“The Stormont system appears unsustainable in the long term…”

I noted previously Patrick Murphy’s concern about “how the assembly’s unchanging nature will influence future public engagement with elections and with what passes for politics here.”  In yesterday’s Irish News he posed a challenge to the post-election SDLP.

From the Irish News

Often in Irish history, constitutional nationalism has reaped the electoral benefits of armed insurrection.  This time the rebels cut out the middle man and collected the votes themselves.  Their political similarity to the SDLP was obvious.

Entering politics required them merely to lay down their arms without abandoning a single ideological belief.

When armed nationalists decommissioned, they became constitutional nationalists and a war-weary electorate supported them to keep them peacefully occupied.

So you are dying through your own analysis.  You built the wrong house and invited Sinn Féin into it.  Now you live in their back room.

You can become politically homeless or build a new house based on a fresh political analysis.  It will require you to oppose Stormont in its present form and to work towards a non-sectarian conventional political model which transcends traditional division – which is what you should have done originally.

It is a high-risk strategy but the non-voting 40 per cent of the electorate might listen.

The Stormont system appears unsustainable in the long term but an additional risk in challenging it is that you do not know whether Sinn Féin intends to defend it perpetually or produce a plan B.

Alternatively you can continue what you are doing which, with all due respect, is called dying.

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  • Brian Walker

    How do you embark on this plan B? A small strategic hint would do for starters.

  • “When armed nationalists decommissioned, they became constitutional nationalists and a war-weary electorate supported them to keep them peacefully occupied.”

    I disagree with Patrick’s analysis. As I’ve previously pointed out the PRM had more than military and political wings. Apart from organised crime they also had a ‘civic’ policing and justice role.

    London and Dublin moved their support away from the centre to the respective extremists; the extremists, with access to greater funds, also had a far more developed advice centre network. There are therefore a raft of reasons why the electorate may have opted for SF and the DUP.

  • Firstly, the Stormont system is indeed unsustainable. No other state would seriously entertain the notion of a five-party coalition. It’s like having five goalkeepers and six outfield players in your team – totally unsustainable and dysfunctional. What Norn Iron needs is for the politicos and populace to accept the notion that the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement could and should be amended through time in much the same way as the US Constitution is periodically amended. Unfortunately, Sinn Fein in particular are clinging to the Yes vote in the 1998 referendum as if it is set in stone for eight hundred years.
    As for the SDLP, they and the Ulster Unionists are indeed dying in their inflexibility. Have they never noticed that in the Westminster, Dail Eirann, or Congress models, when the government fails to deliver, the opposition reaaps the dividends at the subsequent election. By refusing to have the patience to sit in opposition for four years, the SDLP and the UUP are losing the golden opportunity to tell the lectorate next time that the failings of the Executive were not our doing.
    Unfortunately, the lure of a ministerial car and the kudos of being a minister is seducing the SDLP and the UUP into their stupidity.
    They want to have their cake and eat it. They want to be in government and taken seriously as policy formulators. However they lack the mandate to throw their weight around. They then make opposition noises about the manoeuvrings of the Sinn Fein/DUP axis but they still stay in government.
    Oh Stormont is doomed and the SDLP and the UUP will go down with it unless they can think outside of the box. Middle-aged middle-class Ulster folk are too conservative to think outside of the box. Fools!

  • Comrade Stalin

    When armed nationalists decommissioned, they became constitutional nationalists and a war-weary electorate supported them to keep them peacefully occupied.

    With this sentence, Patrick appears to be claiming that people are voting for Sinn Fein out of fear that not doing so will lead to some sort of return to violence. This implies a deep misunderstanding of the nationalist electorate.

    Nevin, that thesis of yours appears to deflect attention away from some of the fundamental reasons why people have migrated towards the DUP and SF. In a nutshell, those two parties simply outgunned and outmanouveured their “moderate” counterparts. I find the UUP utterly incompetent and I can’t think of a single good reason to vote for them, not least because I don’t find them moderate in any way – they believe the same things that the DUP do by and large, they just express them less stridently. On the SF side, remember that it was not the British government that brought them in from the cold, but John Hume.

  • Lionel Hutz

    you cant be a proper opposition without speaking rights. The SDLP and UUP cant go into opposition without the resources. Plus the electorate are not looking for it at the moment. The next term might be when that changes.

