The road to a better society – less politics, more policy from smart politicians

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.

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  • slug

    There is a total lack of policy making infrastructure in NI. No think tanks or economics bodies. No IFS’s no Fraser of Allander Institutes. Nobody willing to step forward with radical ideas. England leads. Scotland is now doing some interesting stuff on stopping low alcohol prices – not a populist move. Our guys are still in kindergarten when it comes to policy analysis.

  • Brian, who are these ‘movers and shakers’; who are the ‘elite’?

  • DC

    The lack of policy making collectively is linked to the lack of ability in negotiating compromises off their own bat i.e. using each party’s own political will, capital and initiative to settle disputes and come to an accommodation together – without outside interference.

    Instead, the British and Irish sovereign leaders of the day have had to come over and do the deals and make the political pitch on behalf of our local parties: UUP/SDLP/DUP/SF etc. So Brian you really shouldn’t be frustrated with the lack of initiative and direct results coming out of the Assembly and its operations.

    Peter Robinson recently requested that no party play politics with the big cuts coming our way, but for that to materialise he may as well just mothball the Assembly now and bring back direct rule!

    Besides since when – even in the v recent past – has the DUP not played party politics with serious issues – why should others care a jot what Peter Robinson says ought to be done? Sammy Wilson slagging off Human Rights commission without proposing a way forward comes to mind?

    Also, Peter Robinson said he would like decisions to be passed in the Assembly with the backing of a 70% majority and get rid of the designation system, but then again he himself and his own party weren’t prepared to accept the outcome of the GFA referendum, which actually had the backing of 72% of the people here. Cue the close-to-a-decade of party politics courtesy of the DUP – well till they topped the polls and then sold out in the other direction!

  • slug

    I wonder if designation would be more acceptable to people if it were actually sectarian – i.e. Catholic and Protestant and neither. It would then bring Alliance and other parties in, would allow some parties to have members on both sides, e.g. Sinn Fein, (and some parties to have neither), be addressing something nonpolitical in society, and if parties attract more of both religions, the designation system would merely ensure that no legislation did act against one religion versus another?

  • Damian O’Loan

    NI offers a surprisingly good example of New Labour in practice, a combination of deregulation and corporate thrall with suspiciously inefficient public spending, encapsulated in Invest NI. This will presumably change with the Spending Review. It hasn’t appeared by chance, but more by the nature in which the parties a) have little policy, almost none informed and b) react to events at Stormont rather than initiate. There is no sense that either the Executive or the Assembly is driving things. If neither, who?

    That said, there is a good network of NGOs and voluntary organisations that bridge the policy gap Brian mentions. The consultation on Shared Future/CSR is a good example of well researched grassroots policy being ignored in favour of political hiatus.

  • Seymour Major

    All of this is perfectly true. Unfortunately though, a large part of the problem is the Northern Irish voters themselves. The vast majority of those who vote take very little notice of policy.

    Sinn Fein’s cynicism in producing a manifesto only a week before polling day epitomises the meaninglessness of policy to the voters.

    Ideally, we would have statesmen emerging from the political parties to show the way forward. Unfortunately, Northern Ireland is not yet a strong enough polity for people here to generally identify with. That fact and the existing sectarian divide are real obstacles to the emergence of strong political leadership.

    What about those who dont vote? There is a growing ferment of anti-politics feeling in both communities. People sense that there is something wrong with the system but do not have a clue about what to do about it. At the moment, the only response available to that kind person is not to vote.

    That trend cannot continue forever. At some point, something will emerge to fill the vacuum. Political parties, such as the Alliance Party, which is neither unionist nor nationalist, whose sole polity is Northern Ireland, will probably have their day.

  • Seosamh

    ”Political parties, such as the Alliance Party, which is neither unionist nor nationalist, whose sole polity is Northern Ireland, will probably have their day.”

    Last time I checked, the Alliance Party was in favour of the Union.

  • Seosamh, it seems to me that there are probably Unionists and Nationalists within the Alliance Party but the thrust of AP policy is directed at a shared future here:

    “It is increasingly recognized that the economic, financial, and personal costs of managing a divided society are unsustainable. The “them” versus “us” competition for control over resources and territory is a continued source of communal tensions that can sometimes flare into violence or mass public disorder.”

