Does the Middle Ground Have a Future? Platform for Change AGM

image Platform for Change (PfC) held its annual general meeting on Saturday. While this is the group’s second AGM, it still seems to be struggling to raise its public profile, pin down its identity, and decide where to go from here.

During the past year, PfC made the most waves with its open letter to the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in response to the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration document. The letter received extensive coverage in the Belfast Telegraph and local  media. With some high profile signatories backing its position, PfC roundly criticized the document as a step backward rather than a viable vision for a shared, sustainable future.

PfC also organised hustings in various locations throughout Northern Ireland in the run-up to the recent elections, attempting once more to turn the spotlight onto policy issues such as the structure of government, social inclusion, integrated education, dealing with the past, and so on.

But of course, the parties that seem the furthest from PfC’s vision for Northern Ireland were once again the most successful at the polls.

Over the coming weeks, the PfC committee and its chair, Robin Wilson, will begin collating the feedback gathered at the AGM and in an online survey conducted by the group. This will shape PfC’s future direction and activities.

The survey, administered by committee member Sinead Walsh, had more than 100 respondents. The top three issues that respondents said they wished PfC to continue addressing were:

  1. anti-sectarianism,
  2. reforming political structures (including the way the Assembly is elected and ministers are allocated, as well as the imperative to ‘designate’ as nationalist or unionist in the Assembly),
  3. education

The meeting closed with a conversation on ‘where now for the middle ground’ with invited speakers David McClarty (independent Unionist MLA, formerly of the UUP), Conall McDevitt (SDLP), John Barry (Greens), and Chris Little (Alliance). It was chaired by former Ulster Unionist Trevor Ringland.

the panel

The invitation to the AGM framed the future of the ‘middle ground’ this way:

In one view, it is in frustrating decline, with the continued erosion of support for the SDLP and UUP, increasingly marginalised in government, and rising abstention among their voters observing a dysfunctional administration. In another view, it is the growing Alliance Party, which in government can steer the DUP and SF further towards the centre and ‘lead change’ towards a more effective executive. The panel will address questions such as: how do we move politics on to a left-right axis, so that day-to-day policy issues can be seriously debated? How can we ensure constructive cross- and non-party alternatives are presented? And how (in the continued absence of the Civic Forum) can we connect the public and the political arena in policy debates?

The questions posed above of course remained frustratingly unanswered. After all, there are no easy or obvious answers . Debate participants as well as people from the floor made suggestions including forming a new middle ground or cross community party, or encouraging Alliance, Greens, SDLP, UUP, etc to form strategic alliances – both on specific issues as well as in the form of ‘middle ground’ election pacts.

There were also some intriguing ideas around both nationalist and unionist parties ‘buying into Northern Ireland as a region.’ I was suggested this could involve setting aside the thorny question of political jurisdiction in favour of an Ireland whose people are united, whether or not that is in the form of a unitary state. This type of thinking would see unionist politicians invited, and willing to take up an invitation, to the Republic of Ireland’s upcoming constitutional convention.

But such lofty visions of cross community harmony and of unionists engaging in conversations about Irish-ness (including, possibly, their own) were tempered with the recognition that Northern Ireland just might not be ready (ever) for such options.

That said, it was recognized that Sinn Fein and the DUP are now a lot more ‘middle ground’ than they used to be. But they don’t have the will or incentive to make tough policy decisions in areas such as dealing with the past, victims, building a shared future, or reforming education.

That seems to make the road ahead for PfC, as well as the so-called ‘middle ground’ parties, a rather challenging one.

  • granni trixie

    Gladys – obviously you and PfC mean well but the analysis you report is so old hat…. Give up!

    PS a few women in the picture might help

  • give up – that’s the spirit!

