What remains valuable about the middle ground in Northern Ireland?

It’s a commonplace wisdom in Northern Ireland that the middle ground of politics is exactly where you don’t want to be. Both nationalist and unionist politicians who have taken up middle positions have long been subject to the kind of death threats and physical attacks the Alliance party is being subjected to.

The animus raised by the restriction of the flag on Belfast City Hall, is frightening to behold. Even from a distance. Yet it has always been the fate of those in the middle to take the brunt of such reptilian forms tribal rage: think: David Trimble, Pat Ramsey, or probably most colourfully, Gerry Fitt.

The logic of much of the post election analysis in November 2003 was that it would be now be better to have the extremes inside the tent, because erm, well you get the rest of the analogy. Nothing much in the meantime has emerged to challenge that view.

Yet, when you care to look, it’s been a pretty poor show in government. Sinn Fein in particular have little to show for their five year tenure in both the Executive and OFMdFM (their first Education minister only turned up at her office in Bangor for ten or eleven days in her first year).

For their lack of product in government, they put much of the blame on the DUP’s habit of blocking everything they suggest. And there’s a lot of truth to that.

Yet, with the possible exception of Michelle Gildernew in Agriculture, there’s not much evidence that any of their Ministers have done much with their briefs other than do what they’re told by their senior civil servants.

The downshift in the experience of ministerial personnel is relatively easy if no one is expected to initiate policy.

Our policy free politics

In fact policy is little in evidence anywhere in Stormont. Nor has there been any clearly articulated ambition to focus on solving real world problems through new policy formation at the political level. The non arrival of CSI and a long promised anti poverty strategy from OFMdFM is indicative.

In the absence of meaningful content, politics is reduced to a series of controversies over Orange parades, the flying of flags, the naming of play parks. Unnoticed, and largely unrermarked upon, the intimidation of minority communities continues on a low level and out of sight of the TV cameras.

The problem of ‘being’ in the middle

So where is the middle ground it all of this? Well, it’s politically most evident by its absence from the current political game. Yet the census figures seem to be telling us that the wider population do not share the passions of the extremes.

Much was made in the press of the narrowing of those who lump themselves together as Protestant or Catholic. Much  less was made of the increase in the self definition of ‘other’, or the seeming popularity of British passports.

Up to now the political commodity of the peace process era with the highest single value has been peace itself. The calculation after the Assembly elections of 2003, when the DUP just nosed ahead of the UUP, was that the moderate coalition had tried and failed. The extremes should be given their head to try and make it work.

To a large extent we’ve been brought back to the poor foundations noted in my open briefing to Hillary a few weeks back, but which as Pete noted at the time was preceded by a warning from a much older and wiser head than mine, Peter Preston, former editor of the Guardian:

If the flaw that’s blighting devolution in Scotland is that things were subtly rigged to keep the Nats out of the action, so the flaw here is that Stormont is rigged for “normal” stagnation, disillusion and recurrent crisis at the whim of any supposed partner. The centre cannot hold because there isn’t a proper centre to begin with. What of the next election and the one after that? Chant “more of the same” until supplies of sameness run out? What if Ulster’s general election vote holds the British balance? Chant “chaos is come again”.

That’s an insight that becomes more compelling with each year that passes. But what’s the solution? Perhaps there’s a hint of a way forward in his reference to Scotland.

Alliance is everybody’s coping mechanism

The SNP overcame the barriers raised to keep them out, by choosing a leader with vision and ambition and whom the Scottish media could not ignore. They’ve recast the Scottish question such that Scottish unionist parties struggle for answers.

This is one of the reasons I am sceptical that Alliance can step into the this middle ground and take it decisively. Alliance have thrived (relatively speaking) where the other parties of the middle have all suffered significant losses of support.

They’ve done that in part because for the longest time they’ve been everyone’s ‘coping mechanism’. They do well in North Down, because they attract significant votes from Catholics, who have no one else to faithfully represent their interests.

Latterly, they have made themselves indispensable to the grand coalitions of the extremes by fording (pardon the pun) otherwise unbridgeable gaps like taking on the Justice Ministry when the DUP and Sinn Fein could not agree.

For this reason, without Alliance, there would be no First or deputy First Minister worth the name. It also means that they are inextricably linked to what is clearly a dysfunctional status quo.

What they lack is a clear and defensible political position, apart from SF and the DUP. I rather suspect that without one the media will move on once the UVF move on to another target du jour.

So where does that leave the middle ground? Under this political settlement, it means they will continue to be subject to several bouts of chaos.

If they are wealthy enough they will continue (much as they did during the ‘war’) remove themselves from the more troubled parts of Northern Ireland and let them get on with it.

When their high achieving schools come under pressure from the EASA reforms, they will follow them into the private sector and the divide between rich and poor within both communities will continue to widen apace.

