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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  • Henry94

    I’m not convinced the issue plays as well for Sinn Fein as it does for the DUP. There is a danger for nationalists in getting the FM position before having a majority in the Assembly. That could provoke a unionist walkout and a complete unpicking of the agreement.

    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.

    That’s the reality. Martin McGuinness will be retired before there is a SF FM. The election should really be about something else.

  • “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”

    If that is indeed the case, then the lack of clamour from SF and the SDLP for a border poll is curious.

    And time for the Irish News to get a decent proof-reader.

  • HeinzGuderian

    Ulster is Unionist and British……………………Flag flying proudly from the City Hall says so…………………….;-)

  • That confirms what I have been saying about the ‘elephant in the room’ of the obsession with who gets the FM post. Elliot and others like McNarry will look pretty silly if the outcome is DUP keeping FM post but Nationalists having the largest grouping. It will rather take the shine off the win over FM post, because we’ll know then that the contrived majority is indeed slipping away.

  • Mick Fealty

    Don’t blame the IN. You cannot cut and paste from its website, so any errors in grammar are likely to be mine.

  • Mick Fealty

    madra,

    Do you think that combo is likely?

  • Cynic2

    What majority? Of Catholics or Nationalists? the two aren’t the same thing but SF like to pretend that they are

    We could settle it with a referendum, but legally we cant have one unless the real Government believes it will be a yes vote for reunification.

    Now who insisted on that? SF because they need to keep the myth alive.

  • john

    The madraj55 scenario has no chance of happening but would be quite amusing after all the nonsense and scaremongering over FM

  • HeinzGuderian

    Marty has as much chance of becoming FM as Tiger has of winning The Masters………………;-)

  • John Ó Néill

    The DUP took a minimal hit in the Westminister elections so the SF-FM meme is just tired electoral juju. The numbers simply aren’t there.

    Interesting reading of the StAA, though, with largest party designation being played as democratisation via the side door. Are you sure you want to source that to SF?

  • “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”

    Northern Ireland election voting habits and what would happen in a border poll are not as consistent as many commenters would like to think. Some 30% of people who currently vote nationalist would not be in favour of a united Ireland.

    So Tom Elliott’s protest against Martin McGuinness as First Minister…..

    Let us suppose, for arguments sake, that the Alliance Party, a non-designated party, becomes the largest party. Would Tom Elliot regard it unfair if David Ford became first minister?

  • HeinzGuderian

    Jebus wept…………………………………let us suppose,for arguments sake,there is a real world out there,and I need to be getting back to it !!

  • SK

    “There is a danger for nationalists in getting the FM position before having a majority in the Assembly. That could provoke a unionist walkout and a complete unpicking of the agreement.”

    After so many years of trumpeting their (supposedly) democratic principles, it would be absurd for unionists to simply walk out the minute an election didn’t go their way. How could they justify it?

    The rules for nominating the First Minister are quite clear, so where is all this controversy coming from?

  • Brian Walker

    Fionnuala is surely right. McGuinness as FM would mark a major psychological shift reflecting the narrowing community balance, even if exagerrating it How both sides face it would test their fragile maturity in a big way .

    After the election would DUP and SF consolidation at the smaller parties’ expense tighten deadlock or encourage greater mutual confidence to do serious cross community business?

    That’s the big question for me. Perhaps they will. The outlook is not entirely hopeless.

    But personally, I hope the smaller parties survive as checks on the others. There’s some hope the SDLP will do this although votes for the UUP would be cast more in hope than expectation.

    When they look back, the failure to create a broad-based, flexible centre aided by STV with limited but clear aims will I think be seen as a great pity. It could at least have acted as a catalyst for better government. Over the last couple of decades during all the stop/go in the Assembly. the votes of civil society were going abegging.

    Nobody had the confidence or leadership to carve out a new post Agreement constituency, And now it seems too late. It may be there isn’t even a dying hope to mourn.

    If the main parties don’t shape up, the best hope of change may come from below – like presure for educational reform from the excellent Dawn Purvis report.

    If that hope is to become a reality, trade unions, social work organisations, the world of education and business will have to behave less passively, relying on the ( too big) bureuacracy to stagger through. A Northern Ireland version of a more polticised but non-party Big Society if you like, carrying out joined up lobbying for agreed change. They would have to behave less as vesteed interests and think more strategically, answering for example the great need for greater efficiency and effectivness in the NHS rather than act as knee-jerk lobbies for more and more spending. A tough call at a time of severe cuts.