  • Lionel: the electorate are not looking for it at the moment? The failure of about 45% of the electorate to vote suggests that they don’t endorse the current coalition. They had no real choice between the current governing party and the current opposition party. They were merely presented with t coalition party A or coalition party B or coalition party C or coalition party D or coalition party E plus a number of fringe parties. At least the British Labour Party had the foresight last year to sit out power with the Lib Dems in the belief that in four years or maybe 8 or 9, they will be back in power. It’s a pity that the short-sighted SDLP and UUP can’t think in those terms. Ah, but the aroma of ministerial office is just too seductive.

  • Pete Baker

    Comrade/Nevin

    Don’t get hung up on that one line. It’s not the top and tail of Murphy’s argument.

    I have, by necessity, had to leave out a number of other points he makes.

    In order to focus on his prescription for an “unsustainable” system…

  • CS, it’s my understanding that Alex Reid, the Redemptorists and a range of politicians and bureaucrats put together the Stepping Stones strategy and persuaded Adams and his associates within the PRM that such a strategy stood a better chance of success of advancing the UI cause than the military option. Hume was needed to provide cover for Charlie Haughey and IIRC Mallon wasn’t too keen about wet-nursing SF.

    I do have some insights into how ineffectual the UUP, AP and SDLP can be. I don’t imagine that they’re utterly incompetent …

  • tacapall

    “Lionel: the electorate are not looking for it at the moment? The failure of about 45% of the electorate to vote suggests that they don’t endorse the current coalition. They had no real choice between the current governing party and the current opposition party. They were merely presented with t coalition party A or coalition party B or coalition party C or coalition party D or coalition party E plus a number of fringe parties”.

    How do you know this, is this your opinion or do you really know why people dont vote ! On the nationalist side there is many people who dont vote because they dont believe in endorsing a British controlled stormont, that it will not lead to a United Ireland and on the Unionist side many dont vote because they dont believe in powersharing either with their nationalist neighbours or because Sinn Fein sits in government. Then theres many like myself who dont vote at all simply because theres no party out there who appeal to their views.

  • Pete, anyone who has had their ear to the ground, even during the lead-up to the recent elections, will know that Murphy’s sentence – “Their political similarity to the SDLP was obvious.” – is nonsense. The Grapevine is a far more useful channel of communication than the MSM.

  • aquifer

    Dare the SDLP blame SF for 3000 dead a generation wasted and a divided society?

    Can they say they owe SF no thanks for stopping a slaughter that never should have happened?

    Can they claim that the armed Provo campaign made a successful non sectarian and non violent civil rights campaign impossible?

    Can they define themselves as Social or Christian Democrats or place themselves anywhere on a scale between the two?

    If not pack up.

  • Los Lobos

    Patrick Murphy is probably one of the unsung hero’s in the political reporting of how the long war was the wrong war for every grouping involved. His thesis in last Saturdays Irish News on the sdlp is so clear and funny, that even the most diehard member must crack a smile. That the trend for the sdlp is downward and painfully slow is hardly news to anyone, however the message between the lines that SF are now the sdlp mark II will be very unsettling for those who believe that a United Ireland is just around the corner. Even if the sdlp disappeared and every nationalist in NI voted for SF, they would be no closer to a United Ireland than they were in 1969. Thats a truth Patrick points very well.

  • Gopher

    Needs to be an opposition, no need for the second biggest unionist and nationalist parties to exist unless they go into opposition. Its quite pathetic that they did not declare that intention before election to set the precedent.

  • Henry94

    I can’t understand why the SDLP and the UUP don’t go into opposition. They are not needed for stability in the executive and can only grow in opposition.

    I don’t buy the proposition that the non-voters are seething with discontent but they may well be bored.

  • Lionel Hutz

    Who would go into an election seeking a mandate for opposition. They would have been wiped out. They should just pick their moment over the next year and do it. It’ll take some time for it to work out though

  • Blowinginthewind

    To go into opposition implies that you have a plan, a strategy and a platform. Does anyone really think the UUP and SDLP have those? Nor do they have a united party; the infighting, splits and factions make going forward impossible. Also, SF & DUP are particularly disciplined parties making them more attractive to the voters.

