NI Democracy becalmed: Is there in fact a “Win” if there is no compromise, these days?

Since the onset of the flag protests last December one of the most bemusing things has been the persistence of the blame game model of early Peace Process™ politics. In truth it is tough to reliably judge which of the two OFMdFM parties is responsible for the spectacular lack of progress (legislative or otherwise) after six years of unchallenged power.

Any political coalition involves something like a three legged race. One leg of each player continues to move freely enough, but it has to match the tempo of the shared limb. Otherwise, the price is continual crashing.

Over on the Compromise After Conflict blog, I have made a long argument that compromise as an essential precondition for any concerted action within coalition Government, eventually arriving at the idea that there is no point in arguing against the reflexive distrust of those currently in power, and their return to…

…their own Clausewizian logic of war. The real deficit lies in the lack of any committed action across the liberal middle ground on either side of the communal divide.

In their current weakened states, the former moderates of the UUP and SDLP have become far too comfortable in their self appointed role as the moralising headteacher to whom people barely listen any more, rather than providing a functional political alternative to the broad voter base.

If they were to provide such a functional opposition we might then begin to address the structural issues by changing the dynamics from intra-ethnic competition to a inter-party/govt vs. opposition competition.

As Fareed Zakaria has noted, there is no inevitability about the ascent of liberal democracy, whether in Northern Ireland, Egypt or anywhere else. And much of the last twenty five years has shown that  you can’t WIN militarily and expect that to be the end of it. Is there in fact a Win if there is no compromise, these days?

You can read the whole thing here

  • Barnshee

    No better summary

    “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”

    There is no incentive for change -society is polarised politely (normally) in the middle classes– much less politely otherwise. NI is settling into two camps funded by the UK taxpayer. The only hope is that as funding runs down the protagonists are forced to change.

  • ayeYerMa

    A mandatory coalition will always encourage and electorally reward polarisation over the common ground required to form a more natural coalition.

  • An excellent blog by the way.
    Neither of the Big Two want compromise and can certainly argue that their supporters did not vote for compromise.
    they can also point to SDLP and UUP which were SEEN to compromise too much.
    SF and DUP will never compromise because it is not in their interest to so do.
    Are they there forever?
    I think as long as Peace or Passivity or Non Violence exists, they certainly could be….but there is a slow burning issue which will eventually get them.
    The PSNI inability to deal with criminal elements with a historic or perhaps arms length distance from them.
    Whether East Belfast or South Armagh….Id “watch this space”.
    I think a lot depends on how the mainstream establishment reacts to this…..I can certainly understand movers and shakers in the North, welcoming Peace and even embracing the whole previous enemies working together with each other narrative….the whole ex combatants need to be heard thing that Professor Brewer was genuinely pushing at St Oliver Plunketts last month.
    But in welcoming them into the fold, there has been no real criticism of them and I think that the whole “feel good” narrative…Titantic, MTV, City of Culture, Police Games…has clouded the judgement of too many people who should no better.
    These people have been welcomed into respectable society (as it would call itself) on the basis that they will change. They have no intention of so doing.
    Respectable Society has to make its mind up.
    Some might say… “We got these guys wrong….lets re-think this”
    But too many will I fear seek to carve out (profitable) relationships with the New Order.
    Embrace DUP-SF values.
    Or Boycott them.

  • ***oops should KNOW better*****

  • The three-legged race metaphor is a curious metaphor to choose; it suggests shared goals, a degree of co-operation as well as movement in the same direction. The UUP-SDLP combo got nowhere so there’s even less chance of accomplishment with the DUP-SF one. I stand by my tug-of-war metaphor as it reflects the constitutional reality.

  • Mick Fealty


    It implies that in running a government you must have some shared goals, and that for some of the way, you must be moving in the same direction.

    It doesn’t imply that you are heading in the same direction over everything, which is perhaps what you thought I was implying.

    We may be simply witnessing the new establishment parties struggling over the basic need for pragmatism within coalitions. They may resolve it in the end, but not, I suspect, without some external pressures to shift the nature of the incentives.

    The will to resort to the tug of war (they want to play) instead of the three legged race (we are paying them to play) is obvious in the actions on the street of the last 9/10 months (or 4/5 years, depending on who is counting).

    And they will always be able to resort to that whilst there is no means to punish such a default on their initial promises to deliver. After all external pressure was one of the key reasons why the UUP/SDLP governing coalition first crashed and then burned.