  • Charminator

    Interesting, but a collection of political nobodys and self-promoters (guess which one?) isn’t going to do the trick. Giving up – as you describe it Gladys – is hardly the point either. Giving up on what? Political experimentation? A strange alchemy such as that presented above with no clear ideological (or other) focus except middle ground. Middle ground on what? What does this mean? Environmentalism? Economics? Social policy? Have not both SF and the DUP moved significantly to the middle anyway?? Is that not why the so-called traditional middle-ground no longer exists, because the terrain has been occupied by a DUP which no longer says No and an SF now committed to (exclusively?) peaceful means of advancing Irish unity? A collection such as that presented above hardly inspires much confidence.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Middle ground is always a relative statement, the traditional voter will always have his bottom line firmly away from the extremes unless compelled to do so under fear of another extreme. Does anyone think that Eammon McCann is so anti-private sector leftwing that he’d want to work for state controlled press? No

    There is certainly room for change, there are ways if you look at the similar governments of Belgium and Switzerland even within the confines of the current system the voters can change the “vectors of government”.

    It’s clear that the role of the civic community is the only way to defeat sectarianism, obviously government will have to lead by example.

    In terms of reform, that will play out by evolution or revolution within the democratically elected government too. But the current power grip has no reason and has shown little will to change at the moment.

    As for education, we’ve seen what has appeared to be a unilateral dictatorship by Sinn Féin in this area, with little support outside of itself and I make no apologies for saying so.

  • Carsons Cat

    Glady’s

    I’d suggest that someone’s proposal of “giving up” is being quite generous. Others may not be so kind.

    A discussion on the “middle ground” – who exactly decided who the middle ground is then? What allows some of these people to self-appoint themselves as the “middle ground” then? Probably the same right that allows Platform for Change to self appoint themselves as yet another group of the unelectable deciding that they should be able to tell the great unwashed exactly which of those people who did get elected are the “nice” ones. Shame the proles don’t listen innit?

    I’m sure the “conversation on the middle ground” or the seminar of smugness as I’d rather call it was thoroughly spiffing for all those assembled who got to hear their own views being reinforced, and everyone got that warm glow that only the “middle ground” can get. A thoroughly awful event…..

  • FuturePhysicist

    Funny how I saw DUP and Sinn Fein (as well as PbPA) representation at the last Platform for Change group I attended. It’s a fair enough debate, there’s no need to elect a hustings panel.

  • Turgon

    Carson’s Cat,
    It is better than that. The PfC’s website explains all sort of exciting things. They got some money to set up. Getting money is always important for do-gooders: it is actually more important than getting elected as the electorate might do something awful like not elect them.

    However, there was a do-gooders meeting which had a democratic election of do-gooders: would it not just be so good if do-gooders alone could vote; think how reasonable it would all be. There were also expert lead discussions: they must have been excellent; I am sure the experts were very progressive.

    There is also a list of signatories and you can use it to spot your favourite progressive liberal. I saw several names of people I have argued with. Indeed maybe we could have a competition; I have argued with four in person or on line. I suspect some people could beat that.

  • Zig70

    Talking heads road to knowwhere comes to mind. I like the bit where the luvvies say the dup/sf can’t make tough decisions.

  • Zig70, the post actually says the DUP/SF haven’t made tough decisions ‘ in areas such as dealing with the past, victims, building a shared future, or reforming education.’ It doesn’t say they can’t make tough decisions, they certainly can on other issues.

    Charminator, you ask: Have not both SF and the DUP moved significantly to the middle anyway??

    The post actually also says this, too: ‘That said, it was recognized that Sinn Fein and the DUP are now a lot more ‘middle ground’ than they used to be.’

  • From the original post….
    “That said, it was recognized that Sinn Fein and the DUP are now a lot more ‘middle ground’ than they used to be. But they don’t have the will or incentive to make tough policy decisions in areas such as dealing with the past, victims,…”

    on the contrary Sinn Féin, DUP and their Alliance allies have made a very tough decision in regard to victims and the past.
    They have decided to completely ignore them, a decision which received a ringing endorsement a little over a month ago.
    And deep down……I agree.
    Its not that SF dont care about victims.
    Its not that DUP dont care about victims.
    Its not that AP dont care about victims.
    Its not that I dont care about victims.

    But none of us actually care….enough. That might not be what Platform for Change wants to hear but its a simple fact. Platform for Change has no mandate and would lose a lot of deposits if at actually sought one.
    Remember……I was actually ata Platform for Change hustings in Armagh two months ago.
    Conor Murphy, Dominic Bradley, William Irwin, Danny Kennedy were all there…..unfortunately the entire audience was Mrs FJH and myself. The event was cancelled. Thats the extent of Platform for Change “influence” despite the great and the good of our metroplolitan intelligensia signing up to the nonsense.

