Welcome to our new and urbane tribalist politics…

Interesting thoughts from Brian Feeney on Hearts and Minds last night. He pretty much suggested that the two smaller parties had reduced roles in the new dispensation, and they should think themselves lucky to have that much. Interesting because, by and large, it’s true.

Why? Because, since the St Andrews Agreement, gaining or keeping the office of First Minister can now be flagged up as the only thing that matters. Theoreticians tell us it doesn’t matter. The voters seem not to agree.

If the panel discussion at the beginning of the programme is anything to go by we have a more urbane and civilised politics; but one in which voting for tribal champions (as opposed to ‘along tribal lines’) is the only game in town.

Just look at the collapse of the UUP in Castlereagh into the DUP voting bloc. Why did they do it? To avoid, I suspect, getting an endless roasting for weakening the now minority Democratic Unionist voice on the council.

So the reason Brian can pronounce the demise of the smaller parties with such confidence, is not just because they are weakened and split. It’s because the new system devised by the two major parties at (and after) St Andrews provides a constructive means for the gradual diminution of their smaller rivals into irrelevance.

The ‘race’ for senior office at OFMDFM is now being touted as the biggest game in town… And it’s one that only two can credibly play (at any time)… Welcome to Democratic Centralism

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  • View from the Ditch

    “we have a more urbane and civilised politics”

    Who were the panellists? Doesn’t sound like the TUV participated…

  • Feeney is right of course, and the politics of automatic entitlement favoured by the SDLP runs counter to democracy. There’s no point bewailing the lack of gratitude on the part of the voters on their side since, if, as they claim, they are democrats they have to lump it. It’s a bit like complaining that life isn’t fair. It’s unconditional, a fact. There’s no reason why a political party must survive indefinitely as the SDLP themselves would, no doubt have told Eddie McAteer back in 1970. The centenary of the statelet is less than a decvade away, but the UUP is on the brink of extinction and no point tin them whingeing about that either.

  • HeinzGuderian

    The lesson being,you have to change with the times.
    Indeed yes,100 glorious years of Unionist Rule. Sure we had some hard times,but what about the good times ?
    Some predictions about the imminent demise of the * statelet *,much like the imminent demise of Stormont,were wide of the mark.
    So let us look forward to the next 100 years,and our pivotal role in The Kingdom,as we continue to stand tall upon the world stage,and lead by example.

    ( yes,I am available to write speeches for the shinners,if the need arises ) 😉

  • Crubeen

    Herr General,

    As a principal strategist and tactician, the man who wrote the manual on Blitzkrieg, you are, of course, well aware of the maxim that “No plan, no matter how carefully or well conceived, survives first contact with the enemy.” You also must be aware that sometimes that enemy takes what you have crafted, turns it against you and, indeed, surpasses your achievement.

    The lesson for Feeney, your good self and others is that prognostication about future events is inherently unsafe and even dangerous. As Mark Twain possibly observed and Dave Swarbrick certainly did – rumours of his demise were greatly exaggerated.

    Eddie McAteer saw his Nationalist part subsumed into the SDLP because this party had no programme to meet the needs of the time and he was usurped by the Young Turks (of his day). Given that most parties in this part of the world lack definite social and economic policies (that may be the need of the time) it is entirely conceivable that a new generation of Young Turks could arise, resuurect that which appears moribund and destroy that which appears triumphant.

    Fuhrer befiehl, wir folgen.

  • iluvni

    As long as Robinson doesnt start thinking that he is back as First Minister on account of him being the most popular or respected politician .. he’s still in place because his colleagues chose to turn a blind eye to revelations last year and hadnt the guts to ditch him, and that most Prods voted DUP to ensure McGuinness didnt get he chance to gloat about being the top dog.

  • H&M is now online.

    I think it’s worth pointing out again that the changes to OFMDFM selection took place following the St Andrews Agreement and during the drafting of the subsequent Act.

    The 50%+1 constitutional ‘tug-of-war’ arrangement in the 1998 Agreement reinforced tribal voting and the combined effects of the two acts has helped weaken the position of the two more moderate ‘nationalist’ parties, the UUP and SDLP. There are other factors but they don’t take away from this point. Some may be touting the race only now but perhaps they fit into that wonderful Seamus Mallon category: slow learners.

    We have a more urbane and civilised political exchange but that shouldn’t be confused with what’s happening within Stormont’s political and bureaucratic walls and outside in the political undergrowth. I’ve been invited to read the Sunday papers for revelations from the undergrowth about some unsavoury activities that occurred during the course of the recent political campaign.

