As the dysfunctional semi-detached polit-bureau wends its way into history…

One of the things, I guess, that will be taxing most of our new readers from elsewhere is why does a crisis around one political leader potentially threaten the nature of the whole settlement? In an op ed for the London Times today, I’ve sketched the outline the plot of the political power play that’s been going on underneath these top line events. In effect, the supposed partners in OFMdFM have been engaged in a (to put it very crudely) at game of ‘who f**ks whom’. Like a pair of scorpions fighting to the death, the DUP is trying to ensure that if it succumbs it maximises potential damage to the Shinners. This is doomsday territory for one and the end of a very long march to power for the other.

Should Robinson see out his six weeks stay of execution (for it is surely nothing more than that), any possible Assembly election would take place in April, a month before the likely date for the Westminsters. Sinn Fein’s element of surprise has dissipated and the other parties now have an opportunity to re-group and prepare for a very different kind of election in the wake of a transparent failure of both parties in OFMdFM to deliver anything of substance in the last two years.

May could see the first election in years that is about something other than counting tribal heads. We will have to wait and see whether the other parties have the means – and the will – to seize the opportunity to invite the electorate to pass judgement on the twin sponsors of the collective oligarchy that was the OFMdFM (singularly distinguished by that lower case ‘d’) – aka, the dysfunctional semi detached polit-bureau

, ,

  • J Kelly

    The interesting thing about these blogs and opinions what we tend to get is peoples hopes rather than a rational look at the facts. In any election with the game of stalling and stalling that the DUP has played the only likely winners on the unionist side will be the TUV not the so called middle ground of the tories/uup. On the republican/nationalist side Sinn Fein have nothing really to worry about because the SDLP are more interested in their leadership battle than anything else and to be honest not even at the races.

    In a letter published a few months back in the Derry Journal the writer compared the SDLP to the english media in the run up to any major soccer tournament nostalgic looking back at the good old days of 66 and how this is now our time then the competion dismal mediocrity. These sentiments are what we get in the run up to every election by the hopeful so called middle ground.

    All this nonsense of a non functioning, semi detached polit bureau doesn’t wash with the voters. It is no secret that the previous so called middle ground ofmdfm was hardly a bed of roses Mallon and Trimble didn’t speak and Durkan and Trimble couldn’t stand the sight of each other, hardly surprising when both of them believed that they know it all.

    So with all your wishful all I can say is bring it on one, two or three elections. Sinn Fein have nothing to fear from the electorate

  • Events may have now contrived to deliver a deal that surely the majority of people in Northern Ireland would like to see as the DUP may be more worried about going to an early Assembly election than any potential losses to the TUV in the Westminster election. It seems unlikley that the leadership issue would have been left hanging in the air for 6 weeks unless a decision has been made to make that deal.

    The backdrop to the current negotiations is worrying for Unionists in that both governments and the Tory opposition seem keener for all to march to the SF timetable which is not backed up by the letter of the STA than they are in backing the DUP position which is.

    Is it too much for Unionists to ask that the British government, Labour or Conservative, at least take an even handed approach and put its own citiziens interests above maintaining good relations with the government in the south.

  • PaddyReilly

    There is a (very minor) newspaper called The London Times but the editorial you refer to was in another daily called The Times, which is not receptacle for London based news but aspires to deal with world events, albeit from a British point of view: this is why it takes an interest in NI affairs.

  • Is it too much for Unionists to ask that the British government, Labour or Conservative, at least take an even handed approach and put its own citiziens interests above maintaining good relations with the government in the south.

    I doubt that the government in the south is particularly engaged at the moment, but anyhow: my impression of the last quarter century of British government is that “maintaining good relations with the government in the south” is a major plank of their strategy for attending to their own citizens’ interests.

    There’s no reason to believe that the interests of NI’s Unionists as you imagine them are at all the same as the interests of most UK citizens, as imagined by the state.

