Spare us a new long game of political numbers

More clearly than before as Mick observes, it is Peter Robinson’s medium term strategy and perhaps his personal legacy to enlist the support of enough Catholics to preserve the Union.  But despite the superficial confidence in Peter’s leader’s speech it is loaded with insecurity.  He has been forced to recognise the likelihood of an eventual Catholic majority and with it a possible loss of unionist control.  While candour in politics is always a good thing, it is unfortunate  that he has chosen to move local politics beyond the immediate post-agreement era by taking the gamble of promoting the numbers game in the political agenda. Or does this do him a disservice and that he intends instead to try to move politics in a more constructive and dynamic  direction?

While there is something to be said for Peter’s optimism there is also an element of whistling in the wind.  Sinn Fein may now be less confident that a United Ireland is inevitable. But if there is a clear Catholic  voting majority by 2035 or thereabouts, the question becomes Why the Union rather than the present Why Not?

For those who are keen on posing it, the question must be whether either the DUP or Sinn Fein is the right party to deliver its own most cherished ambitions. Realising that obvious fact, each has adopted a smiling strategy towards the other’s national culture and indulged in the rhetoric of a shared future, the other big idea,  in order to attract a margin from the growing ranks of the nationally uncommitted.

But let’s be honest, integration is no magic bullet.  Building confidence in social engineering such as mixed housing requires  time, tact and money. Planning compulsion is out of the question. The middle class cannot impose housing integration on the working class for their own good. There is a great deal of work to do to turn integration into a set of viable policies.  Integration in education is perhaps a better medium term bet. The results of savings in the marginal costs of separate development are fairly clear and integration has some appeal to minority Protestants and middle class Catholics. As part of a niceness strategy it may have some political attractions but with an uncertain outcome. The other point in its favour is that it offers relief from the numbers game and gives the Assembly something to do.

But for the DUP and Sinn Fein, is integration in whatever form anything more than a gambit in the niceness strategy to impress the growing ranks of the politically uncommitted? We shall find out shortly – perhaps – but hopes are not high for a programme of substance. If integration’s appeal was to be rooted in an agreed shared future with Sinn Fein and the other parties it would surely have been unveiled with a flourish before or at their party conferences and not later, as now foreshadowed.

Don’t sigh too deeply at the question: is there an opportunity here for the Alliance party that has got out from under the suffocations of the big two in the subject? They are also positioning themselves sensibly on the identity issue of restricting the Union Jack to designated days above the City Hall.  Even over  the smiling strategy the DUP show uncertainties as they snarl accusations of bad faith at each other. Here,  it is the insecurity that’s shared.  The signs are not great, but might voters get fed up with  that nonsense  if they saw a viable alternative,with the present Alliance party as a catalyst?

Now that Peter has let the cat out of the bag, we must be spared decades of obsession with  the demographics.  For real change and genuine accommodation, pressure must come again from the two governments, the subject of another post. It was the governments, remember, not the parties that forced the pace from 1997 to 2006. They may have to do so again – and on more than whether there should be a Stormont opposition.


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  • “For real change and genuine accommodation, pressure must come again from the two governments”

    I don’t think accommodation is possible under the terms of the constitutional settlement in 1998 and the mechanism for choosing the First Minister; both are tug-of-war scenarios.

    The British-Irish Council is meeting in Wales today with two main themes on the unpublished agenda: the economy and early years education. I spotted a mention of Enda Kenny lobbying for two power connectors to Wales and an enhancement of the rail link across north Wales. This will be good news for Dublin and Ireland but what East-West infrastructure improvements are being promoted to enhance Belfast and Northern Ireland, improvements that will bring benefits irrespective of constitutional allegiance?

  • Mick Fealty

    One of the really interesting things about Katheryn Torney’s work on schools is the rise of the other category. Especially in North Down, my old home.

    Unionism is a defensive ideology borne, in part, out of a reaction to the agrarian radicalism of the Land League in the late 19th century.

    It was ill-served by that defensiveness once the northern state had been established though it is hard in hindsight to see just how it could have avoided colliding with its ultimate destiny.

