In the Justice vote, the UUs and the SDLP missed a golden opportunity

Good columnists thrive on perversity but this time, Malachi strains his case by claiming Reg Empey was right to “launch a kick at the (DUP’s) groin” in opposing P&J on Tuesday. But even he admits:

Empey has made bad calls: appearing some of the time to want to draw closer to the DUP at the instigation of the Orange Order and squandering his only MP by forming an alliance with the Tories. But this call was his and he had the right to make it and he is not a failure as a politician or a human being for putting party interest first; that is his job.”

How it was “putting his own party’s interest first” to stand alongside the TUV beats me. And was that a kick in the groin? All Reg “launched” was not a kick in the groin but a gentle tap on the DUP’s shoulder to remind them to protect their own flank and stay united. Now I admit that in the debate, it was genuinely touching to hear UU and SDLP speakers claim credit for the “heavy lifting” that made devolution of the powers possible, police reform and the institution of the Policing Board heading the list. But politics has moved on. The extremes have parked their tanks on the old lawn the UUs and the SDLP uneasily shared. The completion of devolution exposes their joint problem even more starkly, but it can be exaggerated. If there isn’t room for more than two parties in a 108 member Assembly elected by STV, the others have only themselves to blame. How do they make progress? One way is to make common cause on key issues of the common good. Each party can make a convincing case for this electorally rather than consign common causes to the level of platitude in the peroration of speeches. The Assembly vote was an opportunity missed. Had the UUs and the SDLP tabled a joint amendment or moved a separate resolution to make it an issue of confidence to create a three party veto on Executive business, it would have been bold move towards creating a platform of the centre. As it is, Robinson is actually offering concessions on this although no one seems to have noticed. The problem is, there is no real common cause in the centre. While the UUs and the SDLP unite to condemn the schools transfer deadlock, they are divided over selection itself. Again, Edwin Poots told the Assembly that the DUP were going to abolish 50:50 police recruitment before the end of the year. The UUs and SDLP will presumably split on that. Even on a shared future, they risk being outflanked by the DUP and SF. Is it any more than a slogan? Where is the joint case that each side benefits and can appeal to their separate electorates on that basis? To forge a real political role for themselves the UUs and the SDLP will have to do more than gurn. What young voter cares which unionist shafted whom a decade ago? Or which nationalist is the greener over a Derry/Londonderry name change? For as long as the parties believe in their hearts that identity politics win in every case, the centre parties will always lose out.

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