  • John Joe

    While we can dream of the kind of money and sex scandals that happen in ‘normalised’ societies, I think it is purely utopian to imagine that this will not simply be another sectarian head count election.
    Having Arlene Foster on as a blood sub for PR was probably the wrong tactic for the DUP. If he remains as party leader by the time of the Westminister election (and it is hard to see how a Stormont election will not be deferred until the same day if it can), he will be subjected to extreme ridicule at the hustings by Allister and some in UCUUP who are not shy of taking cheap shots. P&J will be claimed by the unionist parties (a bit erroneously) as an issue on which they are distinguished by different attitudes. In reality, of course, they are divided by tactical nuances rather than strategic values over how to avoid Assembly-style accountability on P&J.
    On the nationalist side, the SDLP are not at the races. More significantly, their past and present individual (and collective) flirtations with Labour, FG and FF have weakened their support base amongst all those parties. Similarly, the shift in the electoral landscape in the Republic means that FF don’t perceive the threat from SF as a big problem, particularly in Dublin. They may not see much value in bolstering SF but they certainly won’t be as open in their attempts to damage them. Bizarrely, FG and Labour may see some benefit from a good SF result as a resurgence in the Republic may further eat into FFs support base in Donegal and Dublin. Again, this won’t be by supporting SF, but they probably won’t over-extend themselves to help the SDLP.
    The bottom line is that the ‘unionist parties’ will compete with each other for votes. The ‘nationalist parties’ will vie with each other for votes. And the Alliance will sit haughtily on the sidelines waiting and hoping for the next Speaker’s Chair appointment to be made.
    While everyone awaits PRs return from the sinbin for potential fiscal irrectitude (if thats a real word, although it should be) – don’t worry good old-fashioned sectarian politics is alive and well.

  • Oh my baby darling

    yeah Mick, ‘cos you called yesterday’s events spot on…

    Out of the loop?

    Mallie has some serious sources within that rabble

  • ding dong

    Interesting piece in the Times Mick but one option has been missed out.

    Clearly the good ship DUP holed – whether it is below the waterline is open to debate but without Robinson the two factions in the Party will grow further apart. Whether they actually reach breaking point is doubtful.

    So what is required is the oft repeated and much talked about unionist realignmnet.

    Now that Paisley, Trimble and in all likelihood Robinson are gone, those unionists who genuinely want to see devolution and have accepted powersharing need to come together and make it work. It will require a committment to finish the job etc but with true courage a new pragmatic, plural and strong unionism could emerge and while UCNF is a crap name the bedrock is there.

    Otherwise its the doomsday scenario all over again

  • ‘May could see the first election in years that is about something other than counting tribal heads’

    Why?

  • OscarTheGrouch

    Unfortunately the only two parties in NI that seem in any way organised enough to mobilise electorates when it comes to the crunch will still be DUP/SF – by the time of an election I have no doubt they will have wound the hidden threat card up again (poke a few dissidents to heighten tensions) so that significant ‘well if the Shinners are getting in we cant risk voting OU/A/etc’ and vice versa bugbears loom large, it will get the electorate to jump on tribal lines – as usual.

    The SDLP and OU are frankly shambolic at the moment – watching Gerry Kelly last night with Mr Anonymous from the SDLP was like watching a shark with Nemo….without a happy ending.

    I suspect the non-extremist voters like me would really like to see SDLP/AP/OU managing to get together and make a stand on committing to a normal civilised democratic process – but a combination of lack of talent/poor decsions (the tories FFS!)/ and the desire to sit in both camps (liberal and hard line) will make that unworkable.

    Incredibly I suspect we’ll be back to some sort of set-up (maybe reversed? SF/DUP) will be in place post election. Hopefully it’s good enough to keep them off the streets for another few years…..

  • Chris Donnelly

    Two major flaws in that analysis, Mick.

    Over-playing the ‘opportunity’ of some of those ‘other’ parties to regroup would appear to be a case of wishful thinking. The TUV would not appear to need time to regroup, no doubt wishing the election date were tomorrow. The UCUNF initiative will have been buoyed by this development if only because they maintain the forlorn hope that some of the scattering DUP voters find a return to their former electoral homes. As likely might be the return of the stay-at-home voter, a constituency growing in size across the board in the north.

    However, within nationalism you are overstating the ‘opportunity’ for the SDLP to regroup, not least because the party remains deeply divided and not at all clear about what direction it needs to head in to make an electoral comeback.

