Why further tinkering with the NI settlement could be politically dangerous

In the Irish News this morning Brian Feeney takes aim at those who, like Mark Durkan, have highlighted the ‘ugly scaffolding’ set in place (if modified by the St Andrews Agreement) as a key problem in the move towards settled politics.

He argues that “any political scientist worth his salt can recognise the north for what it is, an ethno political problem”. And from that axiomatic premise he continues, “the key feature of all such ethno political solutions, imperfect though they may be, is that each side is guaranteed a fair crack of the whip”.

He then goes on to warn ominously that the consequences for Unionism in trying to untie the strings attached at the signing of the Belfast Agreement, could be disasterous at some point in the future. It’s classic Prisoners Dilemma territor of the type we laid out back in 2003:

In a Prisoner’s Dilemma, two players are locked together in a game where, on each move, they choose either to ‘cooperate’ with each other or to ‘defect’ – a selfish and hostile act. If one defects and the other cooperates, then the former is highly rewarded and the latter gets nothing (the sucker’s payoff). If both defect, stalemate results and each receives very little (which is better than nothing).

If both cooperate, they each receive a middle reward. ‘Although there is mutual benefit if you both cooperate,’ Robert Axelrod explains in his account of the game, ‘as an individual player, it is rational for you to defect if you think the other player will cooperate (you get a high reward) and to defect if you think the other player will defect (you at least get a low reward). That is the dilemma.’

Mapping Northern Ireland’s politics onto the Prisoner’s Dilemma is straightforward. The big prize for unionists is the unqualified and unchallenged maintenance of the Union; for nationalists, the chance to move unchallenged to a similarly unqualified united Ireland.

But these outcomes are mutually exclusive and can be achieved only if one side pursues its goal ruthlessly while the other acquiesces totally, receiving only the sucker’s payoff. When both sides pursue their objective without regard for the other, stalemate ensues and both sides suffer.

Feeney’s warning is that the ennui (and in some cases, downright frustration) felt now by many of the losers in the peace process cannot be gamed out of by further tinkering with the rules.

So it’s more, “we are where were are”… rather than “if I heading towards good government then I wouldn’t start from..”


  • ItwasSammyMcNally

    “He then goes on to warn ominously that the consequences for Unionism in trying to untie the strings attached at the signing of the Belfast Agreement”

    ..but theres a whole in the bucket dear Brian – Unionists cant untie the strings without Nationalist consent.

    Unionists trying to untie the strings is just political posturing and just another way to say we dont like SF in Govenment and is probably counter-productive allowing SF (Nationalsim) to be seen to be setting the agenda.

  • In Feeney’s view, for what it is worth. This is an argument for the political class, but it is the electorate that is frustrated. Who are the ‘losers’? The DUP certainly are not. If it is the UUP and SDLP who are the losers that is not ‘unionism’ but broad consensus that something needs to be done (though that something remains undefined). SF have no interest in change, obviously, as it is no SNP with an Alex Salmond at its head. Nationalism and Unionism fully co-operate in Scotland (the Conservatives essentially shore up SNP minority rule there): discuss.

  • Mick Fealty

    You need to get a copy of the paper if you’re going to challenge Brian directly (cause I can’t stenographise the whole piece here), erm, Sammy.

    His point was not dissimilar to yours. But he took the trouble to outwork the logic of the GFA’s critics arguments: Unionists and others.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    I agree with Durcan, the GFA and St. Andrew’s only work if seen as a “historic” compromise. Picking away at them, imperfect though they are, could become a damaging habit for the body politic.

    It would do no harm for politicians to quote the wording of the agreements more so there is a wider public understanding of the nature of the deals. I think most of the public is in danger of forgetting how we got here and the basic terms on which the two communities (and those of neither community) deal with each other.

    On the unionist side, there has been too much of an expectation that things would carry on as they were – I think we are still taking on board what it means for NI to be a truly shared space. On the nationalist side, the agreements have too often been treated not as the final deal but a temporary staging post, which had disastrous consequences for its capacity to bring people together. Let’s get back to the wording – I’m convinced that if everyone knew it, took it on board and stuck to it, we’d be in a much better place.

  • Mick Fealty

    Good corrective point TD. Although Feeney’s axiom assumes that, at some point, SF will achieve majority over the DUP, as the Catholic population continues to edge upwards.

  • ItwasSammyMcNally

    Mainland Ulsterman,

    The GFA is fundamentally a ‘peace’ deal with a ‘political’ deal bolted on to make sure the peace bit sticks.

    As recent events have shown, we are some distance from ‘normality’ and from being able to consider the ‘politics’ seperately from the ‘peace’.

    The pragmatism and leadership of Marty and Robbo has been both surprising and heartening but the (constitutional) objectives of both communities are likely to remain seperate and conflicting for a considerable period of time not because of political ‘failure’ but because of the difficulty of the situation.

    Stormo v2.3 is really a success story and some of those suggesting otherwise simply havent come to terms with the GFA and the fact that it is really charting a route to peace via the carefully worked out political arrangments.

  • Neil

    On the unionist side, there has been too much of an expectation that things would carry on as they were – I think we are still taking on board what it means for NI to be a truly shared space. On the nationalist side, the agreements have too often been treated not as the final deal but a temporary staging post, which had disastrous consequences for its capacity to bring people together.

    That’s fair enough, but on the Nationalism side of your equation the only thing that would change the ‘staging post’ mentality to which you refer is if Nationalists cease to be Nationalists. Everything is a ‘staging post’ on the road to achieving our primary goal.

  • son of sam

    Things that shouldnt surprise us;Pope a Catholic,Bears dislike indoor facilities,Brian Feeney criticises S D L P!

