Platform for Change should go to ground

Following on from Gladys’s post, some thoughts about Platform for Change from a well-wisher.

Robin Wilson’s powerful analysis of the party manifestos in the recent election reached the predictable conclusion:

“It is clear on the one hand that the ‘unionist’ manifestos tend to uphold ‘traditional’ Protestant-communalist positions on issues like parades, which can only continue to antagonise Catholics and others committed to human-rights norms. On the other, it is equally clear that the ‘nationalist’ manifestos adopt Catholic-communalist positions resisting governance reforms consistent with democratic norms.”

(What may be less obvious is his dropped-in conclusion that the peace is “ever more fragile”; this needs more discussion).

These documents are what it says on the tin, appeals to voters dressed up in policy language for the record, rather than viable programmes for government. They are bereft of ideas for reaching their objectives. As is usual with coalitions, programmes for government are necessarily something else entirely.

NI is a very unusual community, not only for the obvious reason. It is now dominated by two working class parties. But most political parties persistently remain communalist; they represent one part of the community or the other.  There is no agreed programme or ideology of the centre ground. Most parties are essentially populist.  While left – right tendencies can be discerned in all parties they are not definitive. Hankering after a left-right axis is therefore a distraction.

Political realignment will not happen for the foreseeable future.

Progress can only be made through or around the Executive parties; certainly not in conflict with them. Campaigning for realignment at this stage is therefore counterproductive.

“The Community Relations Council could usefully start a debate, post-election, to encourage more conscious reflection on these taken-for-granted stances arising from communal socialisation.”

Perhaps so – if it survives. But as a state agency its ability to act as midwife of change is limited. And given the lack of agreement on overarching principles and themes, surely the time is right for less abstract, more focused reform initiatives?

The Platform deserves sympathy. The leitmotif of a shared future for a programme for government is coherent and manageable for a smallish lobby to champion. But a shared future has become like a slogan against sin and is danger of being devalued. Governing is a much more contested and piecemeal business.

Despite the bleak conclusions from radical reformers, there are modest grounds for hope we can  tick off: rhetorical unity against rejectionist republicans; a fairly subdued  election campaign, featuring more on bread and butter issues than before; the small swing to Alliance; the fact  that despite the best efforts of the UU in particular but to some extent the SDLP to commit suicide, voters still do not want  to see single party blocs;  at the same time, the  two main parties may acquire greater confidence to reach across without having to look over their shoulders at their defeated rivals; lip service all round was paid to a shared future and integration, if not Oh Lord just yet; cost pressures, the delayed reform of public administration and a smaller Assembly will bring about some change. (I accept these are glass half full arguments).

NI is in a crying need for better informed policy-making and debate. Platform for Change might make a start by developing a website taking in expertise in all sectors and external think tanks, and encouraging exercises in deliberative democracy.

For years we have been told that the public’s desire for some measure of integration is greater than their confidence in the political system to bring it about. Now is the time first to redefine clearly what is mean by integration and then to do something about it.

The stasis over secondary school selection seems tailor made for local, focused initiatives on secondary school reform. The mission would be to raise school standards rather than divert energy in direct challenges to popular and successful grammar schools. Only generally accepted and visible reform plans rather than legislative challenges are likely to succeed.   Platform for Change might work on a plan for schools in an area that would clearly benefit from restructuring, crucially with the participation of the local community.  Diverse solutions rather than uniformity might be the outcome. Information including business plans alongside the existing area plans should be made available to the project. Recommendations could be put out for local debate by the authorities, as is being considered in a local government Bill in England. The initiative might be adapted for public housing.

Only by producing evidence of a constituency for reform in an area where reform is clearly supported, is politics likely to break out of its present constraints. Developing such initiatives might inspire the politically disillusioned and provide a foundation for wider activity.

The Platform need not be without other causes.   In open consultation and debate and with added expertise it could facilitate coherent policies on local taxation and harmonisation with the Republic’s economy; the use of the Irish language, the extent of a human rights culture and dealing with the past as well as the live legacy of paramilitarism.  As a basic strategy, it would be as well not to begin with the solutions before some agreements can be reached on the problems. Evidence-based analysis plus recommendations, guided consultation and mediated debate by all means, but no ideological certainties please. We have enough of those already.

 

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Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London