    I welcome democratic centralism as an enhanced opportunity to expose corruption in body politic and bureaucratic.

  • HeinzGuderian

    Hair Crub

    I would simply point out that other *young turks* have tried before,and failed dismally !! 😉

  • Mick Fealty

    Good spake Madra… ‘Entitlement’ is the flip side of the ‘constructive tribalism’ analysis above… It explains, to some extent why several tricks the SDLP could have pulled off, didn’t come off…

    Reference to Eddie McAteer’s Nationalist party is appropriate too. Both SDLP and the NP developed and grew in a time when there was no real competition for Nationalist voters.

  • The lesson for Feeney, your good self and others is that prognostication about future events is inherently unsafe and even dangerous

    Probably worth recommending Karl Popper’s “Poverty of Historicism” at this point. And probably worth mentioning that I first heard of it when Trimble recommended its reading to the UUP Youth round about 1998! Beyond last week’s election result, there is no predicting the end result.

    Neither the Union, “Unity” or even a DUP/SF Tribal Hegemony is etched in stone for ever.

  • Nunoftheabove

    It can’t be much of a coincidence that the two parties whose respective organizational machineries bear the closest resemblance to anything approximating ‘true’ Democratic Centralism are the ones winning the elections. No doubt they bring elements of this to bear in their cartel-like Assembly modus operandi too. To, in very much (indeed exclusively) its own terms, relatively decent effect.

    Their respective ailing and flailing (pale shadow) ‘rival’ parties on the other hand are those which don’t appear to recognize, still less embrace, DS principles at all. Anyone not much enjoying the demise of either of these lamentably mediocre groups therefore really ought to be urging ms Ritchie and Mr. Elliott to consider “What Is to Be Done?” pretty much essential poolside summer reading. Well, either that or haul Brendan Duddy’s ass out of retirement and open up some form of conduit with Des O’Hagan or Sean Garland, I’m certain they could suspend their counter-revolutionary misgivings momentarily if the price was right.

    All together now…..

    “Oh There was an old bastard named Lenin
    Who did two or three million men in.
    That’s a lot to have done in
    But where he did one in
    That old bastard Stalin did ten in.”

    – Robert Conquest

  • carl marks

    Welcome to Democratic Centralism…

    as stalin (the dictator not our beloved blogger) said i believe in Democratic Centralism i am the center and i define democracy its nice to know our leaders are learning from the greats

  • DC

    The way to undercut democratic centralism is to shout loud for more powers to local authorities – like councils etc, or in Heinz’s the shifting of power away from federal government and out to the landers – mini-states.

    In Stalin’s case – democratic centralism didn’t quite bring prosperity to the people.

    Delivery will be key this term – let’s see if this approach works and helps to organise much needed compromise, or whether it will be the same-old-same-old and delivers deadlock.

    Was reading in the paper today that SF are already moving against the DUP proposal of 8 ministries than 11. Disagreement already – quelle surprise!

  • Back in the day Brian Feeney was a prominent member of the SDLP.
    And perhaps a voice that the SDLP should be listening to.
    The obituary of the SDLP has been written often but always turns out to be premature.
    In 1973.
    SDLP was the only meaningful constitutional nationalist Party and was scoring 160,000 votes against the Alliance Partys 65,000.
    Today it is scoring just 94,000 against the Alliance Partys 51,000. A considerable drop for both.
    The significant difference is that there are 178,000 votes for Sinn Féin. And like it or not they now have to be described as “constitutional nationalist” votes.
    This means that the alternatives being offered the (frankly) Catholic population is
    Constitutional Nationalism=272,000 votes
    “lets all get along”=51,000 votes.

    Looking at the SDLP votes in South Belfast from the vantage point of a tallyman in Kings Hall, a week ago, the great majority of the #3 votes were going to Alliance and Sinn Féin. One specific constituency but to greater or lesser extent it mirrors most of the rest.
    There is clearly room for AP to expand. They have clearly taken some “liberal” unionist votes and people (Bradshaw, Hamilton and a still semi detatched Parsley) but essentially “liberal unionism” is the same as it was in early AP/UPNI days of Bailey, Ferguson, McLachlan, Dickson.
    There seems no similar drain from SDLP.
    But there is room for AP to expand.