  • Greenflag

    If you don’t know where you are going you will end up somewhere else . Unionism reached it’s destination in 1920 but somehow it feels to many Unionists in 2011 the destination is not what it used to be . Irish nationalism is still on the road .

    Feeney’s analysis seems sound enough . We forget that it took 40 years to construct the ‘ugly scaffolding’ . Frustrating for those who champion the cause of real democracy and real opposition perhaps but the only way out of that cul de sac is for the NI state to ‘disappear’ and that can only happen with the support of a significant number of NI voters changing their political allegiance from ‘unionism ‘ to some form of Irish nationalism .

    It’s as good as it gets for now . In the meantime both Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are doing the best they can despite the ‘ugly scaffolding ‘ And they deserve the broad support of NI voters . Trimble and Mallon had their chance and unfortunately could not get it to work for long enough .

  • “each side is guaranteed a fair crack of the whip”

    That’s a very reasonable proposition from Brian. So why has it all gone so badly wrong? Why, for example, have the parties of (relative) moderation been largely removed from the key decision making processes?

    Back in the early 1990s when I did some tinkering with the partial Hume analysis to include the Unionist aspiration I concluded that Strand 1, the ‘internal’ one, was the key relationship and that our ‘external’ relationships needed to be developed in tandem – for a fair deal all round.

    I noted in 1998 that shared sovereignty and the merger of Strands 2 and 3 would permit our politicians to develop shared goals whereas the 50%+1 deal would foster a tug-of-war mentality and therefore reward extremism.

    Fast forward to this morning – and mindful of Felicity Huston’s intervention in the election process – I decided to have another look at the Chief Executives Forum. I was pleased to see that she wasn’t a member – unlike some of our other ‘watchdogs’. However, when I looked at the CEF programme for its Women’s Leadership Initiative [pdf file] it appeared to be set mainly in a Strand 2 context.

    If Brian is a political pundit ‘worth his salt’ perhaps he should ‘crack the whip’ to ensure that public funding is spent in a manner that abides by the letter and spirit of the 1998 Agreement; the cherry-pickers should be given short shrift.

  • ItwasSammyMcNally

    …at its crudest level of course one of the reasons Unionists complain about Stormo so much is that this one (v2) was designed with us (the good guys) in mind whilst the previous one, which they hanker after, was designed for themmuns.

    Harsh but true?

  • Neil

    Why, for example, have the parties of (relative) moderation been largely removed from the key decision making processes?

    Because of the largely un-moderate electorate. In a way it’s positive, it shows the two communities to be indistinguishable in certain (many) aspects.

  • Neil, I’m not so pessimistic about the electorate. They were given a very moderate sounding agreement in 1998 with that 50%+1 self-destruct option built in. Perhaps they would have preferred my proposal, had they been given a range of options to rank.

  • Kadfoomsa

    I think, tinker, tinker, tinker.

    No nationalist in my view should feel in any way bound by the good friday agreement – which is a conditional surrender at the end of the day.

    Today we have an IME school taking the education minister to court for denying them transport costs that are freely paid to grammar school pupiles.

    The government QC is being specific – the GFA is aspirational – doesnt bound them – what is it for then.

    Tinker … maybe flush it?

  • Harrumph … an ethno-political problem. Why does that ring a bell? I recall Verwoerd, or one of his Boerish adherents, announcing that “Here in South Efrika we believe the Blecks should get a fair kreck of the whip.”

    I’ll have to take Mick Fealty’s account of Brian Feeney on trust (the Irish News circulation in bourgeois Norf Lunnun is a bit patchy). The essential thrust, however, is indisputable.

    What we have in Northern Ireland, for the first time in a century, is a crude facsimile of something approaching democracy. When the great Northern Irish public (or segments thereof) are offended and kick out, the central body politic at least twitches in response. Why else are so many water mains being dug?

    We are moving toward an enduring 2+2 party-political system: that means there is choice inside the two polarized entities, and ultimately opportunity to overlap and interconnect. It’s a long way from perfect; but it’s better than we had before.

    All sides have now some stake in the continuation of the status quo, of ensuring that continuity is onwards and upwards.

    I am intrigued, however, that Feeney sees the main threat to the (what is in all truth, stable) structure coming from the Unionist side.

    As an aside, and unhelpfully for the Feeney thesis (which I like), I recall, dimly, a passing acquaintance with (the political scientist, not the actor) Robert Axelrod’s assertion that the Tit-for-tat strategy is the only one that works, and [ah! here it is, on page 54]:

    What accounts for TIT-FOR-TAT’s robust success is its combination of being nice, retaliatory, forgiving and clear. Its niceness prevents it from getting into unnecessary trouble. Its retaliation discourages the other side from persisting whenever defection is tried. Its forgiveness helps restore mutual co-operation. And its clarity makes it intelligible to the other player, thereby eliciting long-term co-operation.

    The trouble is that other games-theorists (who tend to be more Darwinian and red-in-tooth-and-claw) dispute that, and reckon that tit-for-tat works only in a quarter of outcomes, while the alternative (“Grim”) works nearly half the time.

  • Sammy McNally. I thought Brian Feeney was being a tad optimistic about the margins which will be revealed in the new census. I remember last time the info in religious breakdown in 2001 was wider than expected due to the compilers quoting figures they had hypothesized from districts to get around the refusal of people to answer the religious question. Elections since then have shown that the margin is far closer than the census, so the tide is really going out for unionist parties, but unionist voters may be sanguine wenough about that as long as they see no threat to the union.