    Secondly, the idea that this year’s election will be about ‘something different’ surely requires a bit of explanation. There is no new dynamic within- or outside of- the institutions likely to challenge the voting pattern of recent times. Pretending otherwise is silly- unless, of course, you are privy to some, ahem, ‘Third Way’ development likely to take the North of Ireland by storm as we sit on the cusp of an election campaign???

  • “Sinn Fein have nothing to fear from the electorate”

    J Kelly, this is a very sad reflection on those who vote for the political wing of the Provisional Republican Movement. Slugger readers will probably be familiar with the movement’s organised crime wing but the paedophilia angle is probably fairly new to them.

    The MSM still hasn’t really looked at Conor Murphy’s handling of the Rathlin ferry contract and the ensuing problems. Perhaps we should be just as concerned about what the MSM chooses not to report as what it does report.

  • Mick Fealty

    Jenny,

    One reason, and one only. The debacle of the last two and a half years. I fully expect people to stay within their blocks, but if the other parties are smart enough – and I accept JK and CD’s criticism here – to make Sinn Fein and the DUP’s inept joint term ‘in government’ the issue, the core issue will not be sectarian, even if the blocs are.

    They don’t need to do much other than hold them to account for what they promised and what they have failed to deliver…

    If they don’t, JK is absolutely right it is wishful thinking… The electorate will stay solidly where they are if the SDLP remain as fundamentally self regarding as they have been heretofore…

  • The UUP and the SDLP are still ‘tribal’, why are they being talked up into some kind of mythical ‘middle ground’?

  • Panic, these ones like it up em.

    Jenny said

    “13.The UUP and the SDLP are still ‘tribal’, why are they being talked up into some kind of mythical ‘middle ground’?”

    Because it is obvious to the anyone that there is opportunity in the “middle ground”

    If and what an “If” that is these two parties parked the sovereignity issue for 2 assembly terms and came up with policies for the good governance of NI and a framework to deliver them.

    They do not appear to be able to get over their tribalism which is probably because both fear that they would lose on the sovereignity issue after the 2 assembley terms.

    Fear paralyses some and it certainly has these two parties hither to.

  • Kensei

    They don’t need to do much other than hold them to account for what they promised and what they have failed to deliver…

    Don’t buy it. I think SF blaming a DUP delighting in being difficult will retain some considerable play within Nationalism. Two things make it hard for the SDLP to pin SF/DUP as one thing 1. they were in Executive too (if the SF and DUP were so horrible, why didn’t you leave….) 2. SF’s rather public frustration with the DUP. Attacking SF too hard will also turn off a big whack of potential voters. If they want traction they’d have to pick their targets with care and fire carefully. Education, maybe. To get proper traction you need an alternative narrative, and your own energy. The SDLP lacks both. You can get by, just about, if your opponents are out of energy and unpopular (cf Wesminster) but SF remain a ways from that yet.

    Sf may run into trouble when they need to do more negotiations or enter into government, but unless somethig drastic happens within the SDLP, it’s unlikely they’ll take major hits. Especilly with the advantage of a potential FM position. Either they get it, or Unionism looks like small minded bigots. Win/win.

    Jenny

    The UUP and the SDLP are still ‘tribal’, why are they being talked up into some kind of mythical ‘middle ground’?

    Given some of the people still within the UUP, how they are considered soft Unionists is beyond me. For their part, I’d suggest that many in the SDLP would be irked by the idea they aren’t real Nationalists. It’s complete nonsense.

  • Kensei

    If and what an “If” that is these two parties parked the sovereignity issue for 2 assembly terms and came up with policies for the good governance of NI and a framework to deliver them.

    Then there vote would be reduced to somewhere around the Alliance’s. And they’d still get caught up in the flags and symbols vortex. It’s inescapable here.

    Besides, this assumes the right things to do are actually popular.

  • Marcionite

    News from 2014. Jim Allister has concluded an historic agreement with Sinn Fein leader, Conor Murphy and agreed to enter government. the TUV are now satisfied that all Sinn Fein members involved in previous paramilitarism will no longer take part in any aspect of governance in NI and only will agree to share power with those SF members who are ‘clean’.