    Unionist and Nationalist politicians may talk about a shared future but it comes along way behind their constitutional aspirations as epitomised by the Border Question.

    I was invited to attend a UUP leadership gathering last night. It was interesting to hear the reflection that, under UUP-SDLP devolution, key issues were decided on within the Executive whereas under the present dispensation it was a DUP/SF carve-up within the OFMDFM. There appears to be little restraint when it comes to Ministers spending money on their pet projects or installing their cronies in positions of influence/decision making; the mutual blocking mechanism stops Ministers introducing new legislation.

  • DC

    Last time I checked, the Alliance Party was in favour of the Union

    Its stance seems pliable and will shift depending on the persuasion and efforts of others in politics to change the status quo.

    Trouble is, if as a party you claim to be non-constitutional – how then is it possible to organise yourself collectively if you aren’t able to determine how you want to actually constitute yourself – politically speaking?

    How do you make a successful pitch to the public if you are evasive about how you actually approach policies coming out of Britain and Ireland and are not clear on the level of policy orientation in support or against those in place in Britain and/or Ireland. What are Alliance limits on policy, how much distance is acceptable, how much isn’t really sectarianism but valid identity and belonging concerns? How to garner collective support and electoral weight on the basis of operating a non-constitutional/pro-individual pitch to the NI electorate?

    Perhaps a clearer and more easily understood approach might make Alliance more successful as uncertainty isn’t the best political companion to have beside you.

  • DC, it seems to be a NorthernI Ireland First party so it can play the shared future card; it can appeal to all not just to half the electorate. However, it doesn’t have the resources/dedication to do the sort of constituency work that the DUP and SF do so there is limited candidate recognition in many areas.

  • Brian Walker

    Of course it’s right that voters have little interest in
    ” policy.” This is a nerd word. But they are interested in results. It wlil be interesting to see if the parties will be able to frame a debate on priorities emerging from the comprehensive spending review. This is promised but little has happened. To be fair, Sammy has had a small go at it.

    Otherwise, I’ve only noticed axe grinding on the cultural fringe over an Ulster-Scots academy and more Irish language schools (don’t all start) which are all very well ( or not) but hardly priorities.

    ” Tough choices” have to be made which involve the Executive rowing back on water charges and rates. Better targeted public investment, sell-offs of the public estate like Belfast docks all feature. When will we hear anything interesting about corporation tax- next month or next Spring? And will there be any follow up to the glorious rhetoric of the Cohesion Strategy? Hands up those who have even read it!

    It’s an axiom of politics that the public have to be prepared in advance for change. Other than ominous noises, little has happened in NI, unlike all parts of GB.

    As it’s often said there’s no such thing as gratitude in politics, are the Executive parties lining up to blame the Brits I wonder?

  • Brian,

    Part of the reason that there is ‘policy’ as well as politics in England / Scotland / Wales is because it gets funded from within the political establishment. Around 600 MPs have office allowances that are spent on MPs expenses, some staffing to deal with constituency business (in more marginal seats!) some staffing to deal with parliamentary admin, but crucially, some cash that goes in to policymaking of one kind or another. Supporting infrastructure, helping pressure-groups and thinktanks fundraise or pitch for funding.

    Both sides of the Irish border, the visibility in the constituency is valued more highly and MPs and MLAs are often de-facto social workers. Personally, I’d be *more* likely to vote for an MP if they said ‘I don’t really do casework – I’m happy to eavesdrop on constituents concerns to help me be a better MP but I’m primarily a legislator and policymaker’.

    I’ve never fully got to the bottom of this (perhaps this is a good subject for a thread on Slugger) but I understand that MLAs and MPs actually get cash for supporting legal advice from their offices in NI?

    If this is the case, it’s something that could / should be attacked. Get MPs and MLAs focussed on being legislators and I suspect some people would be prepared to consider setting up a think tank in NI again?

  • Greenflag

    ‘Most of the movers and shakers think exactly like this but are too polite to say so out loud.’

    Too polite or too scared or perhaps more likely they have nothing to say . On the other hand many may see Mother Hubbards cupboard is bare as regards any solutions -economic , political, social or constitutional for NI and are resigned to allow the English taxpayer to cough up so that NI can muddle through until such time as some ‘solution’ out there presents itself ?