  • I agree absolutely with Brian Feeney. Not surprising I suppose because, I have actually been (mis)identified as “Brian Feeney”.
    For me the Good Friday Agreement is the Alpha and the Omega.
    And over a decade ago, many in the liberal elite agrred with me.
    But that was when UUP-SDLP were in charge. Nothing has really changed except that DUP-SF are in charge……and the liberal elite have now joined the dissident camp. It wasnt supposed to be like this.
    Very few seem to have worked out that what goes up must come down….like DUP and Sinn Féin vote percentages. THe weakness in the DUP-SF monopoly is bad governance and their arrogance. Thats where their critics in the other parties should be directing their fire.

  • ItwasSammyMcNally


    “I thought Brian Feeney was being a tad optimistic about the margins which will be revealed in the new census. ”

    What is he basing that on? The Elections? Shame it takes the lazy buggers a year to add up a few figures.

    “but unionist voters may be sanguine wenough about that as long as they see no threat to the union.”

    There may be a net gain to Nationalism of 1 or 2 seats this time – the next time round demographics may push that up another notch – the GFA allows for pretty scaffolding to be contructed with the South with increased gradual practical harmonisation taking place over time.

  • Forget the prisoner’s dilemma and try the stag hunt, the forgotten scenario in game theory


    It’s worth reading

    The original stag hunt dilemma is as follows: a group of hunters have tracked a large stag, and found it to follow a certain path. If all the hunters work together, they can kill the stag and all eat. If they are discovered, or do not cooperate, the stag will flee, and all will go hungry.

    The hunters hide and wait along a path. An hour goes by, with no sign of the stag. Two, three, four hours pass, with no trace. A day passes. The stag may not pass every day, but the hunters are reasonably certain that it will come. However, a hare is seen by all hunters moving along the path.

    If a hunter leaps out and kills the hare, he will eat. However, it results in the trap laid for the stag to be wasted, and the others will starve. There is no certainty that the stag will arrive; the hare is present. The dilemma is that if one hunter waits, he risks one of his fellows killing the hare for himself, sacrificing everyone else. This makes the risk twofold; risk the stag never come, or risk another man taking the kill.

  • “ultimately opportunity to overlap and interconnect”

    Malcolm, I think the word you’re looking for is ‘carve-up’ :L

    It’s not so much 2+2 as 2 pike and 3 trout tiddlers; the salmon of knowledge is seldom to be seen.

  • ItwasSammyMcNally


    “THe weakness in the DUP-SF monopoly is bad governance and their arrogance.”

    There are massive iedological differnces for example in Education and that is not a result of ‘bad governance’ is it?

    It is a result of the British Imperial mess that is Ulster being slowly but surely being sorted out over time – with a background of peace. The DUP and SF are doing an excellent job in the circumstances which is illustrated by the fact that there is more common ground between them than there is between Tweedle-SDLP and Tweedle-UUP .

  • “bad governance and their arrogance”

    fjh, the same observation could be made about their governance associates, the senior civil servants. The failure to maintain professional audit trails, deliberate or otherwise, makes it very difficult to decide whether it’s the politicians or the civil servants who need a crack of Brian’s whip.

    The supposed watchdog committees by and large have been abysmal. Even when they get a little uninvited assistance they seem inclined to go into private session.

  • DC

    I don’t doubt were Feeney is coming from – the only way round the system for those seeking change is to prove the pointlessness of designation itself.

    The way to do that is by not sitting on the sidelines as ‘Other’ – but by using dual designation: Unionist and Nationalist.

    It is highly unlikely that either the Unionist or Nationalist parties will give up this right to veto – this right to ‘defect’ – using community designations; if anything with ever decreasing numbers of Unionists (based on turnout and demographics) in the long run designation will in time protect that political grouping more so than nationalists, should nationalism become the largest political grouping at Stormont.

    For the same reasons Nationalism as the present political minority wants to keep designations so that the majority bloc can be kept on a lesh, so too Unionism further on down the line should it become the minority.

    The only way to bring about change of the system is to get democratic support for dual designation, support from the more modern and flexible sections of the electorate – and should enough support be garnered over time then a strong case for its removal will be able to be made, based on a large reforming cohort – the dual designation bloc.

  • Thanks for the nudge, articles @ 12:07 pm.

    The stag-hunt takes us to David Hume, and this from Brian Skyrms at the APA:

    David Hume also has the Stag Hunt. His most famous illustration of a convention has the structure of a two-person Stag Hunt game:

    Two men who pull at the oars of a boat, do it by an agreement or convention, tho’ they have never given promises to each other. …

    Both men can either row or not row. If both row, they get the outcome that is best for each — just as in Rousseau’s example, when both hunt the stag. If one decides not to row then it makes no difference if the other does or not – they don’t get anywhere. The worst outcome for you is if you row and the other doesn’t, for then you lose your effort for nothing, just as the worst outcome for you in the Stag Hunt is if you hunt stag by yourself.

    We meet the Stag Hunt again in the meadow-draining problem of Hume’s Treatise:

    Two neighbors may agree to drain a meadow, which they possess in common; because ’tis easy for them to know each others mind, and each may perceive that the immediate consequence of failing in his part is the abandoning of the whole project. But ’tis difficult, and indeed impossible, that a thousand persons shou’d agree in any such action …

    where Hume observes that achieving cooperation in a many-person Stag Hunt is more
    difficult than achieving cooperation in a two-person stag hunt.

    Yep: seems entirely relevant.

  • DC

    I suppose the lesson is you shouldn’t tinker with the system, but instead play the existing system in a way that suits your outlook.

