The ‘end’ of community designation and the ‘rise’ of incumbency…

There’s an interesting piece by Fionnuala O’Connor in today’s Irish News. In it she notes that underneath the commonplace ‘wisdom’ that there is no functional difference between the offices of First and deputy First Minister lies a more profound political reality:

…it will matter very much indeed if Sinn Fein comes out of the election as the largest party and can nominate Martin McGuinness to be the next First Minister. It will shift, irreversibly, the underlying psychology of the north.

It was good politics, in the spirit of conflict resolution, for Martin McGuinness to float the notion of joint first ministers. Some unionists cling to the opposite notion. For them Ulster is unionist, and British, and must stay so because the majority is unionist.

But they know, though they won’t admit it, hat some time ago the majority shrank to a negliable margin. What people have known for some time though is not the same as reality made flesh in the form of a smiling Derryman.

So not yet then. She concludes by consigning much of the talk of Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister as election juju, and notes that it plays pretty well for both the big parties in squeezing their smaller rivals.

What’s been very little talked about in the media is how the decision over who gets to be First Minister shifted from a broad vote amongst those with larger of the two community designations to largest party came about in the melee that was the post St Andrew’s Agreement negotiations.

Ulster Unionists have tended to pin the blame on the DUP, because they (and not the abstaining Sinn Fein MPs) voted (correction: in fact they did not vote for it, they abstained) for it in the House of Commons in Westminster.

In reality it is more likely to have been the product of a side deal between Sinn Fein and Tony Blair (possibly as compensation for having to swallow the bitter pill of letting the DUP decide when Policing and Justice powers would be devolved to Stormont from Westminster).

This fits with the scenario from earlier this year, as Mark Devenport has already pointed out on his blog, where Sinn Fein alone voted against any amendment of legislation that enhances their position as chiefest party for Nationalists.

So Tom Elliott’s protest against Martin McGuinness as First Minister, for what still remains a minority political interest in Northern Ireland, is at least a rational response to a situation in which he and his party are being slowly (and, more importantly, constructively) painted out of history.

The SDLP on the other hand have chosen to ignore the problem and play the best hand they can muster. It remains to be seen whether the conditions of Fermanagh South Tyrone assert themselves in a race that, on the doorsteps at least, will be about whether Martin gets to drop the small ‘d’ deputy’s job, in favour of the big one.

You’ll notice that there is little talk about designation (which by MLA can declare themselves nationalist or unionist) these days. It still exists de jure because, in theory, contentious matters can be put to the Assembly for a cross community vote.

De facto however, most such matters are resolved (or unresolved) at OFMdFM level, and the Assembly are rarely bothered. In other words it no longer has any practical ‘constitutional’ import.

Though you won’t hear it on the airwaves or on the posters, what matters now is which party (rather than ‘community’) has the biggest voting bloc.

It ain’t pretty. And it ain’t classical democracy. But it’s a game for both sides to play (which is presumably why the DUP does not protest too much). Whilst Martin McGuinness may never make it all the way across, as a vote motivator it should be good for a few election cycles yet.

On the positive side, it may also provide enough stability for long enough to actually get some business done, not least some of the reforms that might make what we have in embryo work in a more functional way.

In the short term leaves little to play for those who set themselves up in opposition (at least at election time; for the rest of the political cycle all of our parties here are tied to the self same programme of government document) to Northern Ireland’s two hegemonic parties.

Protesting what’s already a fete accompli is one option (and how’s that working out for ya Tom?). Ignoring the problem is another. But neither strategy is going to change the broad momentum of politics in Northern Ireland, I suspect, for some time to come.

The danger for the incumbents is that such hollowing out of public institutions will lead to poor decisions (or terminal indecision), and the electorate, like Mark Langhammer’s proverbial middle class, decide to go off to play golf (or something altogether more sinister) instead.

– See also Michael’s detailed telling of how it came about (with Lords Morrow and Browne actually voting for the amendment in the Lords)…

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