    The chance of any such consensus ever emerging was why I assume the civic forum idea was killed off by the political parties who feared rival influence.

    It is quite serious if many of the active stakeholders in the largest public sector in the UK opt out of trying to influence its direction. But it may be what we’re left with.

    An active democracy would be far better.

  • It is possible, Mick that this combo could happen as Nationalists are less likely apathetic voters. Although maybe not this time, it’s lurking around for the next election as Fionnuala O’Connor says, it would be a psychological shift in the statelet and morale in unionist parties would take a hit.The UUP will slump even further this time, than last, and that will impact to some extent on unionist capacity to retain largest grouping.

  • perseus

    “smiling derryman” ?
    is fionnuala referring to:
    Gregory Campbell MP MLA (East Londonderry) ?

    I’ll get me coat 😉

  • Mick Fealty

    Mistake above. The DUP abstained rather than voted for it. As to who suggested it to the direct rule ministers between St Andrews and enactment, we only know it was not the DUP.

    If it was not the DUP, then who was it? And to what end?

    I’m reminded by a diligent reader (one of the large silent majority who do not comment) that Sammy McNally has been preaching the gospel on this ever since it happened four years ago, that Sinn Fein wiped the DUPs eye on this one.

  • Dewi

    “There is a danger for nationalists in getting the FM position before having a majority in the Assembly. That could provoke a unionist walkout and a complete unpicking of the agreement.”

    Yep – what would be cool would be SF as biggest party nominating a Unionist.

  • Perseus. Greg smiling? lunar eclipses probably happen as often.

  • HeinzGuderian

    mad………..weren’t you predicting the fall of the Assembly,Two years ago,on BBC TB ??

    ” It may not happen this time………….”,ayeee,wee bit like 2016,El Beardo as Oirish President,and ” Never,never,never,to a return to Stormont” ??

  • Brian Walker

    Mick,I’m puzzled about this. Acres have been written that the DUP insisted that FM and DFM emerge separately on the basis of the largest party going first to allow them to avoid voting for a joint ticket – ie voting SF for DFM. Now they’ve been trapped in their own move.

    Do we “only know it wasn’t the DUP?” I never heard of any such side deal between Blair and SF (though I had long since stopped covering the story) Maybe the wheeze came from some else but how politically siginifcant is that?

    I hadn’t realised there was any question that it was designed to accommodate the DUP, a device to make St A look different from the GFA.. I had simply thought – cui bono? And the answer fitted the DUP.

  • John D

    Naive question perhaps … But suppose SF were the biggest party but nominated someone other than Martin McG from within their ranks (though I can’t think who)?

    Oh, and by the way, Mick, it’s “fait accompli”, not “fete”. That would be something else entirely

  • HZ I don’t recall ever claiming infallibility. I kept my promise to retire from the board afterwards, at least.

  • Mick Fealty

    Indeed Brian. But the DUP insist it wasn’t them. SF do not offer comment when it is suggested that they’d be the only party in a position to have asked for the direct rule ministers to add it.

    Yet again, ‘creative ambiguity’ meets Macavity the mystery cat.

  • Chris Donnelly

    The Word

    In the immortal words of John McEnroe,”You can not be serious!”

  • Mick Fealty

    You are most decidedly playing the man/woman. Keep it up and you’ll be off the pitch before you know it. (Chris, I have to go for a meeting now, but if he steps over the line, let me know and I’ll Red him.)

  • The Word

    Mick

    I think you’ll realise that I’ve said all I need to say.

  • PaulT

    Whatever about the changes the fact that this only happened a couple of years ago and was part of a binding agreement it is amazing that details are shrouded in fog.

  • unionistvoter

    Actually the DUP did support the changes in the House of Lords

  • Mike the First

    Brian Walker

    You’ve got this issue badly, badly wrong in the Belfast Telegraph in at least one article in the last few months.

    You appeared to be under the impression that the GFA provided for the largest party in the largest designation to take the FM post, and that in the St.AA this was changed to the largest party overall.

    In fact (as you realise now going from your post above), the GFA provided for the joint nomination and election of FM and dFM.

    The St.AA provided for the the largest party in the largest designation to nominate the FM (and largest party in the next largest designation to nominate the dFM).

    The crucial point is that by the time the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 was passed, there was a crucial change – if the largest party in the largest designation was not the largest party in the Assembly, then the latter party would nominate the FM.