    To expand on my view on dual designation, I think a new party or one looking to modernise things should go to the assembly and dual designate – say for convenience there were 20 MLAs elected, have 10 as Nationalist and 10 as Unionist – and vote tactically as and when a community vote can be turned into hard policy. Such as voting nationalist on issues of protecting health, whereas voting unionist to say introduce water charges, if you like. These are policies which can be argued on social and economic grounds, hence the need to register a vote, which is denied to the current ‘centre’ party – Alliance.

    The outworking would be say if you had 10 MLAs in both unionist and nationalist camps, when voting for a nationalist instigated issue a dual designation party would use its 10 MLAs in the unionist bloc to try and push up the numbers in favour. And vice versa for unionist ones.

    In time, the idea would be to increase the number of MLAs and have bigger sway across both blocs to interfer better and keep things progressing where previously deadlock was recorded. It would also – if successful – reduce the relevance of the designation system itself and reduce the appeal of political parties operating under those fixed nationalist identities: Unionist and Nationalist.

    Like anything built on maths and numbers – the system can be rigged or manipulated for both good and bad effects – hence my proposed idea of dual designation, a numbers game to interfer with the voting patterns in a bid to push policy over the finishing line, which would otherwise be resisted by old and outmoded unionist and nationalist parties – using the community veto.

    For people – read that as potential voters – not aligned to old conservative takes on Unionism and Nationalism, dual designation shouldn’t matter a jot to them because they are not supporters of either political styles and identities and such voters should be prepared to lend their vote to such a party. So long as it maintains momentum by interfering with any deadlock or trying to interfer in a way that can be seen to benefit NI.

    So, a dual designation party should receive more votes as a reward for what it has done at the assembly or tried to do in favour of progress. Rather than for what it has not done – think Alliance and others in the ‘Other’ camp.

  • Brian Walker

    Abstracting the NI political situation as ethno- poltical or even as the prisoner’s dilemma will get us nowhere, It plays into dear old habit of enjoyably wallowing in impotence. We need to break down and domesticate our problems, not play up to theory or games Rather than behaving like a herd of elderly elephants, we should ask what is the problem we want to solve?

    Let’s assume pruned institutions are linked to voluntary coaltion. It aint necessarly so but anyway…

    If it’s to copper fasten the Union, a “voluntary coaltion” has nothing to do with it. If its about creating greater flexibility and slightening loosening the tribal grip by a notch or two, there ‘s a case for it. It’s a democratic blot not to give the same weight to “other” votes in the Assembly. Executive membership is quite different, and ironically the Alliance party has fared better at that level, albeit at the invitation of the others..

    Politically the arguments will be hopelessy confused at election time.

    SF is right to spot the ulterior motive, which is to try to dish them.

    Mark Durkan has to agree without seeming to, in case he’s accused of a nationalist sell out.

    The DUP want to sound modernising while trying to reduce the influence of their internal rivals the UUP.

    “A fair crack of the whip” would not be prejudiced under any conceivable weighted majority. That is guaranteed in law.

    However the parties have proved they can work the present system. Unpalatable as it may seem to some a stonger and more confident DUP and SF, looking over their shoulders less might better government in the short term.

    The down side of that is that we would have replaced the failed single party government of the 1920s with an equally monolithic dual system for the 2010s. This is the best case for voting for minority parties.

    Voluntary coaltion would need time to create a new poltical climate to break out of present straightjackets and that can’t’ happen quickly. A mixture of political will and public pressure for better services can produce some change within the present system.

    In reality nothing fundamental can happen to reduce the size of the institutions unless all or agreed or alernatively the wee parties are wiped out.They remain a check on change, whether positive or negative. Change would in any case require British- Irish consent and primary legisation at Westminster. Without whole hearted and widespread local agreement, however Owen Paterson has ruminated, that will not happen,.

  • Greenflag

    In his last blog for June 2010 before his untimely passing -Horseman of the excellent ‘Ulster’s Doomed ‘ website -titled a thread ‘Swedenize us’. It seems according to Bloomsberg that while the rest of the EU and the USA faces cutbacks in government spending and on reductions in services -somehow ‘Socialist ‘Sweden is in budget surplus , planning tax cuts , and increasing some welfare programs as well as offering financial assistance to Iceland and Ireland .

    Meanwhile other nations such as the U.K,USA , Ireland , Spain , etc . slash spending to pare deficits. The Swedish economy grew 5.5 percent in 2010, the most since 1970, as exports recovered from the global financial crisis..


    Perhaps Peter & Martin may visit Stockholm on their next overseas jaunt and in a spirit of all island cooperation drag Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan along with them and they could all return via Iceland from whose citizens they might learn how to stand erect and stop grovelling to the international bankster fraudsters of Germany/France/UK and Wall St !

    For those who are ‘excited ‘ about the upcoming NI Assembly election a perusal of Horseman’s site is well worthwhile .Its a great loss that he’s not around to comment on this election .


  • Greenflag

    ‘Without whole hearted and widespread local agreement, however that will not happen’

    Which is why a vote for the TUV is a wasted vote for they are the ‘antithesis ‘of agreement and the proponents of ‘exclusion ‘ for half the population of Northern Ireland -disguised of course under their ‘traditional ‘ credentials . Some traditions are simply not worth the cost of maintenance . Traditional one party government in NI is past it’s sell by date by about 40 years . Have the TUV noticed ? Could somebody tell them Elvis is also dead 😉

  • Eire32

    @Greenflag Good point mate, RIP Horseman, always good value at the elections.


  • RedTurtle


    “Sammy McNally. I thought Brian Feeney was being a tad optimistic about the margins which will be revealed in the new census. I remember last time the info in religious breakdown in 2001 was wider than expected due to the compilers quoting figures they had hypothesized from districts to get around the refusal of people to answer the religious question.”

