Permanent Cantons or Effective Government?

Newton Emerson, writing in today’s Irish News, speculates on the future direction of Northern Ireland’s political spectrum:

A poll published last weekend shows Alliance overtaking the UUP for the first time, on 13 per cent compared to the UUP’s 10 per cent. The SDLP is on 9 per cent. The poll had a small sample but the trend is unmistakeable. We are now heading towards a three-party system of DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance, perhaps by the end of the decade.

Emerson goes on to view such a scenario as potentially sowing the seeds for the end to D’Hondt Stormont, as the system cannot cope with large undesignated blocks.

If that was one potential future, another was laid out in Mike Nesbitt’s Conference Speech at Titanic Belfast last Saturday:

We remain resolute in our view that the biggest single change to make Stormont a building that delivers rather than survives, is the introduction of an official opposition. Let me nail the big misconception about our view on Opposition. It’s not about the Ulster Unionist Party looking for a return to Majority Rule. I cannot see a time when Northern Ireland will not require a cross-community government. So, if we have an Official Opposition, whoever is in it, will work in opposition to a Coalition, a cross-community government made up of the largest parties of the two big blocks.

These two futures are incompatible and point in differing directions. Emerson’s future, sees the effective absorption of the smaller parties into the large parties and probably reflects the fact that there are certain ideological similarities amongst the respective parties in each bloc, with differences rooted in historical attitudes to violence and to power-sharing respectively, lines significantly blurred since 2007.

The similarities within each bloc may appear deceptively overbearing in the absence of armalites or Paisleyite rallies, at least if we choose to focus on the single issue of the constitution. However, cultural differences such as the continuing presence of religious fundamentalism within the DUP and the SDLP’s aversion to being in any sense morally identified with the actions of the provisionals, are strong impediments to a complete vacation of that political space.

The first future also overlooks that the Alliance Party are no longer professedly unionist, even in a small u socio-ecnomic sense and make great play of packaging themselves as a cross-community party. This likely limits their potential to spread beyond more urbane, liberal territory east of the Bann, particularly whilst cultural wars in the peace continue.

It also overlooks the fact that the de-toxification of Sinn Fein is far from complete, and appealing to social-democratic nationalists may involve steps unthinkable to a republican movement wedded to a culture of commemmoration and being ‘more than a party’.

Most damningly, Emerson’s future fails to identify the main danger of a completely cantonised outcome; an opposition cannot come about without parties which can offer themselves as a credible, representative alternative government.

Under a future of two ethno-nationalist parties counterbalanced by Alliance,  there is no scope for an alternative government to form whilst power-sharing remains the operative principle. Nesbitt’s recognition that no party can govern alone makes this future markedly unattractive.

It also encapsulates perfectly the danger of reducing the numbers in the Assembly before an electoral cycle with an opposition begins; it may kill the idea at birth, something which may suit the larger parties and explain the prominence of a populist ‘sash ‘n’ burn’ approach.

Nesbitt and the UUP must, along with the SDLP, seize the opportunity to win the argument for a more effective, normalised political spectrum in Northern Ireland, or face the further decline of our demos into permanent cantons.

Public ownership of the debate started by our outgoing Secretary of State would be a start. Familiar overtures will be heard, but must be ignored if the promise of 1998 for a more normal society is take another step.

The four-party system is in critical health, but its death would rob us of a better future.

Centre-Right Conservative and Unionist.