    The question isn’t who wanted the “GFA to St.AA” change – it was clearly the DUP. It’s who wanted the “St.AA to St.AA Act” change.

  • Mick Fealty

    Michael Shilliday’s piece (appended above) is pretty precise on the details. And he quotes Lord Trimble thusly:

    “To put it crudely, and I am sorry to have to do so, it seems that this is a simple fix. It was probably done at the behest of Sinn Fein and the DUP, the result of which will enable the DUP to go around Northern Ireland saying “Vote for us or else you’ll get Martin McGuinness as First Minister”, and will enable Sinn Fein to go around the country saying “If all nationalists vote for us there’s a chance we’ll get Martin McGuinness as First Minister”.

    “It is a crude device which people will say is the result of the law, and it will be used to polarise the electorate. You can imagine the effect that that is going to have on politics.”

  • abucs

    From memory, the press reported at the time that the new voting rules of the St Andrews agreement for First and Deputy First Minister were something that the DUP wanted because it would give them (as the biggest party at the time) the First Minister.

    Subsequently as we know the DUP used this rule to draw votes away from the UPP at election time and it was again reported in the press that the introduced rules were of the DUP’s design.

    It may be that the press gets things wrong (shock horror) and it was the Republicans that introduced it during the DUP renegotiations and it is only that the DUP were in favour and happy to ‘take the credit’ for it, being seen as the ones ‘getting a better/different deal for Ulster’ since they really didn’t change much after convincing the unionist people to dump the UUP as bad negotiators.

    I don’t know, but this change came in after the unionist walkout of the assembly and the unionist switch to the DUP electorally. It was the DUP who needed to’ be placated’ to go back into the assembly and hence the St Andrews agreement. If the DUP didn’t actually ask for it, nonetheless it was their actions and attitudes which caused it to be introduced. And they were more than happy to take the credit for it at the time.

  • abucs. Everyone knows that the SAA is just the Good friday Agreement with knobs and bells on, for even slower learners than Mallon was talking about re Sunningdale.

  • Mick Fealty

    abucs,

    “it was their actions and attitudes which caused it to be introduced.”

    Intriguing.

    madra,

    As Pete’s piece on the Altnagelvin deal points out (and I really would recommend Michael’s work too), it was a significant restructuring of the power relations set up by the Belfast Agreement.

  • Mike the First

    abucs

    Again, it’s not the change that the St Andrews Agreement made to the Belfast Agreement arrangements that’s the issue here (in terms of at whose request it was made).

    It’s the change that the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act made to the St Andrews Agreement arrangements.

    Do you see the difference?

  • I see, Mick. I’ll check that book out.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Mick:

    Indeed Brian. But the DUP insist it wasn’t them.

    Did someone in the DUP insist to you personally that they didn’t do it ? This is the second or third time you have repeated this assertion that the DUP didn’t make this adjustment.

    SF do not offer comment when it is suggested that they’d be the only party in a position to have asked for the direct rule ministers to add it.

    It could well be the case that the two governments added it.

    Consider the angles. First, it is clear that under the previous mechanism, anyone with the ability to muster up a relatively number of dissident MLAs would have been able to block the OFMDFM nomination and stop the Executive from being appointed. Under the assembly just dissolved that would have required 39 dissenting unionists, ie the UUP plus 21 out of the DUP’s 39 MLAs (half of them).

    Second, it saves the DUP from having to actively vote for an SF deputy FM (and likewise saves SF from having to vote for the DUP FM). This problem didn’t exist under the previous setup because it was, in theory, a simpler matter for the UUP to endorse an SDLP dFM.

    Both of the above scenarios under the older legislation are pretty self-evidently sources of instability. The two governments were keen to set up a deal that would make the arrangements more robust (note also the changes to the Programme for Government). The DUP also talked a lot about “getting it right” – that was their election slogan – and fixing all the problems in the GFA that made the government ineffective. These changes are consistent with what they argued for; and SF certainly had no reason to oppose them.

    In terms of the way things are likely to go in a months’ time .. well, right now there is a gap of 8 seats between the DUP and SF. It’s not likely that SF will gain more than maybe three or four seats, and likewise it seems very unlikely that the DUP will lose seats to the Ulster Unionists which is the only way the arithmetic would substantially change. The UUP are very much on course to lose somewhere between 4 and 8 seats, some of those to Alliance, some to the DUP. It would take a small miracle for Marty to end up FM.

    abucs:

    From memory, the press reported at the time that the new voting rules of the St Andrews agreement for First and Deputy First Minister were something that the DUP wanted because it would give them (as the biggest party at the time) the First Minister.