    A myth. Protestants were assigned to Protestant Community background, Catholics were assigned to Catholic Community background, those who said they had a non-Catholic and non-Protestant religion (e.g. Muslim) were assigned to “other” (0.39%), those who said they had no religion were assigned to Protestant community background if they stated their religion brought up in was Protestant and Catholic community background if they stated their religion brought up in was Catholic. Those who stated that they had no religion and were not brought up in any religion were left unallocated in the final figures (2.72%).

    2001 census was 43.76% Catholic background, 53.13% Protestant background, 0.39% who belong to “other religions and philosophies” and 2.72% who cannot be allocated (answered none to both questions or left both questions blank).

    “Elections since then have shown that the margin is far closer than the census, so the tide is really going out for unionist parties, but unionist voters may be sanguine wenough about that as long as they see no threat to the union.”

    Elections since the 2001 census,
    2001 Westminster election – Unionists 52.9%, Nationalists 42.7%, Others 4.4%
    2003 Assembly election – Unionists 52.1%, Nationalists 40.5%, Others 7.4%
    2004 European election – Unionists 48.6%, Nationalists 42.2%, Others 9.2%
    2005 local elections – Unionists 48.8%, Nationalists 40.8%, Others 10.4%
    2005 Westminster election – Unionists 51.4%, Nationalists 41.8%, Others 6.8%
    2007 Assembly election – Unionists 47.6%, Nationalists 41.8%, Others 10.4%
    2009 European Election – Unionists 49.0%, Nationalists 42.2%, Others 8.8%
    2010 Westminster election – Unionists 50.5%, Nationalists 42.0%, Others 7.5%

    Hard to discern due to random noise and fluctuating “other” votes, and the averaged trend-lines have a scarcely different slope, but the gap between nationalist and unionist votes would appear to have closed by about maybe 0.75% between 2001 and 2010.

    The latest Labour Force Survey religion report (basically a yearly mini-census that only counts a large and representative sample rather than everyone) was published in November 2010

    It was 42% Catholic, 50% Protestant, 8% other.

    Now some of those 8% in the 2011 census will put down none for both their current religion and the religion brought up in. Let’s assume it’s 3% like the last time. That leaves 5% with no current religion who will put down a religion brought up in. Let’s split the difference and say 2.5% say brought up Protestant and 2.5% say brought up Catholic.

    We could then expect the 2011 census to say 44.5% Catholic background, 52.5% Protestant background and 3% unallocated. This gives a similar Protestant background / Catholic background ratio as recent elections have given for the Unionist / Nationalist ratio so seems sound.

    Having said that I wouldn’t be surprised if it said something like 43.5% Catholic background, 51.5 Protestant background, 1% other (Muslim, Chinese traditional etc.) and 4% unallocated, but I’m trying to be neutral by having as similar as possible assumptions as what happened in 2001.

    In other words since the 2001 census the gap between community backgrounds will most likely have closed by a further 0.7%. Compare this to the closing of the unionist / nationalist vote by about 0.75% in the same period.

  • Alias

    And from that axiomatic premise he continues, “the key feature of all such ethno political solutions, imperfect though they may be, is that each side is guaranteed a fair crack of the whip”.

    The problem for ‘nationalists’ is that no one has told them that the concept of Parity of Esteem has been devised as an alternative the nation-state and not – as folks have told them – as a transition to it.

    A nationalist is anyone who advocates a nation-state for his nation. To embrace it requires that they renounce their nationalism, and become post-nationalists. So it is a concept that is mutually exclusive to their declared aims.

    In reality, of course, all states are sovereign. The state wherein the concept is to be practiced is the sovereign British state, so one of the two nations is sovereign (British) and the other nation (Irish) is not, so there can never be parity of esteem between nationalisms, leading to unequal national rights.

    In other words, it is an artificial construct that requires careful management to sustain. How long will it take the people of NI to get tired of life as managed lab rats? Most of them are already sick of it, it seems.

  • RT. You could be right, although I still say the margin is shown more accurately at elections where there is neglible crossover voting all the way across the divide.

  • otto

    A requirement for 70% majorities would be simplest. Short of that reward partnership by allowing d’hondt allocations to be given to ad-hoc groups (eg united community) rather than just parties and let cross-community agreement (50%+ of each designation) take priority over d’hondt provided no group/party receives more ministries in total than it would under d’hondt.

    Finally let all 15 ministerial positions count in the d’hondt share out so that parties outside cross-community agreements aren’t unduly marginalised.

  • DC

    In reality, of course, all states are sovereign. The state wherein the concept is to be practiced is the sovereign British state, so one of the two nations is sovereign (British) and the other nation (Irish) is not, so there can never be parity of esteem between nationalisms, leading to unequal national rights.

    I don’t think designation in the assembly can be equated to nationalism in the sense you are taking a stand on a particular political ideology, or indeed by voting unionist or nationalist you are in some way reflecting or discharging the desires of a sovereign power, or taking on a national identity itself.

    If there were a dual designation party up at Stormont then it would most certainly prove the point that national identity is not shaped or grown in any way under Stormont’s cross-community voting arrangements.

    A numbers game really. With certain political parties sectioned off under two camps for the purposes of voting in a specified way when administering devolutionary powers – inside NI, as part of the UK political system.

    So for those that want or hanker after a weighted majority form of voting, dual designation could be a tactic of sorts a precursor to that, deployed to get round deadlock. The likes of the Alliance party could use the additional votes given to it if it did dual designate – Alliance could in a roundabout way get a majority of sorts, albeit somewhat contrived (and of course all of this is built on the basis of an enlarged party – with more than the current 7 MLAs).