  • otto

    Singapore’s had the same government since 1959 and everyone goes on about how effective they are.

    We need to accept that we have a one government state if not a one-party state and develop ways of managing that. It isn’t going away.

    Notable that smaller jurisdictions hardly bother with parties at all (eg Isle of Man) – with people picking independent politicians that can work collaboratively.

  • slappymcgroundout

    US voter turnout since ’68 on average:

    Election to include election for US President: 55%
    Election not including election for US President: 40%

    Don’t hear too many reporting on how unsustainable it all is. What Mr. Murphy ought to have said is simply that it isn’t the structure that is unsustainable but the society and its sectarianism that is unsustainable. And, Pete, see Dave’s two longer comments here, as he gets it pretty much right [at 2:05 am and 7:16 am]:

    http://sluggerotoole.com/2009/06/28/this-will-be-the-case-for-as-long-as-the-new-dispensation-lasts/

    You have the system that you have because you have two tribes/two nations vying for control of the one state. The joint veto operates to neuter (to borrow “guest”‘s word there in the one comment) both sides and so there can’t be a Protestant state for a Protestant people nor a Catholic state for a Catholic people. You can sub in Scots and Irish for Protestant and Catholic if you wish, or you can add them in front of Protestant and Catholic. Or pick whatever names you like for the two tribes. Oh, and Pete, re your comment there on that thread re equality legislation, try reading the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, note the date when it was ratified by enough states so as to become an amendment, and then note and consider the Jim Crow that followed in the US South, when equal protection and due process = apartheid.

    Lastly, what is Plan B? I know what the British Plan B is, to wit, we’re going to pull out and leave you on your own, but what is Plan B for Sinn Fein? They can never go back to war, as that just won’t work. Which isn’t to say that the one tribe, or members of the one tribe, couldn’t decide to go back to war, but it wouldn’t be Sinn Fein, since if a retreat back to war was deemed necessary, Sinn Fein would be discarded for having proposed the preceding cessation of hostilities and so the need now to resume the war since Sinn Fein’s peace strategy has failed. With that in mind, I get the distinct sense that Murphy is simply anti Sinn Fein and never mind an honest examination of why the system is what it is.

    Sorry, one more, contra to Mr. Murphy, I also rather suspect that some vote SF not so that SF won’t resume killing (have yet to hear a more absurd notion) but rather owing to the perception that SF got a better deal than the SDLP ever did. Mandatory proportional representation in the executive, a veto, and a recognition of an Irish national identity, none of which were in Sunningdale.

  • Neil

    Often in Irish history, constitutional nationalism has reaped the electoral benefits of armed insurrection. This time the rebels cut out the middle man and collected the votes themselves. Their political similarity to the SDLP was obvious.
    Entering politics required them merely to lay down their arms without abandoning a single ideological belief.

    Naturally. Why would anyone expect anything different?

    When armed nationalists decommissioned, they became constitutional nationalists and a war-weary electorate supported them to keep them peacefully occupied.

    Prior to decommissioning, SF got 23.5% of the vote. After decommissioning they got 26.2%. So in reality it was not the case that SF had little support prior to decommissioning and a massive swell thereafter. They had the majority of their support prior to decommissioning and increased a whopping 2.7% afterwards. Hardly in keeping with the line that we only started supporting them after decommissioning as a way to keep them busy.

    So you are dying through your own analysis. You built the wrong house and invited Sinn Féin into it. Now you live in their back room.
    You can become politically homeless or build a new house based on a fresh political analysis. It will require you to oppose Stormont in its present form and to work towards a non-sectarian conventional political model which transcends traditional division – which is what you should have done originally.

    Unfortunately every time we’ve done that in the past, Unionists have joined forces to marginalise Nationlists. Hence the forced coalition in the first place. Duh. Short memories – when it suits ya. If Unionists had gone for equality in the first place we wouldn’t have the unusual situation here in the first place. Even now we can see Unionism scurry around trying to build up blocs on councils with parties they ripped to shreds a few weeks back so that Unionism holds the upper hand. And we’re expecting them not to do the same in Stormont because..? Once bitten twice shy and all that.