    I think you hit something on the head when you say, “Why the Union rather than the present Why Not?” Which is not far off where a lot of Scots are just now.

    The answer to that question does not lie solely inside the borders of NI, any more than it does within the borders of Scotland.

    But the omens from London – which is matted down with a preoccupation with it’s own control issues, whether over defence, foreign affairs, European matters, or the diminution of power of local authorities to control their own finances in England – are not great.

  • Mick Fealty

    And a secondary thought, it has long been my view that the lack of progress has something to do with the two incumbents surely. But the lack of dynamism (and sense of serious purpose) elsewhere holds some culpability too.

  • Ruarai

    “Spare us a new long game of political numbers”

    Here, here.

    Appealing, again and again to polls, birth counts, census figures and so on is little more than a dereliction of responsibility to deal with politics now.

    Surely the most interesting and challenging aspect of contemporary NI is the convergence of interests among Unionists and Nationalists to make NI work today.

    Aside from the obvious benefits to all in making the place work right now, for the first time it’s:

    A) In Unionists’ interests – in terms of the objective preserving the Union – to complete the project of dismantling the Orange State, i.e. “Cold House for Catholics” and to attempt to market NI within Union to Catholics as a better place to live.

    B) It’s in Nationalists’ interests – in terms of establishing the feasibility of a ‘UI’ – to make NI work as best it can; to move it on from an economic dependency and a place where they withheld engagement. For without a more pluralist, modern and stable NI, it’s inconceivable that any type of UI is practical or remotely desirable to the 26.

    Where once Unionists worked to exclude and oppress Catholics from the state and within the state, and where once Nationalists had an interest in proving that NI was a failed and unworkable entity, now both have a shared interest in making the place inclusive, stable and prosperous.

    How this potential stability, inclusivity and prosperity will play out for a continuation of the union or an eventual move to a UI is the big unknown but it’s an exciting and noble unknown – unless we sit back, spending more time on tomorrow’s demograpgic projections than on building a decent place today. The unknown ought to be answered by those presenting the more positively persuasive case either for a continuation of the Union or for a ‘UI’, both of which should have, for a change, varying degrees of community-wide attractiveness rathern than singular tribal attractions. This would mark a welcome break from both tribe’s historic investment in pursuing ‘settlement’ by way of offering nothing more than the tribal capacity for intransigence and/or coerction.

    So let’s get on with making NI work – something than cannot happen against a background of never-ending tribal headcounts.

    PS – From a Nationalists perspective, reality check: While Ireland remains divided and embittered along tribal lines (some nation!) then the numbers ratio between the tribes matters not a lot for the nation will remain the biggest failed entity of all. Awaiting the tribal jackpot number only helps that national wound fester and fester. So enough with polls already and let’s start doing some real politics.

  • gerardy

    For peter legacy I think it’s not one off trying to outgreen Trimble and save the union type situation, I think it’s the phase that he’s used before normalising politics, and a unionist party with catholics votes is the only party that can do that in Stormont. To be the man who brought a normal democratic government to stormont with opposition and financial powers like corporation tax by 2016 or 2021 is a big achievement for unionism.

  • Red Lion

    Spare us a long game of political numbers….but also spare us a long game of political absolutes!!

    ie the polarised positions of ‘maintain the union’! or ‘United Ireland’! do nothing at all for stability, but it helps peerpetuate the dysfunction of the DUP/SF carve up.

    A bit of honesty (and interest!) from London and Dublin might help – ie long term we believe that an absolute position in NI doesn’t bear scrutiny. ‘There will always be a need for all-Ireland bodies and cooperation, especially to keep costs down, and there will always be a need for a tangible British dimension in NI’, so should both goverments loudly shout!!! ie we both conceive of the current arrangements as a joint authority of sorts and we both believe this is the only way for NI to work long term, simple UI doesnt cut or, neither does pure union! SAY IT! and take the wind out of the Sf and DUP sails. The governments shouldn’t adopt the hardliners constitutional positions for them!