    I think political scientists at Queens or UU should look into community voting and see what votes have been taken in the past and look into whether a dual designation system could in the end have an impact on overcoming division – if managed correctly. Basically use these votes for socio-economic issues, for votes on crude identity politics – such as celebrating IRA or UDR – these situations might merit abstention.

    Brian, I’ve no sympathy for Alliance. If there is a political system in play that weights only cross-community votes, how does that party expect to register its votes whenever, knowing fine well, the ‘Other’ vote is discounted. It’s Northern Ireland after all! If you don’t like constitutional politics and haven’t come to terms with the post-peace process arrangements, or don’t have any meaningful or innovate ideas on finding a way to get your vote recognised at the assembly, or seemingly dislike constitutional politics, but have no strategy to overcome it – then please don’t stand for election in NI!

    By opting out, Alliance give others a free hand to carry on what they have been doing well – vetoing . While Alliance refuse to interfere, that political space which it could occupy is left for others to fill.

  • DC

    “If you always do what you’ve always done you’ll always get what you always got.”

    Alliance would do well to follow their own party’s election soundbite.

    So Naomi, if you carry on designating as ‘Other’ then the people of NI will still remain on the receiving end of Unionist and Nationalist vetoes!

  • Alias

    DC, I’m not sure that I understand your point here. Excluding the ‘Other’ (who are simply those not designated as either nationalism but who have not excluded themselves from the franchise on any constitutional poll and will therefore fall under either of the two nationalisms in that eventuality), designation in the Assembly is explicitly determined by nationalism, i.e. the designations are Nationalist, Unionist or Other.

    The Excutive is a devolved administation elected by the Assembly, with its limited powers being devolved from the central government of the UK, on whose behalf it administrates the powers of that sovereign British state. It is not an authority that exists independently of that state or does not otherwise serve its interests. The powers not devolved are reserved for administration by the central government. So it is British rule, locally administrated, and nothing more. Indeed, the local laws devised by the local Assembly are subject to judicial review, having the status of a quango, whereas the laws devised by the central parliment are not. That rather obviously reflects its status as a local authority, and not a sovereign authority.

    The sovereign power will administrate British rule on behalf of the British nation, so that sovereign British nation in NI will enjoy a government that protects and promotes its culture and identity, having enjoyment that is superior to the non-sovereign nation in NI who reside in a sovereign British state and not a sovereign Irish state. The British will always have superior national rights, and the Irish inferior national rights since they are by default unequal.

    The arrangement is probably the best available in a situation where two nations or roughly equal size are forced to share a region of the UK, but has no relevance to Ireland where the Irish nation is the absolute majority and those who are British – were the Irish nation ever to allow them to unite with them in a single state – would be a minority who could not be permitted to have any veto over Irish self-determination. So it is an internal settlement, and not a workable transition to anything else.

  • granni trixie

    FJH: you have distracted me from the actual post…I thought you were BF! As I know him in real life I ave been winkin’ at him and things because of this. I’m mortified.

    One of the reasons I thought so was because (speaking as an English teacher, dont ye know) I thought you had a similarly ironic tone and style. So for the record I admire your style …think you often write in the style of Gullivers Travels (quite a complment).
    Meranwhile…back to the post.

  • DC

    Alias, it can be viewed as nationalism of sorts or, perhaps, designation is better viewed as a way to symbolise a form of nationalist identity, imaginary all the same.

    To me it’s just a mathematical device, a tactic to make sure one political camp doesn’t get out-done by the other. It’s all driven by numbers in the end. Anything driven by numbers can be gamed.

    As far as I’m concerned they could designate Capitalist or Socialist for all I care (it probably has more relevance!), the point I’m making is that to have a separate but growing and enlarging party that dual designates could in effect get round any contrived division such as the one set up in Stormont, if it receives a large enough mandate.

    Simply put, a mandate can be delivered inside the assembly under dual designation, because it will be able to play by the rules. So long as it is always hard policy that is being put before the electorate, and not discriminatory identity politics then such a party should grow, if it is seen to be effective.

    It will all be about implementing regionalised domestic stuff. Ideas should always be explained in socio-economic terms. If done in a sensible way, a dual designation party will not upset any nationalist sentiments or sensibilities, as regional policy and laws should not overlap on or conflict with any nationalist ideology. Perhaps for the raw cultural identity politics and stuff like that, think IRA UDR and Pro-Palestine debates (lol), dual designation votes would be held back (because it’s all a load of balls).

    Besides, the DUP and SF do not equate to the Irish government or British government for that matter so they are not sovereign actors as such, therefore they do not reflect the respective nation states. In terms of SF, it is a party that aspires to belong to another national set-up, but that other national set up and its identity is always changing anyway. Ireland is a globalised, Europeanised political player now, more market state than nation state. As has been mentioned on Slugger before – the northern tail will not wag the southern dog.

    The way I see it, up in Stormont, they are merely a bunch of political parties that designate as Unionist and Nationalist inside the assembly for the purposes of taking votes on regional policy and laws, which neither strengthens the union nor loosens it, it neither brings about a united Ireland any quicker or any slower. It’s simply a voting mechanism to be used for Stormont lawmaking. End of. It can be gamed itself in as much as it can be used to foil other parties aspirations.

    Call it thinking outside the box to get round the fact that ‘Other’ votes don’t count when cross-community voting is called for.

    The best way for you to understand, is that I’m not coming at this from a nationalist perspective, I’m looking at a way to grow the regional cross-community vote without upsetting identities but still attempting to deliver – at a regional level – socio-economic stuff.