    The change wasn’t necessary on that basis, as you only needed 40% of MLAs from each community to elect the FM and dFM under the old rules, which the DUP would have been able to obtain very easily – unless there was a rebellion, which is what I think the DUP was really trying to head off (remember the post-dated resignation letters ?).

  • Mick Fealty

    CS,

    I agree with the logic of your angles. It was very much in tune with the direction of the legislation as sponsored by the DUP. But that would cover the DUP’s acquiescence, not their complicity in forcing the British govt’s hand on this particular matter (which, if it had ever been proven was done under their authorship would have been ultratoxic for them)

    So let’s try Occum’s razor instead of your rather more literary detective approach. I think Jim Alister can be relied upon to give a closer approximation of the true measure of the DUP’s role in this matter than most.

    From his forensic review last September:

    “…no matter how much the DUP would now like to kick up dust to conceal the full picture, as Nigel Dodds attempted in his Belfast Telegraph article last week, it is clear that the DUP was content to see the change which permits McGuinness to be foisted on a unionist majority in the Assembly.

    “A calculated decision was taken, in one of the most shameful episodes in the history of roll-over unionism, that creating the threat of McGuinness as First Minister would be a useful electoral tool to duress unionists into voting DUP!” [Emphasis added]

    Note the passive clause there. Even Jim Alister does not believe the DUP initiated this move. Had they done so (and you know the rules of close combat in NI negotiations better than many generalist readers of this site), Sinn Fein would have had the DUP over a barrel, not least when the DUP voted (along with everyone but Sinn Fein) to get rid of Clause 16c at the end of last year in the Assembly and Executive Review Committee.

    In fact the more you look at the granular detail of the proposition that the DUP set this deal up, the more ridiculous it looks. And yes, I do have what I regard as a reliable source on the DUP’s denial. But don’t take my word for it. Just take another fresher look at the circumstantial facts around the matter.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Mick,

    Sure. I think I’m settled on my theory that this idea was dreamed up by the British governments who have made no bones about using legislation and other kinds of pressure to underpin the parties in the Executive trying to keep things stable. I agree with you that it does not necessarily have to have been the DUP (although they clearly acquiesced) and to me it just seems way too Machiavellian for SF to try to push it.

    When the GFA itself was being drafted a number of mechanisms were added to stop the DUP from wrecking it. Of course, nobody anticipated that Trimble wouldn’t be able to hold the line among his own supporters, but there you go.

  • Mick Fealty

    Well, without an admission, it’s choose your own poison time. I just thought it was worth going through the available detail and sorting out myth from what facts we can glean. Detail matters.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Mick, we are probably talking across purposes a bit, I don’t disagree with anything you said. In a nutshell, I don’t think someone up in Hillsborough Castle rubbed their hands and said “how can we conspire to support the DUP with a devious plot involving the threat of Marty being FM”, I think it was more like “how can we fix things so that a breakaway rump can’t stop the nomination of the FM” .. that automatically implies removing the ability for the assembly to veto the FM appointment. So I guess this is the best they could come up with, warts and all.

    Looked at that way, I imagine the DUP and SF were not really in a position to oppose it. I imagine also that the DUP would have been aware of the SF side effect concerning the automatic nomination of the FM, but I guess they probably shrugged and figured there wasn’t much to be done about it.

    It’s really all academic anyway as the TUV have failed to merge as a significant force and the UUP are in meltdown. The DUP’s ascendancy is likely to be assured for some time to come.

  • Mike the First

    Comrade Stalin

    I’m not sure what you’re saying above takes account of the salient point that the proposed criteria for selecting the FM and dFM changed between the St Andrews Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement Act.

    Beginning to feel like I’m talking another language!

  • Mick Fealty

    Nope, keep on keeping on with it Mike.

  • Mick Fealty

    CS,

    I just don’t buy the ‘breakway rump’ line. Allister was firmly inside the camp at that time (and the TUV was a blog). If anything, this (by his own account) was one of the things that made him jump.

    Again, don’t take my word for it. The politics of this move is explained with admirable clarity right through Fionnuala’s beautifully acerbic and erudite Irish News column:

    “…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.”

    As, I suspect, it was intended. And what’s even better from a SF point of view, the DUP, the passengers in this, got the blame for it.

    Nothing less than deliciously devious politics, IMHO. 😉