    Policy groups no matter how high brow or meritorious or even insightful will eventually come up against the brickwalls of party sectarian interest. I maybe wrong but the NI electorate does not seem to have changed it’s voting habits or preferences to any great extent over the past 90 years as regards party policy matters other than those related to the ‘constitutional’ question, In the run up to the 2011 Assembly elections the late Horseman’s constituency demographic analyses are probably going to have more import than say ‘economic policy ‘differences between the parties .

    SF is ‘committed’ to resisting the cuts as is to be expected. They want more English taxpayer’s money while they refuse to take their seats in the Parliament that provides that 8 billion a year subvention.

    ‘are the Executive parties lining up to blame the Brits I wonder?’

    Of course . You don’t think it even remotely possible that they might look closer to home for eh scapegoats ?

    Eaten bread is oft forgotten has been updated to ‘what have you done for me this week ‘:)?

  • “Northern Ireland will continue to be administered quietly and unaccountably by shadowy others”

    Brian, can you put some flesh on your claim please?

    I’ve recently posted a belatedly published DRD document on conflicts of interest and I’ve drawn attention once again to the Chief Executive’s Forum and its links to Common Purpose. The BBC has drawn attention to conspiracy theorists but I’m more interested in good governance – and in watchdogs with bite. Clubs and societies which are open by invitation only IMO infringe democratic rights.

  • Granni Trixie

    It is worth keeping an eye on the proposed CSI policy/prog. which is being consulted on presently – as a perfect example of a discrepancy between bottom up initiatve and the will (or not) at the political ‘top’ to impliment.

    Where does the power lie?

  • The Raven

    What’s the craic with Common Purpose, Nevin?

  • Brian Walker

    It ‘s equally open for NI public reps to spend their money on research. NI MPs get “Short money” partly for that purpose. Last year the DUP trousered 160k, the SDLP 61k AND a special category was opened to SF for 97k.

    This in addition to the free use H of C Library ( really a research base) is available and the results sent to MLAs. The Stormont library albeit new, has research faciltiies I believe. However this theme is irrelevant if public reps aren’t interested.

    While I regret the closure of Democratic Dialogue, one small think tank was never enough. One aim might now be be to attract the interest of a range of outside orgs from Oxford Ecomomics to IIPR North and Policy Exchange and the ESRI in Dublin. Not to mention the unis, industry, the banks and the voluntary sector.

    Well done Iain Duncan-Smith’s outfit. It might be possible for Assembly committees to commission independent work. Certainly the Executive could do so.

    Slugger outreach might think about canvassing a list of topics and bodies to research and write reports. You might start with academe.

    It might – who knows? – stir a little creative political action.

    The rise and rise of casework is the great suppressed bug bear of paliamentary life. Once it was a substitute for power but has got out of control- now even used by Jack Straw as an excuse not to reduce the number of MPs

    Particularly in the light of the expenses scandal MPs dare not complain in public. Yoru ideal – defiance – is I suspect unrealisable.


  • joeCanuck

    Are people (some people) too impatient? We still haven’t totally exited the “wave the flag and they will come” era. Things will change but slowly. The reason many people don’t vote is that they believe that their vote will make no difference. They just want to be left alone, in peace, so that they can go on earning a living, providing for their families, and having a bit of fun if there’s any money left.

  • It appears to be a left-leaning fraternal grouping of would-be ‘movers and shakers’ – membership by invitation.

  • Brian Walker

    nevin. Look around you. I’m saying nothing more complicated than that the nomenklatura of NI – the great and the good – who kept the place going during Direct Rule are still running the place – not in a conspracy but because the politicians are either ineffectual or obsessed with the micro localism and their zero sum games.

    The elaborate structures – watchdogs included – are designed to protect a recurrrence of historic abuses but don’t do much to create constructive and innovative government.

    Yes Joe and others, good point I think patience is needed but a kick some times mightn’t be amiss.

  • ThomasMourne

    As Seymour wrote, above, to get smart politicians voters have to change their ways.
    Most of the electors in NI have no problem repeatedly voting for sectarian politicians who have been involved in the expenses scandal, who are double [or triple] jobbing and who believe they have a divine right to do what they like [or more often don’t do what they are paid for] once they get over the inconvenient election hurdle.
    We get the politicians we deserve – the ones we vote for.

