The modest case for the Assembly in 2013

Later.. I’ve now made it to 20 points by adding a couple on managing the economy ( how could I have left them out?). These create a dialogue with Mick, although not quite along the same lines. Working with the available material and far away from Nirvana.  

To adapt Mario Cuomo, you rebel in poetry but govern in prose. 

1.       Might it just be that the fact of power sharing has helped create more flexible identities?

2.       A near 20% fall in parties’ voting support in 14 years leaves a vacuum. For unionists, it can’t be filled by loyalist minorities who have in any case nowhere else to go. Do the maths. Unionism needs a new departure and a revised electoral strategy based on common interests. The political facts show the squeeze of enforced power sharing at work.   


3.     For sound political reasons,  Sinn Fein should mature from primitive republicanism to a revised version which may, just, be emerging. If they’re really fixated on unity, they should realise that the two governments will not grant a referendum on unity in the face of implacable 45% unionist opposition.  Instead London and Dublin would find a formula for greater jointery which would not depend on numbers. A climate of stability and acceptability for unity would be necessary.  Believe me. Don’t rely on too rigid an interpretation of the GFA on this point. Governments agreed on a united course don’t get trapped by legislation.  


4.       The flags row has glaringly exposed the contradictions of being in government and opposition at the same time. This puts a focus on inconsistency and increases popular disillusion.

5.       Some sort of unionist unity or a common approach to the disturbances might actually be helpful.  It reduces the temptation of the parties to overbid against each other for loyalist support. But why bid anyway? 

6.       Analysis is easy; time for advice to unionists. Stop moaning so much, cut out all those little ranting rages that seem to be part of the DUP handbook. Listen to Jim Allister for a moment. Now you know what it feels like to hear this stuff.

7.       In NI as in GB as in everywhere, learn the message of numerous polls. The evidence is clear.  People do not like a squabbling government. They want to see government delivering. Oblige them.  Offer more “we’re all in this together.“ leadership.  Voters prefer to do their own whingeing and expect politicians to be more upbeat, in order to be free to attack them.  More expressions of coalition solidarity and yes, a shared future, would boost their own self confidence and would begin to feed through to the people.

8.       Level with the loyalists. The “cold home” myth needs challenging from the unionist side. Unionist parties should admit that a rights culture, bureaucratic though it is, can help satisfy  the legitimate interests of  apprehensive working people, even if it doesn’t always seem that way. Claim political credit for equality victories rather than complaining at having  to fight for them.

9.       Be far more confident about the strength of your political position. Insecurity is catching. What when it comes down to it is the extent of unionist political loss since 1998? Very little.

  • ·         Unionists have a leading role on government. They recognise that all can benefit from north-south interaction.
  • ·         The GFA is a great improvement on the flawed Anglo-Irish Agreement which cut unionists out, largely through their own miscalculations.
  • ·         Have they really suffered under “equality”?  Over parading, flags, other signs of “culture, is that it? Has the time not come to grow up and take over regulation of parades and symbolism?


10.   Admit Sinn Fein gains are mainly legitimate but recognise that they’ve peaked.  Don’t keep overrating them as continuing the war by other means.

11.   Unionists and nationalists have guarantees at every level. By and large their main enemies are their own residual paramilitaries and gangs, not each other.  

12.   Does power sharing reduce sectarianism or institutionalise it?  The familiar conundrum may not be the right question. Harping on about the limitations of power sharing will not change it.  At least It forces the parties to govern in unison where agreement can be reached.

13.   There is no early alternative to the present system of powersharing.  Would voluntary coalition make much of a difference? Perhaps, to make it easier to build a centre ground in the Assembly, if Alliance and Green votes actually mattered in ad hoc simple majority votes on particular measures, when other parties or individual members might join them.


14.   Even for a crumbling UUP desperate to differentiate from the DUP, I see little point in creating a formal opposition when parties in government can still behave as one and get the best of both worlds. The same goes for the SDLP.  Deadlock between the big parties in the Executive would not be affected if the minor parties quit. What’s more the big parties would steal whatever good ideas they might have.  An opposition would only be effective if it could be united and this seems unlikely. Driven by the present electoral logic they are reluctant to challenge, the SDLP and the UUs seem to prefer decline to creating new common ground.  


15.   The Alliance party is the only available alternative vehicle but the Naomi working class image has been deliberately targeted. What are Alliance doing to win a sympathy vote and build on it?

16.   Progressive critics have a lot more work to do. Are their shared future ideas any better developed than the main parties’ forthcoming joint strategy we eagerly await?  The polls report public support for integration and the effective abolition of the 11 plus. How solid they are is unknown.  Critiques and analysis are all very fine. But what are the practical ideas from civil society to bring these about and persuade the politicians to take them up? You can’t force people to live in mixed housing especially when you’re not building any. What are the incentives?  What role does compulsion play? How do you take peace walls down? How in practice do you end the 11 plus and with what? Choice at 14, in an integrating all-in school system?

17.   I’m all too conscious I haven’t graciously favoured Sinn Fein with more advice. Whatever you think of their positions on dealing with the past and their IRA origins, I’m stumped to find them putting a major tactical foot wrong.  McGuinness’s emotional intelligence is high, slow to anger, (an acid test) and forthright in his condemnation of his own violent extremists. The smiling strategy to unionists still plays well. It’s an impressive record although it makes the flesh of some people crawl. So I’d add the rider that the political skies might become clearer when all the old warriors have departed. 


18. This is a snap shot of the local economy, courtesy of Robert Ramsey of the Ulster Bank, also with a rising deficit and three times public spending levels per head of the UK average, at 5k a head

  • Unemployment (claimant count) up 40,000 (Aug 2012) & still rising
  • Workforce jobs have fallen by almost 55,000 in 4 yrs to June 2012
  •  Personal insolvencies have doubled since 2007 & still rising
  •  Corporate insolvencies have doubled since 2007 & still rising
  •  House prices down 53% from peak (by Q2 2012)
  •  House completions down 60% from 2006 peak & still falling
  •  Mortgages for home movers at lowest level since 1974
  •  Almost 1 in 4 retail outlets are vacant in Belfast
  •  New car sales have fallen by one third relative to 2007
  •  Consumer prices (UK CPI) up 18% since August 2007

19. The Executive of course are coping with a difficult legacy and have limited powers. But even with plans  to revise the high cost of reforming local government and  the notion of creating a smaller Executive, has Stormont the capacity to reform economic managment on its own? They may need a new Wilson plan for the 21st century which includes public and expert debate and ends at a stroke  the appalling lack of transparency over how the Executive transacts its business.

20.      A peaceful revolution takes time. To what extent are we getting there slowly, painfully? Or are we really regressing? Surely the grounds for conflict are narrowing all the time. Don’t let’s talk our way into a crisis.  





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