with funking them as long as possible like the other parties until the Treasury imposes them? (Funking them might be quite a good idea if she knows how to make the case). What are her ideas for a local taxation regime?. 10p in £ plus a local stamp duty such as Calman proposes for Scotland with a proportionate reduction from Whitehall? How would she spend revenue differently from at present? A separate tax regime is not thought to be a good idea for NI foreseeably. How could NI fund the pensions black hole more self sufficiently than now? What would be the benefit of devolved welfare? More, or less, welfare to work? Is she asking the Assembly CAL committee to appoint an NI member each to Ofcom and the BBC Trust? What differences would that make?

“At the same time we want to deepen our North/South economic integration. And get serious about the green economy as a source of competitive advantage. As a first step we will campaign for an all-island independent Environmental Protection Agency and a single all-island Regulator for Energy.”

There is at least an outline shape for this already. A common energy market is key to north-south economic integration. NI energy prices are too high under a dubious contract regime. How would it develop in a way that would attract hard-pressed consumers?

“I will engage meaningfully with the unionist community. Look them in the eye and tell them they can trust the SDLP and they can trust me. Our engagement will not be the patronising ‘outreach’ favoured by others who do not ultimately believe in sharing. Equal but separate is what satisfies others. It will never satisfy the SDLP. We want a Shared Future that is actually Shared. We have plenty to do. Not in drips and drabs but full steam ahead towards reconciliation and a truly shared society. “

It would be a great achievement to put momentum into the moribund Shared Future agenda. But is this anything more than striking a different pose from Sinn Fein? The references to “outreach” and “equal and separate” are tilts at Sinn Fein. How precisely would she set about winning the necessary cross community support to put flesh on the bones of A Shared Future, beyond small integrated housing programmes and shared spaces?

I will take our unique ideas for achieving unity to the very heart of decision-making in Dublin. I will campaign hard for the establishment of a new all-party Commission with a clear remit to agree a modern, inclusive vision for a United Ireland. I will press every party in the South to sign up to the SDLP’s radical thinking on unity.

What are these “unique ” and ” radical ideas” on Unity? I must have missed them, even though the SDLP have had many years to work them up. Is this the time for either side of the border. but particularly the parties to the Republic with all its troubles, to take part in a meaningful commission?

Perhaps the difficult political question is this: how does Margaret propose to avoid a clash between a Shared Future in which the SDLP is “trusted ” by unionists, and her “unambiguous” support for Unity? In the event of clashes, which would she chose? There is a paradox about public opinion. While declining numbers of voters still polarise between unionist and nationalist groups on the national question, repeated very extensive Life and Times Surveys show that opinion on both sides is soft on both the Union and Unity. As turnout declines, is this not a gap to exploit? Amazingly, nothing here specifically for women in what is still a sexist society. What about supporting abortion guidance? Or confessional equality for teacher recruitment? ( sorry, I’m freewheeling here)…

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