    The road ahead is indeed difficult for Platform for Change. Thank God for that. Id feel even happier if it was totally impossible.
    It is not difficult however for the “middle ground”. Clearly there are three power blocks in Politics here.
    1 Constitutional Unionism
    2 Constitutional Nationalism.
    (in the above I include majority input of UUP and SDLP)
    3 The “Middle Ground” or as I prefer to call it “lets all get along ism” led of course by the Alliance Party but not totally the same as AP (there is UUP and SDLP input although AP partisans might seek to portray themselves as the purist “middle ground”).

    As I see it, the UUP and SDLP are possibly in decline (I wouldnt switch off the life support just yet but Id argue that UUP is in a more advanced state of decay….terminal while the SDLP under its present lack of leadership is approaching that stage). Ive been out of range just lately but therea few important SDLP meetings lately.
    The pattern is clearly established.
    AP will pick up some UUP and SDLP votes in the years ahead.
    DUP and SF will pick up even more.
    There will of course be a small Labourite “rump” built around some SDLP aspects, PBP and even God help us the Workers Party. And those “lefty” types who dream of normal politics.
    But the notion that AP will lead or steer DUP and SF to the middle ground is fanciful.
    Whoever framed the “future of the middle ground” ……..sheesh.
    But ultimately the three power blocks will grow.
    None of those power blocks have any need to be interested in “victims”. Surely even in 1998 we realised we were just involved in lip service.

    Victims were always peripheral. Nobody REALLY intended that they would be central to the process.
    Sinn Féin are now effectively in the mode Fiann Fáil were in in the 1930s…..less than two decades after the Treaty.
    People had already stopped (except at very localised level agonising about victims from that War). Fine Gael might have spent the best part of fifty years thinking or even knowing they were on a higher moral level than 1920s gunmen…….but FF kept getting elected.
    The core FF members might well have attended Liam Lynch commemorations but the non-members still voted FF.
    And frankly it will be the same here. For generations.
    SF core members will attend commemorations for Hunger Strikers, H Block, local ceremonies for the Brigades in North Armagh and South Armagh and East Tyrone and West Belfast. Most of their voters will of course be indifferent to all that.

    Platform for Change is essentially people gifted enough, talented enough to have a career in Politics as MLAs, Special Advisors, appointees on public bodies….if it wasnt for the unfortunate fact that nobody actually votes for what they believe in. They are unelectable and in (professional political terms) unemployable. And thats what really motivates them.

  • Turgon

    FJH,
    I think that is about a perfect summary of the PfC brigade. The only thing I would add is that the PfC typed people had significant influence during Direct Rule. People of their ilk frequently got good Quango jobs running the place since the local politicians did not do so.

    As such many PfC types who had such functions and their political heirs who would like such jobs feel very disenchanted. There is a whole class of “nice” people of both sides who once wielded significant unelected political power. In many ways PfC is a reaction to that loss of power and a hankering back to the days when nice liberals had positions of power and authority bestowed upon them by the NIO in order that the NIO be seen to have involvement from local people.

    It is this hankering after lost power, prestige and self importance which I submit motivates most of the PfC types.

  • Turgon,
    Youre absolutely right of course.
    A look at around 200 signatories is interesting. There are no (so far as I can see) MPs. And only one MLA (but I stress this is a cursory glance). I surmise that first rank politicians dont need to sign up to it. Theyve already “made it”.
    On the other hand second and third tier politicians including councillors and candidates are there. Likewise academics, trade unionists and a lot of people who are “in the public eye”.
    Thats the problem with Think Tanks (uber voters not ordinary folks).
    While I am sure the people actually signing are sincere folks, it is also a self-certificate stating “I am a nice person”. And frankly its a nice thing to have on your CV and these folks look like useful people to have on your Facebook page.
    Theres certainly an element of networking, careerism and getting your name “out there”.
    Im tempted to sign it myself. But I might not be their kinda person. 🙂

  • andnowwhat

    Not much to say on this save for it sounding more like an experiment in time travel (backwards) than a true exploration of anything pertinent to today’s society or our future.

    I’m sure there’s better things to do with any funding such groups are getting.