    The dilemna for SDLP is that Sinn Féin are perceived to do “constitutional nationalism” better than SDLP do it. And if “lets all get along” is your bag, Alliance are not only perceived as doing it better but they have made the running on integrated education and all that.
    A specific SDLP identity between these positions is difficult as their voters are at heart (mostly) constitutional nationalists or to a lesser extent “lets all get alongers”.
    Its not easy to be both. A dilemna that the SDLP voters deal with in the second preference vote.
    To some extent SDLP voters cling to voting SDLP because of a historical remembrance that SDLP politicians were/are nicer people than the alternatives. Less convincing in 2011 than 1973.
    But most worryingly SDLP has lost its drive (a consequence both of uncertainty of which direction to go and a feeling that the Good Friday agreement is enough) and lost the sheer personality of the leaders prior to Margaret Ritchie as well as a lack of professionalism.

    Sometimes people let down great political parties by not voting for them.
    Sometimes political parties let down their own voters by not providing quality leadership.

  • Crubeen

    Hair Crub

    I would simply point out that other *young turks* have tried before,and failed dismally !!

    Herr General ,

    A cheap pun about the abundance of thatch referenced in my profile …. but I like it!

    That other “Young Turks” have tried and failed does not necessarily mean that “Younger Turks” might not try and succeed. History will tell the tale … sadly it cannot yet be written

  • Framer

    That democratic centralism is of course why the UUP and SDLP cannot and should not die or be submerged. Enjoy torturing them by all means but think of the fact that we are ruled by a sect and a junta who agree to change nothing. The Alliance Party is just interim cement.

    Alex Kane’s view on the programme that the UUP should split between its liberal and traditional wings is not well-founded.

    The UUP’s membership is pretty much the same in both wings – actually unionist, orange or unconcerned with the Orange, individualistic, easygoing, liberal on most things without being pc, not city people unless older nor labourite working class if such still exists, probably more Anglican than Presbyterian, historically minded and probably not ambitious, being well enough off. A third of unionism at least that won’t wish to go away. Elliott is a perfectly good and representative leader while Basil fits in well too with or without his wee mates.

  • Nunoftheabove


    Yes to your last point , it’s probably apocryphal but for some reason I have East Germany in my mind in recalling the story about an exchange within the upper echelons of the KPD along the lines of “Comrades, the current postion is untenable; we will therefore table – at once – a motion calling for a change of people”.

  • MF 11.31. Brookeborough had eight years left in office when I was born and i just missed the opportunity to vote in the Sunningdale election as my 18th birthday was in October. They started the Yom Kippur war to celebrate that. I wonder if I would havwe bothered voting at all as we weren’t seriously political in our house at the time.

  • The Raven

    “Neither the Union, “Unity” or even a DUP/SF Tribal Hegemony is etched in stone for ever.” Indeed. All great empires pass away.

    A 54% turnout. Less, if you count the spoiled votes. Two lesser parties who just cannot get it together to offer an alternative. Two well marshalled parties who don’t speak for the majority, just the majority of those who turn out from their respective tribes.

    There’s always someone, or some group of people or movement, waiting in the wings to sweep it all away; waiting on the right swirling confluence of events to kick-start the process.

    I personally thought it would have started over the past couple of years – expenses…affairs…nepotism…inept central services…general malaise…the economy, including Stormont’s inability to do even the most basic local actions for local business…a moribund assembly of yes men and back-room deals.

    But it just isn’t there. Yet.

    Too soon probably. The rot hasn’t really set in.

  • between the bridges

    so if i get this right..we now vote for the party we think most likely to keep themuns in place… massive change indeed…

  • “The rot hasn’t really set in”

    Raven, I thing the rot is deeper and possibly more insidious than most folks appreciate; they’re too busy coping with their own problems and the media contains too many limp lettuces.

  • The Raven

    Yes, Nevin – I should have really clarified that I wrote that with a smidgeon of sarcasm. 🙂 🙂

  • Nunoftheabove


    The latter is certainly true and is possibly every bit as hazardous to decent standards of accountability than our existing and troubling dependence on faceless fire-proof career civil servants of very varying degrees of competence and in some cases with very varying motivations, to say nothing of the milk toast ‘opposition’ parties who spend more time whining about not being in government rather than they do genuinely challenging the Ministerial administrators themselves.

