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.  





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  • Mick Fealty

    Brian, it’s late, but here’s a first pass…

    4, I agree with. But what it lets in is that rant from Jim you made us listen to. which in turn raises the problem of what you do about people needing to let off steam, be they dissident republicans or dissident loyalists.

    I don’t think there is an easy or even a short term answer to that problem. For what it is worth, the early 1960s, I think, are still deeply embedded in the DUP’s ‘collective unconscious’.

    They know how Paisley rode a pretty wild and popular crowd that wanted nothing less than to wreck the unionist establishment at Stormont. And they understand the power of the flag to unify unionist sentiment.

    I’m sure that either camp can develop the making of its own moderation. Not least because of the rigid and centralised forms of control both have. Though, I suspect you are right to remind us of the moderating effect that enforced power-sharing has had.

    My abiding concern is that unless the incumbents get beyond and above that enforcement, then its potential to destabilise in future could be worrying in its effect.

  • JH

    Given that what happens at council level could be considered a more vitriolic and base version of what happens at Stormont, untempered by PR, could it be that a voluntary coalition government might actually consist of Alliance/SDLP/Sinn Féin anyways?

  • At the risk of being thought to be naive in retrospect, might I reprise a piece I wrote ‘In Defence of Politics’ for a few months back, reprinted in and played out on Nolan with Alex Kane…

    See it at

  • Mc Slaggart

    “they should realise that the two governments will not grant a referendum on unity in the face of implacable 45% unionist opposition”

    Why would the UK government not want rid of NI Plc? I have found no evidence that they wish to hold on the place one second longer than they must. If you can point me in the direction of something that supports this claim I would be grateful.

  • Brian Walker

    Thanks Quintin, you supply a useful list in the Executive’s achievements such as:

    some of the knotty and wicked issues that bedevilled the past decade of stop-go devolution are beginning to be unravelled – the Education and Skills Authority Bill has been laid, a student fee package was implemented, prison reform has commenced, the Reform of Public Administration has been reopened, the Desertcreat Police College tender is being let, the Maze Long Kesh site (even that name was unutterable a year ago) is ready for development by the Board now appointed, Crumlin Road Gaol and even Girdwood have been progressed, and the Giant’s Causeway Visitors’ Centre burnt down in 2000, has been emerged Phoenix-like from the ashes

    But list it is, and it omits to say that the five year budget doesn’t add up and that some of the programme for government is unaffordable. Basic failures include: slush funds in OFMDFM as an expedient for the lack of cross cutting budgeting, failure to meet the challenge of a ballooning deficit before the Treasury wields a blunt axe ,and the reluctance to take tough decisions to raise revenue even without a formal opposition.

    Just as great a failure is the almost total absence of public debate on the economy, beyond the interests of the lobby groups.

  • Mick Fealty

    That last Brian is the problem I struggle with. The fading interest in what they actually do up there.

    I think one of the problems is the fact that some of what goes on in any parliamentary assembly is just deadly dull. And I think we should allow for that.

    I cannot help but think that the institution needs to be stressed more than it is. Not for the sake of taking up an oppositional view of everything they do, but for the sake of keeping it alive.

    One of Quintin’s most telling insights is that it is a remarkably stable institution. That stability ought to give it scope to take serious risks.

    And yet, we see in the flag dispute just how far in they have drawn their horns.

  • Brian and Mick (and anyone else listening!),

    But isn’t that because everyone was genuinely surprised by the spontaneity and vigour of the response – including the paramilitaries (‘move over, grandad’), the political parties (‘we are in office, so we are the people’) and the media (‘we covered last year’s East Belfast disturbances…’).

    I am struck by the youth, naivete and vehemence of the emerging spokespeople for the protests – a typical double-edged sword?

  • To find out what is or isn’t deadly dull, you still need to go and listen (in person or on BBC Parliament). In Chile there is a virtual senate, where all members of the public can join the senators in debating the current issue before the Senate. Brasil has a virtual chamber of deputies.

  • Brian Walker

    But surely the DUP (never mind the UUP) haven’t had a leading role in dealing with trouble directly for decades?
    Thus the reason for the UDA’s “grand old duke of York” jibe at Paisley, whom they and the UVF loathed for stirring up trouble, then washing their hands of the consequences and going all pious over law and order,

    .Such strategy as there was was run by the RUC/PSNI and the NIO pre- devo. But now the devolution of policing exposes the unionist parties.

    As my detailed knowledge of the streets is 30 years out of date I don’t pretend to know what’s going on. But I’m aware that in the post-Agreement period and beyond the Drumcree cycle ad hoc systems were sometimes set up with government supplied mobile phones to damp down trouble, over Cluan Place and elsewhere. Much of this was manned by republican paramilitaries and perhaps that’s the point. My impression is that loyalists have been less well able to turn the tap on and off than the IRA was even towards the end of its formal existence and the infrastructure on the government side is probably much weaker. I’d love to see an investigation into this.

    The paradox I suppose is that the scaling down if not the disappearance of the loyalist paramilitary organisations can lead to more disorder, not less. So are the demos and trouble semi-spontaneous and imitative, or planned and co-ordinated? Is this a mini Drumcree without a natural end, running for as the flag pole remains naked, with no new solution in sight – if there ever will be one – or until they get fed up?

    Can anybody answer these questions or can’t they be arsed to find out?

    Actually, I heard quite few ( relatively) moderate statements too. All that cold home stuff about chipping away at our culture and pleading for understanding. Unthreatening, rather lost and quite moving. One was a paradigm from a nice lady outside the City Hall. ” I want the trouble to stop but the flag should stay up. It’s our country, not theirs.”

    We know exactly what she means but how un- PC can one person get?

  • Zig70

    SF should take their 1.2M and buy BOI shares. The price is up 40% this year and things seem to be on the turn.
    But at your own risk and all that.
    I think we should introduce a monetary incentive to people living in mixed areas within zones, maybe with a house price ceiling and aim for a 5% increase in the zones on each year.
    The economy is the hard bit. Need to reduce the wages in the public sector to stop the private sector brain drain. I’d be in favour of a 100k cap on public sector wages. Need to get some serious fdi. Really annoying that the south can attract fdi and we can’t. Especially need investment that requires a range of abilities rather than just for computer geeks.
    Send the politicians around the world to get investment and that way they make less trouble and less crappy legislation.

  • Gopher

    I really think the economy should be at number 1 rather than 18 I dont really give a rats arse for the other 19 right now. It would be nice to argue with money in our pocket rather than not. The biggest single boost the Assembly can give Northern Ireland is lengthening the runway at the City airport. But the assembly is incompetent. Each one of those jets hold 200 people. Need more of them and we need them yesterday.

    Come the new year you are going to see retail, eateries and especially bars vanish. Our politicians are useless, that should be number 2

  • FuturePhysicist

    Gopher are you serious? The economy ahead of partisan issues!!!

    Forget about youth unemployment and the unemployability it generates, forget about resource management or energy conservation. What really matters is the dream homoerotic love action between a First and a Deputy First minister as a necessary part of the peace process, if heteroerotic then that’s okay too.

    This forum is named after a drunk, don’t have any massive expectations of it. It’s not meant to be taken seriously.