  • So….how do we get rid of them? Or how do we get rid of the system?

  • Cric

    Didn’t we almost have compromise with the Maze site + Girdwood Barracks development…?

    Within Unionism any compromise with Sinn Fein is seen as Political weakness – whilst I believe mainstream Nationalism and Republicanism is a bit more pragmatic in compromising with the DUP (very little noise about the Girdwood development having a load of new houses for a Protestant area which doesn’t need new houses).

  • DC

    There are problems compromising, but loath as i am to quote Blair nowadays i think it really is just as much “a matter of style” as about substance and the compromise itself.

    Eg some would argue that there has been compromise especially over the union flag in belfast.

    OK if that was a compromise then let’s look closer at it and the manner of the compromise – was it stylish or crude?

  • SK

    “Eg some would argue that there has been compromise especially over the union flag in belfast.”

    8 months in and we’re still going with this. The majority of councillors in Belfast City Hall voted for something you didn’t like. Tough [text removed – Mods]. Next item.

  • “We may be simply witnessing the new establishment parties struggling over the basic need for pragmatism within coalitions.”

    I think we’re witnessing the outworking of the 1998 constitutional settlement, compounded by the change to selection of First Minister. The ‘in running a government you must have some shared goals’ has relevance to Westminster and the Dáil whereas in Stormont the chief goals are oppositional ones. No unionist voter, let alone party, for example, will line up behind the SDLP #1 statement: “The SDLP’s vision is a reconciled people living in a united, just and prosperous new Ireland”. In short, a UUP-SDLP ‘functional political alternative’ IMO is a non-runner.

  • FuturePhysicist

    The media needs new parties to berate, but society needs a new media.

  • The Media will certainly have to become more detached.
    Having spent the 1970s and 1980s demonising SF and DUP and the 1990s grudgingly accepting them…the Media today is on first name/twitter/facebook terms with the Coalition.
    Of course there are many journalists who are young and know no other way of life.
    But Stormont “sucks” you in. its not just about 108 MLAs or councillors or staffers or even the voters and non voters….there might well be around 1,000 plus or more political insiders, movers/shakers and hangers-on…..they wont rock the DUP-SF boat until such time as they are shamed into so doing.
    They are the people that moderates need to be concentrating on.

  • FuturePhysicist

    I think Mike Nesbitt should be the bar by which we judge all local journalists ability to influence politics here, he’s the only one with any tangible grip on things, until anyone else has the guts to put their opinions and attitudes to the public test, it’s funny how they tell the young people to run away from a distance but would they ever see themselves with the courage to sit in front of the Nolan Show audience to justify their opinions directly to the young people I don’t know.

  • FuturePhysicist

    “We may be simply witnessing the new establishment parties struggling over the basic need for pragmatism within coalitions.”

    I think we’re witnessing the outworking of the 1998 constitutional settlement, compounded by the change to selection of First Minister. The ‘in running a government you must have some shared goals’ has relevance to Westminster and the Dáil whereas in Stormont the chief goals are oppositional ones. No unionist voter, let alone party, for example, will line up behind the SDLP #1 statement: “The SDLP’s vision is a reconciled people living in a united, just and prosperous new Ireland”. In short, a UUP-SDLP ‘functional political alternative’ IMO is a non-runner.

    In Belguim Flemish and Wallon separatists often work together, you have separatists running Scotland who needed unionist votes… Sepratism is a valid political viewpoint as much as Conjoinism is, quite often there are common motivations for the differences.

  • Mick Fealty

    A pure example of that cultural belligerence is the management of horse mussel beds in Strangford. It’s neither here nor there in terms of long term aims of either separatist or unionist. Yet, there is no sign of the cross departmental co-operation required to simply make something happen.

    There’s no easy way to make the change. The system does not licence or encourage opposition. And even after running a good campaign and making gains, you are still obliged to ‘work’ with anyone who gains a ministerial mandate, even if they don’t want to work with you, and will seek to undermine you at every turn.