    Brian, there is a position for Alliance, a space begging for them to move in to. If they actually stated their preference for a moderate constitional position rather than pretend such a question doesn’t exist, they would expand the middle ground. In fact they should champion a moderate settled constitutional position for such a thing is worth championing and being proud of. They could raise the St Pat’s cross over city hall and focus everybody on getting on with good government.

  • Zig70

    I’m not really interested in Peter’s outreach. I just think it is a mark of the lack of understanding of why you would want to be Irish when you actually are British to him. Psychosis to some. People often project skills on to people they follow.
    The lesson is maybe more for the SDLP to be more at home in their partitionist skin. Lots of Catholic/Nats are quite happy to work with the current situation, it’s not a priority, but it certainly wouldn’t make you happy with in your face Britishness. The SDLP should avoid the border until it is relevent and build up the support on real issues.
    Someone dynamic will almost certainly change the game here for one side or the other. Conall McDevitt wiped the floor with Jeffery for me this morning on radio ulster, maybe he’ll have his day in 3/4 yrs time.

  • Brian Walker


    The question looking ahead is whether two parties founded on rival constitutional positions can fulfil your excellent analysis and others’ points .A softening of politcal attitudes will not by itself reform the poltical order.

    Making NI a better place is win:win for both and therefore neutral in terms of the sort of political dividend they’re accustomed to . Integration is a political unknown quality until someone decides what it actually is. In any form it requires leadership and practical politics as well as vision. These are notable by their absence.

    A new party or grouping around integrationist ideas and economic growth could provide the political voice for reforms of this kind. Perhaps the existence of a formal opposition could create the space for that voice to develop and provide a counter attraction to the numbers game.

    The vision of a grouping based on social and political reform is undoubtedly appealing. But what would be the character and membership of an opposition at the moment? It would be an incoherent coalition of the disgruntled and dispossessed, so fragmented that none of them would get decent debating time under any conceivable parliamentary rules.

    And yet it might just be the chance for Alliance to create a new poltical departure. If so they should make their minds up well before the next election..

    On the other hand, might the DUP and SF really mean it and promote social and political reform themselves from positions of strength within their communities? At least they have the numbers to do so Who knows? They may not know themselves. The way ahead is so fluid and full of drift..

  • Politico68

    It amazes me that everytime this conversation comes up it is centered around an either or scenario UK or UI. The next ‘big’ issue we are going to have to face is the arrival of almost exact electoral parity, which is not too far down the road. Every year approx 25,000 people come of age and are entitled to vote. 50% from a CNR background 45% from PLU background. At the same time we lose 14000 souls to the great nirvana 30% CNR, 60% PLU. So the gain for each community is 8000 CNR, 3000 PLU. I think u can immediately see whats happening here. On top of this the census results on 11th December will show another spike in the Catholic birthrate. I am left wondering is anybody out there thinking about how we are going to deal with a converging political balance between both political groups? It could prove to be far more divisive than I think people are expecting.

  • “I am left wondering is anybody out there thinking about how we are going to deal with a converging balance between both religious groups?”

    Changed that for you.

  • BarneyT

    Mandatory UK Health Insurance = United Ireland.

    There are not too many that would care to lose their NHS entitlement (free at the point of use)…and the deep irony is that the right-wing Unionist parties in NI may favour a US or ROI style of health provision….and thus are more likely to dismantle the biggest obstacle to a UI.

    The NHS is the glue that will continue to tie NI to Britain for most…in my humble opinion. However, how long with the NHS survive.

  • Politico68

    oneill – at most it is only stated religion. And the members of those stated religious groups vote Nat or U directly in-line with their community background. Therefore the wod ‘political’ is appropriate, in my view.

  • “Therefore the wod ‘political’ is appropriate, in my view.”

    Babies aren’t born with their poltical views already in place.

    Some would argue it is actually a form of child abuse to impose their religion on them the day they are born also.

    But anyroads until your “come of agers” actually go to the ballot box then your balance question remains one of religion- remember 45% don’t bother voting at all anymore, yet you are including them automatically in a “political group” merely because of their perceived religious beliefs.

  • derrydave

    ‘Babies aren’t born with their poltical views already in place’

    You’re a fool if you believe that oneill – this is NI ffs 🙂

  • So when the little mites pop out, not only are they already wearing the shirt of their favourite Glasgow team, they’re also waving a Union flag/tricolour and singing the Sash/Soldiers’ song?