    The DUP rump, led by Nelson McCausland are castigating the TUV/SF agreement as ‘St Andrew’s for Slow Learners’

    The SDLP, led by

  • Chris Donnelly

    I think the key to an SDLP comeback will involve both a credible alternative narrative that convinces nationalists that the party has a nationalist vision- with an all-Ireland dimension to back it up- as well as effectively highlighting the ‘failings’ of Sinn Fein at Stormont.

    Tying Sinn Fein together with the DUP and mumbling ‘they’re as bad as each other’ is not a convincing narrative within nationalism at the moment.

    I don’t think the SDLP are anywhere near advancing on either front at this juncture.

  • Mick Fealty

    I see how you read that from my post (I’ve gone in and edited it to read more closely to what I actually meant to say). But here’s why I am less pessimistic than perhaps I should be.

    The DUP have just had a shock to the system. That’s partly because they are a construct of a certain type of tough Protestant mentality that rose to the top during ‘the war’…

    In peace such homogeneity hold the potential for precisely the kind of disastrous disclosure we’ve seen in the last week…

    You don’t need me to tell that oligarchies (religious or secular) are not great at self regulation…

    The reason Robinson is being brought low on relatively minor (and as yet unproven) charges is in part because they have continually provoked the sensibilities of the liberal media, but a media which for all that is much more in touch with the lives of ordinary people than they are.

    It’s less true for more secular and open parties like the UUs, because they have a much broader base in society… The DUP is a party which wants to engage with that broader base, but can’t because it has a severe shortage of ‘real’ or ‘sympathetic’ characters within their ranks.

    In more normal circumstances beyond Northern Ireland there is a kind of pressure towards authenticity in the manner in which politicians express themselves and their ideas, and even vision. In the shape of Iris Robinson we have just seen the party choke on its own complex internal contradictions in the most embarrassing and compromising way…

    But the same is true for the Shinners. They are also very strange people. Well, not all of them are of course (sorry boys!!), but the rigid, extreme leftist, nay wartime command and control mechanisms mean the party’s meta actions are dictated by a very small number of very strange people… (see Kilian Forde’s internal party memo for evidence of that)…

    And this disjuncture with the public is even worse for them since people like Adams don’t have the kind of PR facing responsibilities that McGuinness does… As his politician of the year award proves in a way Martin is extremely adept in that role, but Adams is the one dictating strategy, and he keeps handing him an endless series of stinkers…

    And there is a very large *metaphorical* bullet waiting for Gerry out there in the presently rather diaphanous shape of his brother Liam…

    I’m pretty sure the long march is coming to a halt… the closer we get to 2016, the more obvious it will become how fundamentally they have broken their promise to ordinary nationalists…

    It remains to be seen whether the SDLP wake up to their possibilities in order to provide a combative alternative… But I cannot see how Sinn Fein conduct the necessary reforms to do some of the things kensei has argued for unless they do what I argued in the summer (http://url.ie/4mxd)…

    And I know for a fact that that argument went down like a lead balloon in Connolly House…

    The middle ground may emerge through a more fulsome engagement with the things that matter to ordinary people: earning a living and raising a family.

    But that means a beginning not an end to big picture politics. Nor does it entirely mean an end to patriotism of either sort, even if we are in a post nationalist era. What we know is that nothing will work if that patriotism is based upon “two mutually exclusive expressions of political enmity”.

  • Mr. J.

    “Because it is obvious to the anyone that there is opportunity in the “middle ground””

    If there is to be any change, political parties need to realise that there is opportunity there now, and in maybe 20 years (if even), the middle ground will be where the political battles are fought, with todays curious notion of politics relegated to the sidelines.

    There is a generation of new voters who have no memory of the Troubles, and in two years, first time voters will have been born after the PIRA ceasefire.

    These voters largely will not be concerned with sticking it to the Duppers, the Sinners or whatever. They will, however, be concerned with good governance and issues like healthcare, provision of education, y’know, the kind of things most normal societies prioritise.

    Which is ultimately why this dysfunctional semi-detached polit-bureau will fail. As long as the institutions here enshrine and legitimise the divisions in our society, so long will progress suffer.

    I’m just surprised that none of the larger parties appear to have realised that, as time passes, they will need to adapt to non-sectarian politics, or they will, rightly, die.

