As Tip O’ Neill once said, ” all politics is local.” And so it is, in Stormont as in the US Congress. All that grafting by the massed ranks of family members employed in constituency work from low rent advice centres once paid off handsomely for the DUP and Sinn Fein. But there are signs that their brand of localism has passed its peak. To be truthful, the results are usually more modest than the hype suggests. The dynasties are now under attack for running gravy trains and election turnouts are falling. Devolved government is hedged about by equality laws and is usually delivered by quangos. Why you can’t even get a house for a body any more! Nor is it safe for to let rip against the government when your own party is a member of it, in quite the way that you could under the heel of direct rule.
After all that fuss, this devolution lark is not always what’s it’s cracked up to be. No wonder the politicians keep chewing on the old bone of identity politics. They behave as if it’s all that’s left. Read the policy pages of the websites ” How We Made the Union Safe”. ” How We’re Working for a United Ireland” Sure you are guys.. (Yawn zzz).
What’s a poor MLA to do? Localism, in the form of advice work is becoming an epidemic that becomes harder and harder to satisfy.
Now here’s an idea. Why not bundle the cases together and share them with others to work out a solution? This is what’s called making a policy. And policies – real grown-up, home-grown 21st century policies – is what Northern Ireland politics is chronically short of. And if they could make policies that actually worked, there might even be fewer of those bloody complaints. At least MLAs would have a better story to tell.
A semi-corporate state can’t really be run on sectarian lines; it has to be run around them. The political dynamic produces inertia as the blocs cancel each other out. All have prizes while nobody really wins.
Think instead of the thorny problems that are common through the community. Cross-cutting problems like the deadlock in secondary education, unemployment doubled in two years and the social legacies of the Troubles where fresh trouble is incubating, all need a cross community approach.
It’s moonshine to expect that a whole new departure in new cross community politics will happen suddenly or that tinkering with the political system will change anything much. Politicians will continue to seek new votes inside the blocs at the expense of their internal rivals.
But a real premium in the shape of a better, healthier of society is there to be won by tackling society’s ills. Otherwise, disillusion with the Assembly will deepen. Northern Ireland will continue to be administered quietly and unaccountably by shadowy others, while the elected politicians make all the noise – and carry the can for policies they weren’t involved in devising and don’t really understand.
Most of the movers and shakers think exactly like this but are too polite to say so out loud. The Assembly is important because it exists, not for what it does. The elite are reticient because they might have to work with the politicians one day. I don’t, thank God.
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