    It is a high-risk strategy but the non-voting 40 per cent of the electorate might listen.

    http://www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.htm

    In the last ten years in UK elections a minimum of 35% have not voted. For 2 of the 3 elections non voters numbered 40%, just like here. In the last 30 years, all but 3 times turnout has been 70% or lower. So one assumes that the legitimacy of the UK govt. is now in question as well? What are they going to do to reform Westminster to attract those people back?

    Or perhaps there is a growing rump of people who couldn’t care less? In most societies? Certainly I can’t imagine some people I ‘know’ voting, given they can’t be arsed getting dressed to go to the shop, or spend their entire lives drunk, I can’t see them making the effort to vote.

    The Stormont system appears unsustainable in the long term but an additional risk in challenging it is that you do not know whether Sinn Féin intends to defend it perpetually or produce a plan B.
    Alternatively you can continue what you are doing which, with all due respect, is called dying.

    Nah, that’s what we were doing before. Now we have one full assembly term behind us. We might continue for more than one term to decide whether it’s a total disaster.

    Unfortunately, a la Murphy/water crisis, some people choose to forget we’ve been in charge a short time, and things take a little while to change. So 4 years of an assembly hasn’t utterly changed NI, just as 4 years of Conor Murphy didn’t rot the pipes under the ground.

  • “4 years of Conor Murphy didn’t rot the pipes under the ground.”

    Quite correct, Neil, the Minister should only have been held responsible for his own failings and the actions of his department that were his reponsibility. Unfortunately, the MLAs, the various watchdogs and much of the commentariat missed out on several questionable actions. Why, for example, was little or no fuss kicked up about Ó Muilleoir’s appointment as an interim NI Water NED?

  • Comrade Stalin

    Henry94:

    I can’t understand why the SDLP and the UUP don’t go into opposition. They are not needed for stability in the executive and can only grow in opposition.

    It’s quite simple. It’s because the SDLP and UUP know more than anyone else that the system was designed (by them) to diminish anyone who walked out of the government. Back in the 1990s the main threat to the institutions was considered to be the potential wrecking efforts of the DUP.

  • Brian Walker

    I think many of you are banging your heads against brick walls guys, a favourite NI occupation. The system with all its faults has just reached a new level of stability.Let’s see a new programme for government first before rending our garments. Most systems can work if the members want it to and the evidence gives some modest hopes of improvement. The minor parties would be mad to disappear without trace into opposition unless they could form a coherent opposition.. btw what’s so terrible about two party domination of a coaltion when majority sinjgle party govenment is so acceptable for less divided societies?

  • Crow

    Brian, I couldn’t agree more. After the trauma of the last forty years, I think the electorate and indeed the political class can be forgiven for not altering the status quo with reckless abandon. Lest we forget, we still have the history, the distrust, the perceived grievances, and a host of all the right ingredients in abundance for the project to go pear shaped once more.

  • “The system with all its faults has just reached a new level of stability”

    Quite, Brian. I can empathise with those who feel they’re banging their heads against a brick wall. We can expect cover-ups by Ministers and senior public servants – generously funded by the tax-payer – but it is more than a bit galling when the MSM and bloggers fail to step up to the mark.

    The OFMDFM has been operated as a dual dictatorship for some time yet the MSM largely remains mute on such a serious matter.

    And just to repeat some related points I’ve made on another thread:

    At present police officers have to turn a blind eye to the misdemeanours of certain elected representatives and members of the public can’t avail of the justice system because of threats from associates of elected representatives.

    London and Dublin could gradually remove some of the political shackles and the MSM could do a lot more to pressurise the leadership of political parties to discipline their own members.

  • Comrade Stalin

    At present police officers have to turn a blind eye to the misdemeanours of certain elected representatives

    Are you referring to the Iris Robinson case here ? If so, surely she’s been punished enough.

    and members of the public can’t avail of the justice system because of threats from associates of elected representatives.

    I don’t believe that one. SF can’t afford to have that stuff going on, it would bring down the institutions.

  • Old Mortality

    Nevin
    “At present police officers have to turn a blind eye to the misdemeanours of certain elected representatives and members of the public can’t avail of the justice system because of threats from associates of elected representatives.”