  • Scaramoosh

    Beyond the rhetoric, it is important to understand the foundations upon which the DUP vote rests;

    http://url.ie/4mxk

    An acute awareness of this fact, will be driving the current DUP strategy, for whilst ordinary Unionist voters may in the past have become smitten by inertia, and allowed the DUP to ride into power (union was safe etc; etc;), an issue such as the Iris Robinson affair may just awaken them from their slumber; not least those that inhabit the Bible Belt.

  • joeCanuck

    I suggested on another thread some time ago that the SDLP and the UUP could regain the positions of top dogs if they had an electoral pact.
    Nobody seemed interested; only Nevin commented.
    Could it happen?

  • granni trixie

    Mick: you make a case for voters to get behind the Alliance party – it makes sense.

  • OscarTheGrouch

    mmm…sense….. not sure that enters into NI politics does it? Certainly its never been a strong point. I’m afarid liberals never fair well when the extremes can still whip up the fears of eachother.

  • Mick Fealty

    Gran, if the ground is there… go and get it!! I just think the world is changing.. can’t hammer that point about authenticity… policies are important, messages are important, strategy is important but, as Robo’s case underlines, they are simply not enough…

  • granni trixie

    Arguably it is unfortunate that the media is an element which has to be factored in. Smaller parties might have the best of policies,messages etc but they have to fight to get journalists attentionj to take up their ideas.
    NI is currently run on a sectarian basis – and the media respond on that basis too – so if you aspire to get beyond this structure, the media tends to give due attention to what you have to say.

    So when are journalists going to play their part in changing a sectarian system which is not fit for purpose?

  • joeCanuck

    So when are journalists going to play their part in changing a sectarian system which is not fit for purpose?

    Granni,
    In the case of the MSM, NEVER. They will say whatever sells. Their primary purpose, like any company, is staying in business and then making a profit.

  • Mr. J.

    Granni,

    As it stands now, where does the money lie? It lies in taking a political viewpoint that resonates with your readers and generates sales.

    Only whenever the people of Northern Ireland get tired of such blatant bias in the MSM and stop buying the products of the MSM will we see change.

    In fact, that isn’t even true of Northern Ireland specifically, I can think of half a dozen examples in the Western world.

  • Kensei

    Mick

    The DUP could attract a third of the electorate and a much higher percentage of Unionism. Citing some kind of authenticity issue strikes me as quite weird. “Ordinary” people voted for the DUP in droves. The Robinsons were taken down not because they were some kind of martians but because they were involved in multiple political scandals that sapped their political strength, magnified by the fact previous political posturing made them look stupid. They aren’t the first, and they won’t be the last to folow that route. Being liked will buy you time but even Bertie went in the end. And it’s not clear to me that some kind of bizarre authenticity test is a positive thing. You wind up with politicians that are great at faking it.

    In more normal circumstances beyond Northern Ireland there is a kind of pressure towards authenticity in the manner in which politicians express themselves and their ideas, and even vision.

    No, there is political pressure towards sacred cows – in the US tax rises are off topic, in the UK the NHS is exempt from cuts without question. There is presure towards image that can filter out as many good candidates as bad ones.

    And this disjuncture with the public is even worse for them since people like Adams don’t have the kind of PR facing responsibilities that McGuinness does…

    What has he been off TV and out of the newpapers? It is also worth pointing out that Adams got 70% of the vote in WB last time out. That is some score for someone distant and out of touch with the public.

    I’m pretty sure the long march is coming to a halt… the closer we get to 2016, the more obvious it will become how fundamentally they have broken their promise to ordinary nationalists…

    Does anyone believe we’ll have a UI by 2016 at this point? Is anyone selling it? Is Nationalism unaccustomed to delays, setbacks and waiting? How long was “victory” expected in the “long war”?

    Even assuming you are right it creates as many opportunities for dissidents as it does the SDLP.

    It remains to be seen whether the SDLP wake up to their possibilities in order to provide a combative alternative… But I cannot see how Sinn Fein conduct the necessary reforms to do some of the things kensei has argued for unless they do what I argued in the summer (http://url.ie/4mxd)…

    Actually Adams could do a lot of the heavy lifting fairly easily. He could gift that to his successor, leaving a few key pieces. He won’t is the issue.