    As for the media, a spot of detachment (as opposed to Martin Bell’s ‘Journalism of Attachment’) of the right sort would be welcome. Actually a spot of independently wrought analysis over the ‘on one hand, and on the other…’ fare we are currently fed would make a welcome change…

    Culturally, as people have noted above, compromise is seen as a weakness rather than a strength. Yet the world over, where there coalitions it is a necessary precondition to ‘getting stuff done…’

  • SK[3.48] The whole flag business at least has a merit in exposing the nonsense unionist politicians spout with a straight face that they are democrats, but their conduct over Belfast council voting shows their real attitude to democracy. If it’s not fixed for them, they don’t want it, so the question now needs to be asked of them, what will they do when alliance no longer have balance of power in City Hall. The truth will then really come out.

  • Coll Ciotach

    What is compromise and what is sell out? The question for me as a nationalist surely is whether compromise, in an Irish context, is desirable if that compromise normalises and legitimises the constitutional position. If so then I want no part, however if it allows the horse mussels to breed in Strangford Lough then that is no problem.

  • Mick Fealty

    I suspect that is a much larger territory than is currently being exploited CC.

  • Kevsterino

    When looking at Stormont politics, as well as Belfast City Hall, I try to remind myself where these people are starting from. Parties who refused to be seen by the same camera or heard on the same microphone have no background in the gritty business required to arrive at a compromise they believe in and are willing to sell to their constituents.

    The overall lack of such history or experience has repeatedly made folks like Campbell and Dodds look especially foolish. It isn’t that the other side doesn’t matter, it is that they don’t approve of power-sharing and hate to admit it.

    If Unionism was going to get a better deal if the current regime fails, it would be easier to understand how they currently behave. Unfortunately for them, I don’t see how they would get a larger measure of what they want in the days to come.

  • Barnshee

    “8 months in and we’re still going with this. The majority of councillors in Belfast City Hall voted for something you didn’t like. Tough [text removed – Mods]. Next item.”

    If a “majority” of MLA`s (oh say 50% +1) vote to install a Union flag on say a plinth outside the city that will be OK?

  • Mick Fealty


    That’s one reason why I think it is so revealing to look at the lack of co-operation in non controversial areas too.

    Mitchell’s lessons are crystal clear on this, and they are clearly being ignored by both parties.

    I’d question the structure of the ‘nearly’ deal on Girdwood too. Why tie a hit on Catholic housing in north Belfast to a broadly unpopular peace centre at the Maze? Why not do a broader workable deal on working class housing need instead?

  • Seamuscamp

    Not sure what constitutes a “liberal democracy”. Certainly the NI predicament has been complicated by the absence of practical democracy for most of NI’s existance. It isn’t enough to say: “We got the most votes”. Democracy requires each of us to comply with some rules or conventions or laws we personally abhor. Such consent from the governed to the governors is the essence. Democracy also requires the governors to respect the rights of the governed

    So, it isn’t entirely the fault of uncompromising SF/DUP/UUP/SDLP politicians, for they merely reflect a broken society. Compromise means both sides shifting at the same time. If only one side shifts it becomes as irrelevant as the NIAP. We need an encompassing narrative; but nobody in power will tell a new story or write a new commentary; or tell the old story honestly and without excuse.

    “‘The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday–but never jam to-day.’
    ‘It MUST come sometimes to “jam to-day,”‘ Alice objected.
    ‘No, it can’t,’ said the Queen. ‘It’s jam every OTHER day: to-day isn’t any OTHER day, you know.’
    ‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. ‘It’s dreadfully confusing!’
    ‘That’s the effect of living backwards,’ the Queen said kindly: ‘it always makes one a little giddy at first–‘
    ‘Living backwards!’ Alice repeated in great astonishment. ‘I never heard of such a thing!’
    ‘–but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.’
    ‘I’m sure MINE only works one way,’ Alice remarked. ‘I can’t remember things before they happen.’
    ‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.”

  • Kevsterino

    Mick, clearly the issue is not what is being voted on, but by who else is voting for it and why. If it is proposed by those who you believe in a ‘just world’ would not only be absent from the halls of power, but should be in prison or worse, the chance of getting anything done is just about nil.

    Any support a unionist would give to anything supported by Sinn Fein appears to be impossible. This ‘shrine’ business at the MLK center was contrived from the start. Everybody knows, or should know, that anyone who would visit the place would come away with basically what they brought to the place. You would think Peace and Reconciliation were intrinsically bad things if you listened to the speeches by such luminaries as Frasier and Allister.

    What would be the first question to rise if a proposal for ‘working class housing’ was made by, the Lord Mayor of Belfast? Is it for us or them?