If there is nothing for the middle classes under this regime, there will be even less for the working and growing jobless classes. The political Vaudeville show at Stormont has no anti poverty script at its heart.

The main act is a puppet show loosely themed around the politics of identity, which is both its greatest strength and a major vulnerability.

Identity is not everything

Identity is important. It’s the glue that binds many individuals together. It gives rise to a herding instinct which in Northern Ireland’s past has been as much a matter of maintaining safety as a signal assertion of tribal unity.

Yet there’s little point in getting angry with the ‘former extremes’ since, as the old tale tells us, a scorpion will always be a scorpion. These bouts of Chaos come about because the middle has been hollowed of its own politics.

As Malachi O’Doherty blythly noted last night on Twitter:


The UUP contains many good and profoundly moderate individuals. I know because I’ve spoken with them as individuals and in groups. So too the SDLP.

But the regeneration of moderate political ground is unlikely to be activated by a contentless appeal to identity alone. To an extent that’s what switching them off from the current settlement.

Discontent with the status quo?

Paradoxically, what demonstrates discontent with politics as usual was the unceremonious defenestration of the First Minster from his Westminster seat.

Faced with an opportunity to lay a marker down for one of the main players in the new settlement, the voters of East Belfast took that opportunity and did it with a will. The singularity of mind with which they chose their candidate neatly circumvented the problem of the circular firing squad.

It was an opportunity for people to demonstrate an opposition to what passes for the way politics in Northern Ireland is done; not necessarily the institutions of the Belfast Agreement. One that the Alliance party because of its central position has not quite been able to follow through on.

If there’s no policies, there’s no politics

One of the things that marked the 2007 Assembly elections were manifestos that were laden with policies and promises that few of the parties making them would ever be in a position to keep.

None of them were formulated with the idea that politics in these inclusive institutions was a competitive race. All, at the heel of the hunt, would get ministerial prizes, so it didn’t seem to matter that you promised actions you’d never have to keep.

And without an opposition,  there’s no one in the Assembly chamber who would ever really embarrass you on the subject since they have similar embarrassments of their own to keep hidden from the public’s increasingly incurious gaze.

Politics almost everywhere else, however circular, has some content. Parties use their time in opposition to mend fences, build new coalitions and build a policy frame work that competes for the attention of voters in ways that make them take elective politics more rather than less seriously.

At the same time they seek to build credibility around issues parties also try to match policy with voter sentiment, particularly where that sentiment is at odds with ‘the government’.  It gives them a base from which to harry, disrupt and destroy with a view of changing policy, and political direction.

The seminal elections of 1997 in the UK and 2011 both brought with them emotional charges almost out of all proportion to the actual changes they brought about. In both cases they came after prolonged incumbencies came to a shattering end.

They were in many respects a response to a call for a change in the respective narratives. If Tony Blair, Enda Kenny or even Alex Salmond are in their various ways flawed individuals, each at least worked at building an alternative base over a protracted period of time.

Whatever comes after the flags crisis, will inevitably bring us back to another crisis soon or later. The focus on identity right in the middle of winter – and to the continued exclusion of all else – augurs badly for next summer’s marching season. And lord knows what after that.

The ‘former moderate’ parties can tag along for the ride, or pull back try to develop their own alternative, policy based approach and try to build some form of politics that is a functional response to the material interests of real people.

After a failed conflict, we need deal makers

It’s doubtful there will be a lurch back into civil conflict that has conditioned many people’s post conflict calculations. As Brian has noted in the past, the serial grounds for the current conflict are getting narrower and narrower, even if at times it feels just as intense.

The idea that you can vanquish your enemies (be they Sinn Fein, or generic Unionism) and they will meekly leave the field in a population where neither community is likely ever again to reach majority is a still appetising folly that feeds the raw animus of many in the ‘former extremes’.

For all the predictions of the collapse of unionism, set piece plays like this current episode only serve to redefine and strengthen old factions all the more sharply. But as these recursive arguments narrow, the needs of a wider, more moderate constituency are left untended.

Clearly identifying those needs and flagging up a determination to do the deals it will undoubtedly be necessary to do in order to serve them is surely where the opportunity lies.

Acting ‘through’ the middle

And yet, if the middle is the weakest point for an actor in any political drama to adopt it is also the fulcrum around which any political deal must derive. Thus the peace settlement was riven around the dealings of the moderate SDLP and UUP.

Building the strength of those who currently occupy the middle actually misses the point. What’s required is the emergence substantive political actors who are committed not to being in the middle, but who are capable of acting decisively through the middle.

In short we need inveterate deal makers who can do deals that stick and who are obsessed with more than covering up for the failures and misadventures of the past, but are instead committed to enlarging the shadow of the future.

In the meantime, we have Stormont’s dull series of music hall melodramas to be getting on with?

Photo by Kaboompics .com is licensed under CC0

Discover more from Slugger O'Toole

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

We are reader supported. Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger. While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.