    The middle ground may emerge through a more fulsome engagement with the things that matter to ordinary people: earning a living and raising a family.

    Why is there is idea that the “middle ground” don’t care about the Constitutional question when history, right up to the last second says otherwise? People care about a lot of things, and do so in complex ways. The idea you just talk about bread and butter issues and they’ll come focking is the greatest piece of repeated garbage people come out with here. People keep repeating it, and peope keep getting proven wrong. Start dealing with the world as it is! Start thinking ways around it! Stop the strange notion the UUP is somekind of big Alliance!

    Besides, the Assembly doesn’t even have power over most of the things that really get the juices going, and in the case of proper control of taxation, Unionism reject it.

  • joeCanuck

    Arlene Foster has a great opportunity now to cement her authority early by agreeing to a date for devolution in, say, 2 months time.
    It would remove the poison from Robinson too if this is put to bed before he comes back (if he does).

  • Sam Semple

    Yes, Arlene could agree the transfer date with Robinson being able to keep his much loved “hard man” persona.

  • Mick Fealty

    What authority would that be Joe. Peter retains responsibility for that. And they won’t deal now because SF won’t deal now despite all the public protestations. We are being asked once again not to listen to what our politicians say but what they mean.

    Tiring as hell, I agree, but in the occurrence of yet another breakdown, they cannot quite mean what they say. If they actually meant what they were saying, it’s my judgement we would have had P&J early last year (if only SF had take the DUP’s lead and shut up about it).

    Lying about something you actually agreed to is the supreme way to undermine confidence in a production of the fruits of that deal before it was even time to do one.

    This is one of the major legacy problems the Shinners have that the new SDLP leader should seek to exploit unmercifully… Although just beating up SF will not be enough for a breakthrough. The new leader needs to take that ragbag army and give it as sense of it’s own purpose…

  • Kensei

    And they won’t deal now because SF won’t deal now despite all the public protestations. We are being asked once again not to listen to what our politicians say but what they mean.

    For the last bit it appears we’ve been more expect to listen to what Mick Fealty says. Or spins, rather.

    This was all fake crisis and SF would never pull the trigger? I seem to remember that one.

    Tiring as hell, I agree, but in the occurrence of yet another breakdown, they cannot quite mean what they say. If they actually meant what they were saying, it’s my judgement we would have had P&J early last year (if only SF had take the DUP’s lead and shut up about it).

    Have you any evidence, Mick, or is it just the mungnificent benevolance of the DUP we are supposed to believe in? Was Jim Alister likely to be any less vocal on the issue even if SF were?

    Lying about something you actually agreed to is the supreme way to undermine confidence in a production of the fruits of that deal before it was even time to do one.

    Did SF not make it clear at the time that they expected P&J devolution at the date in the agreement? Was the likely displeasure at this unexpected? Is this out of nowhere? Inconsistent with their principles?

    If SF couldn’t have walked out and said P&J was coming, there would have been no deal. It would ahve ben unsellable. Never attribute to malice that which cvan be safely attrbuted to cock up.

    As it is they’ve backed the police, joined the PB and denounced the dissidents. Polls onsistently show that the “communtiy” would just pefer them to get on with it. And it’s SF who has bad faith?

    This is one of the major legacy problems the Shinners have that the new SDLP leader should seek to exploit unmercifully…

    Which will get them precisely here: fuckallville. The next question will be: well how do you plan on getting it? Your line will play well to a part of the SDLP’s base that hates SF, which is a constituency that’s going precisely nowhere.

    “Sense of purpose”? No, they need to be able to answer questions like the one above, and appear a credible alternative doing it. That they need “sense of purpose” should tell you the dire state they are in.

  • joeCanuck

    Mick,
    Authority as First Minister. She seems to be respected for her abilities; her credibility will be lost if she is seen as simply Peter’s puppet.

  • joeCanuck

    Mick,

    As well, I’ll bet you 5 pounds that, if the Assembly isn’t dissolved before then, a date for devolution of P&J will be announced before 6 weeks have elapsed, starting yesterday.

  • Mick Fealty

    Joe, I would not bet on anything just now. BUT Arlene is NOT First Minister. Peter is. And he’s the one holding the ring on P&J.