  • Blowinginthewind

    Fitzjameshorse; agree with your analysis. What gets me about both the SDLP and UUP is that they blame the wrong thing for their decline. They both say that they need to get a better message across better. But their real problem is that all they have is a string of small messages, no overall vision, strategy or energy. Add to that the lack of discipline (evidenced by poor or no vote management) and a tired line up–all leads to no surprise. In fact the only surprise may be how long the tail is. But the vote in Foyle shows that even a long tail descends to nil at some point.

  • “our existing and troubling dependence on faceless fire-proof career civil servants”

    Not completely fireproof, Nun. The application of heat from different directions has singed some feathers at the Northern Ireland Audit Office – but it can be a slow and tortuous process. It doesn’t do any harm to challenge them to abide by their own mission statement. Perhaps some of the new urbane politicians will now do the accountability job that we pay them to do.

  • Nunoftheabove


    Not completely of course but there’s not a strong track record of many of them being materially sanctioned either, still less fired. The unhealthy cosiness between the boyos and girlos on the hill and these punters doesn’t persuade me that an abundance of them will be being nailed to crosses any time soon. There ain’t no self-respecting crucifiers hammerin’ nails on behalf of us mere citizens. Having such a semi-comatosed toadyistic press in conjunction with this state of affairs is regrettable to say the least of it.

  • Gopher

    So that is that then? I’m sure the average political commentators that Northern Ireland is blessed with would be quite content for this too be true. They have been writing the same columns for the last 30 years in much the same way Status Quo release albums. What I don’t think these commentators understand , because they can’t as they are as deeply entrenched in the ethos of tribal politics than the majority parties themselves is the electorate are evolving albeit slowly.
    True, on face value it was a victory for tribal politics the real story was the victory of stability over instability. The UUP and SDLP sold instability and the electorate those that actually vote had little choice in most areas to vote along tribal lines for stability because there was no viable alternative. That being said a significant part of the DUP and SF vote will always be along tribal lines and will mean yesterdays commentators will be with us a while yet
    South Belfast is interesting, more votes were cast than the previous assembly election the SDLP went down @ 800 votes and non DUP unionists were down @ 1700 votes. The Alliance party were up @ 2500 votes. If over 10% of a vote loss is not bleeding I cant imagine what is. Incidentally SF’s vote only went up by 42 so when it is possible to vote for stability without being tribal the post agreement voters will take. This was repeated in Strangford and South Antrim and interestingly in North Down were we had the gladiatorial spectacle though largely unreported battle of two middle ground parties fighting for a seat. Nope North Down is not a mythical kingdom as commentators have you believe it returns six seats just like anywhere else.
    Whilst the Alliance performance in 2011 was hardly the Pannonian legions arriving at the gates of Stormount it was deeper and more substantial than the cordite flash that found the DUP magazine in East Belfast in the general election. For all the tribal policies the party that gets 20% of those that dont vote and are beyond the DUP and SF reach there is all to play for despite predictions of the end of history.

  • joeCanuck

    Something profound must have happened to allow the DUP and SF to usurp the UUP and the SDLP. Anyone know what that was? Just weariness with the same old, same old, and an attempt to try something different or was it something else? Is there a scholarly treatise readily available that anyone knows of? Now that the SF and The DUP have definitely consolidated their positions and the constitution question has been put on the backburner for at least a generation, I imagine things will be pretty quiet and backward as long as the “dissidents” can be kept under some sort of control (acceptable level of violence anyone?)

  • Comrade Stalin

    Something profound must have happened to allow the DUP and SF to usurp the UUP and the SDLP. Anyone know what that was? Just weariness with the same old, same old, and an attempt to try something different or was it something else? Is there a scholarly treatise readily available that anyone knows of?


    If you want it summed up in a nutshell, it’s that the UUP and SDLP were and are both lazy. They were the establishment parties and their membership never quite got to the point of realizing that they had to work for their votes. This wasn’t a problem back when SF/DUP were not serious competitors (SF because of the provos; DUP because of Paisleyism).

    To borrow a rather unpleasant phrase “they only had to kick the door in and the whole rotten structure came down”. SF/DUP kicked the door in by motivating their members, doing good constituency work and ensuring their canvassing and organizing skills were kept sharp and well-tuned. This allowed them to understand better what worked and what didn’t and allowed them to make adjustments as necessary. The SDLP and UUP never understood the benefit of good canvassing.

    Alliance has been applying the same methods for years; that is why it won East Belfast. EB wasn’t won on policy alone, or because of the issues of Peter Robinson alone (although these factors contributed). It’s because it had spent years building up the organization in the area, knew were the vote was, and what it had to do to get the vote out.