The one sure outcome of this election is the end of a system that produced the phenomenon of the Swish family Robinson. By that I mean not the personal dramas, (although there’s a connection of course), but the accumulation of personal influence and the development of politics as a small family business, all of it apparently within the rules but now about to be greatly reduced. Mr Robinson himself will be less affected than his colleagues. He’s bidding to retain his Westminster and Stormont seats, deeming both essential to sustain his personal authority.
Ironically this accumulation of offices grew up, not through the exercise of executive political power, but its absence. Politicians built up their personal and party authority in multiple mandates, encouraged it must be said, by successive governments who badly needed politicians with authority to negotiate with. Under the circumstances double, treble and even quadruple mandates were excusable and even beneficial, being the only available alternative to the power of the gun.
But now a new political era has begun. In the UK as a whole the expenses scandal has transformed the climate. Locally the gradual normalising of politics is producing the effect noticed by the Guardian in the NI leaders’ debate.
Ulster TV’s debate was the kind of event that would have had earlier generations of Northern Ireland voters rubbing their eyes in disbelief. For there, in front of a studio audience of first-time voters, the leaders of Northern Ireland’s four main parties, ancestral enemies and community rivals alike, sat down and debated, mostly on first-name terms, the issues of the day.
The Irish Times also observes a ” normal ” election, reflecting “the everyday politics of survival in the setting of a functioning devolution system, just as much as they recall older dreariness.”
Westminster elections are in transition. In the long years without devolution they crowned the undisputed local bosses. During the Assembly’s on-off years, they remained the top prize. Now Westminster contests have become proxies for Stormont elections, but the winner will have to opt out of Stormont. The centre of gravity has shifted decisively from Westminster and the peace process, to Stormont and the parish pump. The Downing St shuttle will fall into disuse.
As a sole victor in a first-past-the post election, the Westminster MP will retain prestige. But in these more normal times, s/he has lost influence and bargaining power, with luck forever. The political calculus will change again if AV or PR is introduced for Westminster. How interesting that Sammy Wilson, until recently a quadruple jobber as councillor, MLA, minister and MP, is prepared to give up the substance of power for its shadow. But who can deny that Sammy’s loss of jobs is a small price to pay for normalising politics.
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