  • Mick Fealty

    Of course it is contrived (isn’t all politics at some level or another contrived?) Kev. But the “terrorist shrine” epithet has helped intensify a broad toxicity around the choice of that particular site for the Peace and Reconciliation Centre, or almost anything else.

    The phrase was already in play at the time of the proposed super stadium, which like the Bertiebowl before it proved to be the another ‘grand projet’ which also bit the dust because of a lack of broad popular support. At the heel of that hunt all three major sporting associations who were to have benefited seemed happier to ‘take the money’ than ‘open the box’…

    Both projects have had the support of local DUP reps (presumably because of the promise of inflows of revenue to the City of Lisburn. But the site’s collocation with a core nexus of SF’s preferred military narrative (of conflict transformation) had already made it a hard sell for unionists.

    This brings us back to that “obsession with the past and a narrow set of fundamentalist values” I mentioned in the main piece. It’s other utility is that it would not be particularly missed by the broad sweep of Irish nationalist voters.

    Negotiating the safe interdepartmental management of a mussel bed is on other hand a great deal less risky for either side, and if acted upon would represent both an easy win and help build the kind of trust towards a stepping stone to bigger, more complex and more prestigious ‘deals’.

    The prioritisation of such a difficult deal over easier ones (requiring almost zero risk), we get much closer to understanding the tense Clauswitzian battle going on through (if not at) OFMdFM.

  • Mick Fealty[7.38] I agree about the motives for the Girdwood stichup, and can’t see why SF would be temted were it not for the Maze deal and were so desperate to get that through they didn’t see the snags. Clearly the DUP craftly reeled them in knowing they could later renege on the |Maze knowing the shinnersa would leave the housing part in place rather than admit they were prepared to sell out homeless catholics. It will be interesting to see if they’re called out on it in election campaigns by SDLP.

  • Yes….they will be.
    Its surprising how many “local” issues that SF seem to be getting wrong.
    Whether they are actually vulnerable on one, some or all of them is a different question.
    The point is that there are issues. Locally exposed. With the right guidance and put back into local hands to run with…there will be an element of being able to hit SF on issue of being in power.
    The resignation of three SF councillors at the City Hall ….more co-options….a genuine issue for very few…but an issue.

    Its never going to about one “issue” .

  • DC


    The SDLP and UUP should leave the executive in the last year of the current assembly term and use that year to front load an offer to the electorate of what they have agreed to work on together up front, if elected as the main parties of government.

    In doing this you would be trying to get voters to breakaway from the big two.

    Maybe that is one way around the current problem of no opposition. You get to enjoy almost all of the benefits of office for most of the assembly term then in the last year or just under, you leave the executive and office and salaries behind – and go electioneering with a suitable partner in crime.

  • Im sure some in both UUP and SDLP are tHinking along those lines. There are certainly options…and if I had a voice, I would certainly be aware that “events dear boy” will happen between now and 2016.
    I dont think it is either possible or desirable to contrive an “event”.
    It would be counter-productive of the UUP and SDLP to co-ordinate …it would only alienate the floating voters who gave DUP, Sinn Fein, Alliance the benefit of the doubt over the last decade.
    And I dont think a single big “event” CAN be guaranteed but (from the nationalist perspective which interests me more) local issues…Girdwood, South Armagh gangsters, Catlederg, arrogance, personality….will be a factor.

  • DC

    Well I am working on the basis that if style is a factor wouldn’t it be stylish to find a partner you can find a bit of flare with and then hit the streets running if not dancing?

    Let’s face it, Martin McGuinness, I can’t make a word out what he says.

    Peter Robinson has no style whatsoever, is crude and rude and blunt and so on.

    I imagine TV Mike would be an easy enough guy to get along with, he seems affable enough.

  • Kevsterino

    Mick, I agree that a ‘baby-steps’ approach, so to speak, would have the best chance of bringing a successful result. ie Getting something (anything) done. But I also believe that the lack of any impulse among the powers that be illustrates something deeper. I believe that Unionists have come to regard ANY cooperation with Sinn Fein as a kiss of death among their constituents.

  • Kevsterino[3.35] I believe there’s now a problem the DUP have with the agreed speaker handover but they deny they’re backbone has gone AWOL on that as well. Seems Mitchel McL isn’t going to be approved. [Can’t recall source I got this from]