    As someone who intends to keep a million miles away from maternity wards for as long as possible, I’ll have to bow to the voice of experience on this one;)

  • Pasty

    The Tory changes to the Welfare State that are dripping through with great momentum in the next year will certainly play a part in voting. The DUP believe “Them Catholics know where they are better off” is going to take a beating.

    The numbers having to wait 24hrs on a trolley in A&E, the DLA scrapped, Housing benefit wiped out for more than 1 room, social fund gone etc. How and what will the DUP use to convince Catholics they are better off ?

  • BarneyT It’s entertaining to hear the likes of Donaldson talking about the benefits of the subsidy and welfare state when he must know that Stormont unionists in the 1950s called it communism and the British govt had to impose it here over their heads. Back then, the UUP wanted it’s own electorate as uneducated as poosible and that case it was also imposed by westminster, mainly to the benefit of the catholic postwar generation.

  • FuturePhysicist

    I think the political numbers do matter … I mean we have censuses for a reason. Having a majority Catholic population in the North does bring up issues with regards to education and integration, it should change and challenge the very nature of the Union for Unionists, as it should Nationalists, who assume religious irredentism of all Catholics as Nationalists.

    I was sick of Northern Ireland’s prospects and I left for the Republic of Ireland, other’s go to Britain, or to Europe, or to North America, Australia and further, whether British or Irish to develop themselves and get prospects that cannot be delivered here, and make a positive difference in the world, I like the Republic, I like the North to, but the utter bitterness and negativity of so many doesn’t make things like the NHS, lower rates, or coushy “civil servant” jobs people assume I will take because I come from a Catholic background, this sort of attitude can’t be good for anyone’s health. Sectarian speal trying to find strawmen for straw arguements, another art project for the depressed.

    I can understand what Dawn Purvis is on about when he talks about the disillusionment of young Protestants and Loyalists in East Belfast due to the fact that tangible and manual labour has been lowered in demand, or how despite a need for manufacturing and building up the export market nothing is being done. I feel I can accept the utter stupification many across the North feel being put into brain dead or menial jobs and how the “them and us” exploit it.

    There is no optimism in East Belfast there was when it was the hub of industry, when it drove the all-Ireland economy in someways. There are no people with their heads up talking about ships and looking out onto the horizon from a city built on mud and ships made with the skills and wills of Belfast men. Now it shares the broken dreams with Liverpool and Dublin.

    I also perhaps have the hope that the Belfast that needs to be built now in the future is on better foundations than mud.

  • IJP


    I share your view about the gap for Alliance to fill absolutely.I would define it, essentially, as a gap for a “progressive, liberal agenda”.

    My slight concern is that the party is being kept busy doing other things – once you take two Ministers and an MP out of any party group, you’re left with a very busy remainder, with few really taking a strategic overview.


    The NHS is irrelevant. In fact, we don’t even have an NHS here, strictly speaking.

  • FuturePhysicist

    I’m not really interested in Peter’s outreach. I just think it is a mark of the lack of understanding of why you would want to be Irish when you actually are British to him. Psychosis to some. People often project skills on to people they follow.

    The lesson is maybe more for the SDLP to be more at home in their partitionist skin. Lots of Catholic/Nats are quite happy to work with the current situation, it’s not a priority, but it certainly wouldn’t make you happy with in your face Britishness. The SDLP should avoid the border until it is relevent and build up the support on real issues.
    Someone dynamic will almost certainly change the game here for one side or the other. Conall McDevitt wiped the floor with Jeffery for me this morning on radio ulster, maybe he’ll have his day in 3/4 yrs time.

    Well indeed it’s not just the nationalists, the diaspora and those citizens in the Republic who are Irish, there are plenty of Unionists happy to be Irish, at the very least so long as it’s prefixed by Northern most of the time.

    Globalisation requires a multicultural need to accept multinational individuals, I mean even anti-multiculturalism is becoming multicultural these days, you do wonder where the lines are drawn in the sand and who’s kicking it.