Leadership debates and the need for leadership

So the Northern Ireland leaders’ debate has been and gone: Ours was remarkable only for how badly everyone seems to feel Margaret Ritchie performed, though on specifics like the economy Gerry Adams would make the lost city of Atlantis seem like a well known commercial centre. He can only be specific on his not having been in the IRA: a subject he is as specific on as the fact that he sang “Always look on the bright side of life” whilst in gaol. Adams it seems can only be specific when telling lies. What was amazing was that all Reg Empey could say was that those who vote for him do not believe Adams. Peter Robinson did not even remark on Adams’s comment which from the man who once railed against Sinn Fein was scarcely believable.

Jim Allister of course was absent from the debate and instead given a brief slot afterwards with David Ford and Steven Agnew of the Greens. Today Allister has hit out at the failure to put him on the same panel as the other major political parties pointing out that in the European election his share of the vote was only slightly lower than that of the SDL and UUP. Predictably Allister went on the attack in the debate, though with only Ford and Agnew he had little to fight.

The only significant point Ford made against Allister was that the TUV’s policy of voluntary coalition has the problem that there is a veto on this (Sinn Fein’s). Ford, however, stated that he supported moving to voluntary coalition and indeed all of the other parties apart from Sinn Fein seem to be in favour of moving towards a more normal system of government with oppositions, voluntary coalitions and weighted majorities. This is of course the TUV’s position as outlined in their manifesto and in numerous previous positions. Strangely although the other parties denounce it as unachievable they also have the same position: as recently as 12th April Peter Robinson himself championed voluntary coalition, though without any obvious mechanism for its achievement.

When other parties suggest voluntary coalition they say it is achievable, despite no concrete suggestions on how to do so: when the TUV suggest it they are branded as being fantasists. The other parties are of course correct, there is a difference: that is that the other parties accept that Sinn Fein (or anyone else) has the ability to veto any move to voluntary coalition. The TUV on the other hand argue that no one can have a veto on progress and that if the political system is such that such a veto has been handed to someone then that political system needs reform: the process must be changed; a minority (any minority) cannot have a perpetual veto on that change.

The other parties are trapped claiming to want to move to a more normal and hopefully more competent system of government: yet they are unable to countenance the radical reform that the current system would require to allow that change to take place. This is the inherent dilemma imposed on us by the institutionalisation of the sectarian carve up of power and the interlocking mutual vetoes with which we are faced. Although lateral thinking may not be likely at election time, sooner or later someone is going to have to accept that this process needs to proceed in the direction of a more sensible form of government and is going to have to take the hard leadership decisions to make it happen. Expecting such leadership during a leaders’ debate is of course utterly naive.