  • Brian Walker

    Reformers shouldn’t deceive themselves. A common NI political identity is a long way off, if it ever comes. 30 years of troubles put it much further back. It’s hardly suprising that politics are often the continuation of the war by other means. Politics have been carried on in equal terms for only a single interrupted decade.

    No point in slagging off the voters. The DUP panacea, government by weighted majority of 60% or 65%, is unlikely to transform. Concentrate on the politicians to give better leadership.

    The failure of council reform is a case in point. Change a boundary, add a govermenrt function and you change the whole balance of power locally. So localism is bound to remain potent.

    But now that the DUP and SF have the leading roles, the opportuntiites for further growth from sectarian appeal look limiited. They should be encouraged to look in other directions without abandoning their principles. We’ve seen dramatic evidence that in East Belfast, waving the flag and good constituency case work don’t always work.

    The time may come when competence in government will enhace electoral appeal. The smaller parties have litle else left to compete with.

    Ideas for change are needed to break out of deadlock and introduce modern government to politics. We can see some modernist pressures at work at the top of politics as the leaderships pay lip service to the common interest. If they have the courage to give this more substance, political life could become more attractive to the practitioners and more relevant to voters.

  • The Raven

    Errrm…then I – having been on one of their Focus programmes – now find myself in that very crowd; unfortunately, I didn’t get ot move or shake anything, though I can be quite left-leaning.

    Have you given them a shout about their programmes? You *could* go as far as to say you’re invited on it, in that you get a phone call and sales pitch, but you do pay, and it generally has a mix of private, public and community sector people involved.

  • Greenflag

    BW ,

    ‘The DUP panacea, government by weighted majority of 60% or 65%, is unlikely to transform.

    Given the local economic and social realities and the political background I’d go further than ‘unlikely’ and suggest the much hyped ‘panacea’ could be even counterproductive at least for another decade or two.

    ‘Given ‘Politics have been carried on in equal terms for only a single interrupted decade.’

    A fact which many commentators or those who favour an end to the current power sharing model fail to understand or appreciate . NI politicians could’nt possibly have picked a worse time -from an economic perspective – to venture forth on the power sharing path .

    At some point down the road NI and /or it’s Assembly will have to emerge from it’s economic and political cul de sac . But there is no magic bullet that will bring NI from being a 70% public sector dependent economy to one of 40% or less . Nor is there much room for any major political realignments among the parties -or none anyway that would or could reduce ‘potent’ localism.

    While the situation is not exactly Catch 22 or even a Mexican stand off, it has enough in common with both of those ‘cul de sacs’ to keep the local politicians navel gazing for the next decade or so at least .

  • aquifer

    The lack of policy innovation is embarrassing when compared with the self-confidence of the Scottish or Irish. PRSTV leads to a lot of local case work by MLAs which is next to useless for developing policy. Maybe if the parties were funded more rather than Reps this could change.

    The media do not seem to have the resources to bore down into areas of policy. They could start by looking at the biggest budget iterms.

    The likely failure to introduce low corporation tax will lead growing companies to locate in the Republic.

  • Séamus Rua

    “I’ve only noticed axe grinding on the cultural fringe over an Ulster-Scots academy and more Irish language schools (don’t all start) which are all very well ( or not) but hardly priorities.”

    Therein lies the problem, seen from a Unionist point of view, these things are not priorities.

    However, from Sinn Féin’s point of view, and some Irish language acitivitists will disagree, the Irish language is a priority.


    In practical terms, probably 90% of Sinn Féin’s support will have some attachment to the Irish language and will see its defence and promotion as important.

    Perhaps 30% of Sinn Féin’s support will see it as a priority, as important as constitutional politics and social issue, as it is seen as a social issue, that is very difficult for unionists to grasp in my experience.

    Around 10% of Sinn Féin’s support will see the Irish language as more imnportant than the constitutional issue and social issues, and therefore a vital priority.

    This 40% is one which Sinn Féin, could never afford to alienate, likewise Fianna Fáil.

    That all said, Sinn Féin will have a large section of support as committed to anglicisation as any unionist – if not more given Ulsterism.