    My own experience inclines me to believe this. Family members (cousins, nephews etc) of one SF minister have no qualms about issuing violent threats to anyone making unflattering comments about the minister or the family in general.

  • Chris Donnelly

    Old Mortality
    I’d be careful with that one, lest you have proof to substantiate your anonymously provided allegations.

  • Brian Walker

    Well the Westminster system has been described as an elective dictatorship for generations, at least under single party rule. I would hardly argue that the local system is flawless. But it’s still very new especially under DUP.SF dominance. and both these parties are democratic centralists.

    But that might be better than the indiscipline and grudge matches of their predecessors who had their chance and lost it after doing amazingly well in launching the system …

    It would surely be better to do some hard thinking about how to put pressure on the parties about making life better rather than indulging in moaning about the system.

  • “an elective dictatorship”

    I agree with that observation, Brian, especially where a governing party has a large majority and a strong leader like Margaret Thatcher. Consider then the position here with the strong undercurrent of mafiaism to add to the mix.

    I’ve not only done some of the hard thinking, I, in association with others, have put pressure on. In some instances it’s brought about positive outcomes; in others we’ve lacked the muscle to make the difference. When others fail to step up to the mark or when they attempt to sanitise sleaze I feel I’m entitled to the occasional moan 🙂

  • “SF can’t afford to have that stuff going on”

    Comrade Stalin, not even an organisation like the PRM is fully in control of its members. I can recall one instance where an elected representative from another party raised an issue with SF HQ and disciplinary action was taken. The initial action didn’t appear to get the message across so further steps had to be taken, steps of a perfectly legitimate nature.

    If the MSM and the police had a freer hand it might well be to the advantage of SF HQ. The current strategy of empowering its ‘active service’ members IMO emboldens its more wayward ones.

    Chris, there’s no need to wade in with the big boots on; it’s important for SF HQ as well as for the political process that ‘problems’ are dealt with.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Comrade Stalin, not even an organisation like the PRM is fully in control of its members.

    I didn’t say they were.

    If the MSM and the police had a freer hand it might well be to the advantage of SF HQ.

    Are you sure the problem is not a simple case of us having crap journalists and crap police ? There are more than enough domestic circumstances I can think of – very low level cases of course – where the police conducted themselves with pure incompetence.

    I fear you are looking for conspiracies where there are none. I feel it’s more a case of our locals needing a good kick up the backside. Perhaps what is needed is for our local media and police will go the way of Crazy Prices and Stewarts.

  • Neil

    Agreed CS. I’ve had some dealings with them recently in my street, and I was disgusted and shocked at how wrong the cops got it. This with witnesses tripping over themselves to give statements. I’ll say no more than that.

  • “Are you sure the problem is not a simple case ..”

    In the examples I’ve looked at over a number of years, Comrade Stalin, quite sure. The Minister for Justice will need a good brush with very stiff bristles to tidy up some of the mess left by London and Dublin. There are issues that go well beyond the competence you refer to.

    By the way, why are you playing the old conspiracy card? Folks can look at NALIL blog and draw their own conclusions; there’s no need to muddy the waters. Here’s one I made only yesterday.

  • ayeYerMa

    Any system that gives a veto to a group of people who, by definition, wish to destroy the state (i.e. Irish Nationalists) will always be unstable. In fact, if you stand back a bit (ignoring NI-specific history) and analyse that this veto exists, it is quite preposterous.

    If a consociational system is an absolute must (it isn’t with options like weighted majorities), then perhaps a better system for us would have been based on the same compulsory “perceived religious background” criteria as found in employment monitoring. As much as think that such compulsory employment monitoring needs to be scrapped, I think a consociational system based on religious backround of each assembly member (instead of party) would have been much less divisive and much more cooperative than the one we have at present. While the conflict wasn’t purely about religious background, a lot of the ugly sectarianism that reared its head was.

    Perceived injustices against others based religious background could have been pretty much *always* declared unlawful during the troubles, however, the same cannot be said for discrimination against those holding Irish Nationalist views. This is mainly due to the almost continuous Republican/Nationalist terrorist threat against the Northern Ireland state right from its creation in the 1920s onwards, and to anti-terrorism and treason laws (including those for conspiring with others to overthrow the state) apply in such circumstances. Exceptions are also made in the ECHR to allow for this.