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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  • wild turkey

    Brian

    As usual, a coherent and clear post. However, after being posted for near 48 hours, your post attracts zero comments. why may that be?

    Your line
    “As a basic strategy, it would be as well not to begin with the solutions before some agreements can be reached on the problems.”
    gives the game away

    so,briefly, lets enter the realm of speculation.

    1. assume that commenters on slugger have a greater interest in political and policy issues than the general public
    2. observe the number of comments your post on PfC has attracted
    3. tentative conclusions
    a. for whatever reasons, PfC is perceived as having little if any relevance to the political, policy or indeed personal concerns of the wider body politic.
    b. this may be because PfC is perceived, to put it bluntly, as talking down to people.
    c. if the above points have any validity and truth, then ironically PfC may be perceived as somewhat elitist.

    I conclude with a personal observation. I have worked in the field of economic, social and equality policy for over 20 years. my children attend an integrated primary school. i am on the school bored of guvs. i should be a natural member of the PfC constituency. but you know what? for whatever reasons, the tone of PfC reminds me of the kid in P5 who told the teacher that you didn’t eat your sprouts at school dinner.

    Malaho

  • Brian Walker

    Wild turkey
    Thanks for your solo comments. Slugger comment on the whole is more interested in updating the struggle which they carry on with all the best and worst characteristics of bloggers everywhere. The most obvious characteristic is the loneliness of private thoughts – not natural joiners, often outsiders, yet needing recognition. Paranoia is an obvious risk. The second is the sort of point scoring which perfectly matches the zero sum game of NI politics. Yet there are shafts of insight and dialogue that make it all worthwhile. I use Slugger to try to keep in touch with what’s going on from a world away in London.

    I didn’t expect much reaction. I deliberately wrote in it in detached language to show anybody who cares to read it what a more analytical approach might look like. It would have been easy to provoke a reaction by pouring scorn on integrationist thinking – Alliance party wets, that sort of thing.

    Two things strike me about the state of politics. There has been a slight shift towards cooperation. And while it may only be tokenism, quite suddenly it has become an OK thing to talk about integration. Yes indeed progress is very limited – “your integration or my integration?” . It can be just another weary round of the old zero sum game.

    Secondly, the integrationist cause flourished mildly under the protective umbrella of direct rule. It’s now more exposed to democratic pressures. But these can cut both ways. I have a feeling that integrationist moves are a rising prospect in the medium term perhaps partly induced by reduced public spending.

    Platform for Change’s public impact seem to have been very small, their base quite narrow and their PR negligible. The thrust of their effort is idealistic but without a political strategy I can discern. Their analysis is quite penetrating (if perhaps over pessimistic) but where is the action plan? Easy to criticise, I accept.

    They shouldn’t be mocked for their university “ egg-head “ inspiration but as I say they should stop banging their heads on the brick wall of the political system and find a focus where they can make a difference. At the very least, that might lift the morale of good people like yourself. The best do not lack all conviction but they need a focus upon which to build self confidence. I’ve suggested secondary education which is ripe for reform, but there are others.

  • wild turkey

    Brian

    thanks for your thorough and thoughtful reply. perhaps one thing groups such as PfC should “get” is that the post GFA zero sum game is, for many many people on the ground, is a vast a discernable improvement to the previous negative sum game played out here for decades. believe me, i live in north belfast.

    agree secondary education is ripe for reform and if PfC targets that issue, well i’ll see whats up.

    speaking of education, my kids are due home from school any moment and mere anarchy will be loosed upon the world. gotta go

  • Greenflag

    BW,

    ‘ no ideological certainties please. We have enough of those already.’

    The ideological certainties of Nazism and Stalinism delivered some 55 million dead 1939-1945 whereas in NI the total was 4,000 approx over a 35 year period . So while attention needs to be paid to NI’s current democratic deficit -the current more positive mood must also be given credit and will in time increase trust and confidence on all sides -imo.

    BTW

    One other reason for the paucity of comment is it’s summer . I’ve been off commenting for a couple of weeks and will be away for another couple of weeks later in June or July and I’m sure others may also . When I’m away -I like to be away i.e as in minus laptop , cell phone and mass media . I limit myself to one newspaper for the period usually a weekend broadsheet . Hey the world is still here when I get back -amazing eh?