    For instance, Girdwood Barracks for housing wouldn’t be an issue. In theory, under dual designation, potentially all those MLAs belonging to a new centrist party would use up all the available votes inside the Unionist bloc in a bid to get the vote to pass across the house.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    As you say, “on the Nationalism side of your equation the only thing that would change the ‘staging post’ mentality to which you refer is if Nationalists cease to be Nationalists. Everything is a ‘staging post’ on the road to achieving our primary goal.”

    You hit upon the fundamental problem with 32-county Irish nationalism – its goal, however peacefully pursued, sits at odds with notions of a stable, shared Northern Ireland of equals. Its end-game is victory for one ethnie, however peacefully pursued, over the other. As such, it is out of step with 21st Century ways of social and political thinking and is deeply problematic for those of a modern, multi-cultural, liberal bent.

    Worse, it is highly destabilising to the delicate balance of Northern Ireland: its dynamic towards hegemony means unionists have to keep their guard up and it inhibits a more relaxed and self-confident liberal politics emerging, where identities do not feel under threat.

    This is not to say individual Irish nationalist identity is any problem. Feeling Irish and wanting to be part of a state with one’s fellow Irish people in the Republic is legitimate and respectable. The flaw is with the political programme of Irish nationalism which seeks an Irish nationalist future for everyone in Northern Ireland, regardless of their own chosen national identity, as a moral good to be pursued – rather than seeking a stable accommodation between two more or less equal ethnic blocks in NI.

    But don’t unionists do the same with Britishness – don’t we expect nationalists to live in the UK? Yes, but there is a huge difference: we see this as an unfortunate (for them) necessity – we haven’t made a political ideal out of “making them British”. We don’t seriously challenge nationalists’ right to that separate identity, nor should we. Our history of non-inclusiveness had one beneficial side-effect – unionists have generally accepted nationalist difference. Those saying things like “Gerry Adams is British” do so more in ill-considered jest than out of some nationalistic belief system.

    But to Irish nationalism, having the British as a minority in a putative all-Ireland state IS an ideal. And British identity IS challenged, not accepted, as it doesn’t fit the Irish nationalist teleology, which requires its eclipse. How does this look to us? We feel unnerved that this “vision of the future”, which sees us as obstacles rather than beneficiaries, is being actively pursued and regarded as if it had some superior moral value to the status quo.

    But unionists are not doing the equivalent in return. This is the structural imbalance in Northern Irish politics and a big underlying reason for continued distrust between the communities. We all just need to push a bit less for some better deal for our side in the future and accept the mutual dependence and equality. Both communities have shibboleths they need to shed to do this.

  • Kadfoomsa

    “we haven’t made a political ideal out of “making them British”. ”

    Utterly ridiculous.

    Penal Laws, National Schools, 1737 Justice Act …

    Some good points made above but I see no reason as to why a unionist minority couldnt be accepted in a United Ireland.

  • ItwasSammyMcNally


    “As such, it is out of step with 21st Century ways of social and political thinking and is deeply problematic for those of a modern, multi-cultural, liberal bent.”

    Not in the least, the idea of a pluralist Nation state is the type of United Ireland that most Nationalsits aspire to.

  • Neil

    If everyone was was of your mindset MU then I would be a happy man, but unfortunately the Irish identity in NI is marginalised- how many Irish flags will you see over the summer in mixed areas? I know I’ll see dozens if not hundreds of Unionist flags.

    The Irish identity in NI is accepted – as long as it’s kept behind closed doors and out of Unionism’s way. But should you wish, for example, to turn out for your national football team (the 32 county one) rest assured many will howl at the moon,legal actions will ensue etc.

    Every inch of NI will be marked out, cat piss on lamppost style come July. Britishness will be stamped everywhere. So where does this Nationalist identity that is repected by Unionists manifest itself? Casement? But that’s up the Falls, so you’re not really respecting anything as you won’t see it.

    You say But don’t unionists do the same with Britishness – don’t we expect nationalists to live in the UK? and that hits the nail on the head. When Nationalists were forced to live in the newly partitioned NI were their identities and rights respected? Well no.

    If reunification happened tomorrow do Unionists honestly believe that TDs in the Dail would discriminate against them in the same way as Unionists did against Nationalists in the 20s? I would hope not. Personally I would doubt it, but I obviously can’t speak to anyone else’s view.

    You say that this is Nationalism’s problem, that our very raison d’etre sits at odds with the NI project, and this fits well with a Unionist view on the subject. However the NI project is not something we want to see work well, or ever did. We’d rather it failed and be one step further on the road to our destination.

    For the most part people (as in the vastest majority) within my community, are happy to live, violence free, in NI until such times as a UI is possible. The die has been cast so to speak. It’s a long game which we maybe never win (and Unionist confidence is probably higher in that regard than ever before).

    But there is a Unionist view that seems to think that the GFA, peace etc., brought about a situation where Nationalists ceased to be Nationalists. That the NI state that many tried to destroy over the best part of 100 years, was suddenly to be cherished. A destination instead of a part of the journey. Not so.

    And to suggest that there’s some ethno supremacy aspect to the UI project is a bit rich given that the Unionists when placed in charge of their Nationalist counterparts – against their will – and enforced the presence of the British state here at the point of a gun, behaved as they did.

    I won’t go in to the full detail of that here, but sufficed to say Unionist discrimination and behaviour ended in the British government prorogueing Stormont – actually in effect saying to the Unionists “We’re pulling the plug – you can’t be trusted to run this place any more”.

    For a Unionist (coming from that position of proven discrimination and un democratic behaviour) to say to a Nationalist that our mindset would lead to Unionists having their identity marginalised is very rich indeed.

