What Slugger readers got right about our politician of the year…

The art of politics is not just about the possible, it’s also about the plausible… There was a certain amount of disgruntlement with the choice of Martin McGuinness as Slugger’s Politician of the Year (and for good reason when you consider how his party has blocked the capacity of the Executive to progress any serious legislative measure in lieu of devolution of policing and justice)… But a poll of readers by the Belfast Telegraph came to a similar conclusion to our own:

“It suggests that we maybe moving into a different phase of political life here in which politicians are judged as much on their performance in the here and now as on their history. If so, that has to be seen as a positive step. If the message is that some people are recognising that politicians can begin the journey from conflict towards statesmanship it is to be welcomed.

“If the message is that our politicians must do more to leave their historical baggage at the door of the debating chamber that too is positive.”

It’s worth noting that no one scored particularly highly, even if Mr McGuinness is way out front:

The Belfast Telegraph/Inform Communications survey put DUP leader Robinson on just 7% — Mr McGuinness scored 27% — with a zero rating among Catholics. The DUP’s best performing minister is Arlene Foster with 9% of those surveyed endorsing her track record at Enterprise, Trade and Industry.

Party leader Mr Robinson was in a disappointing fourth place, behind SDLP Social Development Minister and leadership candidate Margaret Ritchie. A DUP spokesman said: “Obviously the DUP is aware of the sort of issues that have been raised by this poll and even before the poll was released our leader Peter Robinson was moving to address some of these issues.”
Sinn Fein’s Agriculture Minister is in second place overall with 10%, again with a significant approval level from Protestants (8%).

There is no getting over the fact of Mr McGuinness’s history (anyone who wants the full blown emotional impact of the past should read Brian Lynch’s powerfully moving epic poem Pity for the Wicked), but this poll (and the Slugger Awards) are unsentimentally about performance in the here and now…

Mr McGuinness is Sinn Fein’s (not so secret) secret weapon… whilst their number 1 (Mr Adams and his unconstitutional kitchen cabinet) dictates the party’s deeply obstructionist policy, the party’s number two (Mr McGuinness) plays a blinder and is – de facto – Northern Ireland’s public diplomat par excellence (as his acceptance speech amply demonstrates)…

And being a number 2, he is also impossible for other party’s number 1s to negotiate with… To anyone with a detached eye for the political game it’s a beautifully wicked stratagem… Although its limitations are amply shown by the disapproval rating for the one policy area in which the ‘kitchen cabinet’ (or as Pete calls it, the detached polit-bureau) is said to have predominated, Education:

A total of 24% of Catholics, as well as 39% of Protestants and 19% of others, contributed to Ms Ruane’s disapproval rating of 31%, almost double the next most disappointing, Mr Robinson.

Meanwhile, Mr Robinson subsists with a Zero rating from Northern Ireland’s Catholics… A situation the party cannot be happy with (though is likely not to be terribly surprised at) given the promise of his maiden speech as First Minister last year. It hardly scores as an existential crisis at this stage either, given the tiny amount of cross community churn either party currently gets. It may simply reflect the fact that the wider polity (not to mention the MSM) is still stuck in the Peace Process™ mode of rewarding ‘good behaviour’, rather than ‘good politics’…

But if Sinn Fein were to take a single warning from this poll it’s contained in the incredibly low rating the current settlement gets overall. Also, they already have an urgent memo from their own recent past, in their own over-extrapolation of the party’s potential in the south based largely (though not exclusively) on a consistently high personal rating for Gerry Adams during the lifetime of the 2002-2007 Dail. Topping a ‘leadership’ poll does not, of itself, vouchsafe further political success.

Rather such success will more likely arise from slow incremental ‘victories’, than from the current series of big, barrack-busting plays… And, paradoxically, as the unionist population becomes more acclimatised to an outwardly agreeable SF dFM, it becomes less likely that the Unionist meltdown one might reasonably expect if SF’s current Number 2 were to become Northern Ireland’s Number 1 (ie First Minister) will be as complete as some inside the kitchen cabinet may be hoping just now.

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