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.

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com