    Your Nationalist counterparts in NI have never had the chance to discriminate against the Unionist people. So we’ve never done it. You folks have, and yet you criticise us because of what you think we might do at some point in the future.

    I suppose as well it’s worth adding that instability in NI has been the default position for the Catholic community since inception. Historically we had to worry about housing and jobs where Unionism refused to share either, up until the troubles where we shared the instability here, to the present time which is to us the most stable it’s ever been, but is still viewed by Republicans as a stepping stone to what we want, which we only want when a majority vote for it.

    That’s democracy (the kind Unionists ignored when they partitioned Ireland against the will of the majority), and should be nothing for you to fear. It’s a fair game now, Nationalists and Unionists have an equal shot at deciding the future. Again, it should be nothing to fear. Democracy in action.

  • In October 2008, QUB organised an a small conference (without a hint of irony) to celebrate the 40th anniversary of THAT march from QUB to City Hall. Luminaries such as Michael Farrell, and the late Kevin Boyle spoke.
    On the subject of the Good Friday Agreement and the demographic time bomb which people believe to be within it……an eminent Belfast journalist put forward a thought (as he admitted in a preamble, it had just occurred) that there is in fact a growing number of people coming into Norn Iron who were not in any tribe and (his argument was) that the middle ground tribe was the key to de-fusing the time bomb ( a situation he clearly favoured).

    I should add that I am paraphrasing what he said. I think we must accept with gratitude that there is an increasing number of people who do not fit the traditional pattern. It is perhaps understandable (but no less a good sign) that the Alliance Party was first off the ground. Granni Trixie speaks of meeting Anna Lo thru the Chinese Welfare Society and is possibly privy as to whether Ms Lo came knocking on APs door or was head hunted by AP. Or a combination of the two. Likewise Granni Trixie speaks of her Nigerain friend……and Id go further and suggest that there was always an “English” element within Alliance. Granni Trixie will know the nature of AP membership better than me……but people who for one reason or another did not want to identify with a traditional tribe.
    But I suggest it is healthier for our three communities if newcomers become involved in all political parties. The SDLP seem to be benefiting from Eastern Europeans. I dont know if this is a result of “head hunting” or social democrats joining a kindred party (or both) but it strikes me as healthy.
    Id much rather see people join a Party than sign another petition bemoaning the political scene.

  • aquifer

    “If both cooperate, they each receive a middle reward.”

    In a capitalist system things can be much better than that, in a socialistic state patronage system much worse.

    People on “both sides” may begin to catch on that it is better to vote in their economic interest, as they cannot stop the other side from getting in by voting for their own. The “national question” is essentaily parked until a referendum.

    If SDLPUUP want to destroy SFDUP, they must sharpen their differences on economic issues while remaining competent to govern. The UUP should become more capitalist/ self reliant, the SDLP more socialist/ state interventionist.

    Just write me a NICS cheque in guineas Alex, Tom peel me a few notes off that wadi n your back pocket.

  • aquifer @ 4:36 am:

    Nice try, but not even the cigarillo.

    Capitalism, in its unbridled form, is the ultimate “Grim” variant of a zero-sum game (see above, 13 April 2011 at 11:47 am and subsequently). Socialism, again in its purest form, “from each according to ability, to each according to need” is co-operative tit-for-tat.

    Which neatly leads me to:—

    A burly collier was out for a stroll on his day of rest.

    He was enjoying the open air and the meadows when he was accosted by the effete squire, out riding his thoroughbred.

    “You, there! You, fellow! What d’ye think ya doin’ trespassing on my lands?”

    The collier reached gently to stroke the thoroughbred”s nose. The horse snickered approvingly. Then the collier eyed the squire benignly: “Why is all this yer lands?”

    “My father willed them to me.”

    “And how did yer feyther get ‘is lands?”

    “Our ancestors fought for them.”

    The collier took a step or two back, doffed and folded his jerkin, placed his cap neatly on top, rolled up his sleeves, and struck the approved Marquis of Queensbury posture. “Weel, then, get thee down off that ‘oss, an’ I’ll fight yer for them now.”

    As always, what matters is: who has the power? on what is the power based?

  • Hello Malcolm Redfellow

    Almost reminiscent of a scene from Fame is the Spur by Howard Spring don’t ya think.

    Advice to any passing reader. Read and enjoy andn weep.

  • Aaargh! Well and truly rumbled!

    I think articles @4:48 pm is pertinently pointing me to pages 289-291 of my Collins 1959 reprint (the paperback, bought in Dublin around 1960, and a “formative” text in my early political development) has long mouldered into dust).

    What I find incredible is:

    [a] Fame is the Spur slips in and out of print twice a decade;

    [b] the only edition currently available new is a very pricey “facsimile” edition.

    So, go second hand and buy at almost any price. Ditto Shabby Tiger and Rachel Rosing (also issued under the title The Adventuress). Anyone with any doubts about a purchase, check out the second-hand values of any of these texts. My Son, My Son is the only one you’ll find readily.

    They’ll be rediscovered around 2035, when they fall out of copyright. I doubt I’ll be around to see that.

    No, I’ll not part with any of mine, despite their worn and weary state.

    The video/tv adaptations may be easier to find. Inevitably they lack the depth and complexity of the writings of the the Communist journalist on the Manchester Guardian, son of the Cork-born gardener.

  • Hello again Malcolm Redfellow

    I got my copy on a north sea ferry many years ago but cannot now find it.

    Needless to say, but I will, NI libraries do not have a copy but have 17 copies of the RTP. Not so much an imbalance as ignorance.

    I’ll keep an eye out in the second hand bookshops for all his books, thanks for reminding me of them.