If we could have a term to describe the attitude of some supporters of political parties in Northern Ireland it would be people who like to indulge in “drinking the kool aid.” This term means to simply take the party line without question or any critical comment. The idea that your party is exceptional and that the only way to national salvation is through your leader coming to power is a powerful, if not slightly deluded opinion to hold.
It is an easy thing to do; you sign up, pay your fee and then begin associating with people who have likeminded views and similar approaches to politics. The sense of them and us, battling those who are opposed to the kind of country we want to build creates in effect a bunker mentality that reinforces the notion that those within the fold are to be trusted and those from outside are to be regarded with suspicion.
If you look around Northern Ireland politics and wonder why we are in this unbearable position, look at the strict party discipline within some of our parties. Think about this for a moment, we have had a centre-left party in Sinn Fein having to cut budgets and yet none of their back benchers have even hinted that they would be prepared to vote against any of the measures proposed by their ministerial colleagues. Likewise, on the DUP benches, when Edwin Poots raised his head above the parapet he was swiftly kicked into touch by the avalanche of tweets that ensued from his party colleagues pledging loyalty to the great leader.
I have no problem with party discipline, it is necessary to run any movement effectively. Yet, when this degree of loyalty becomes so great it creates a situation when problems come up the people within the party who are supposed to hold the leadership accountable simply sit on their hands and just become effective cheerleaders for the party line.
The sad reality is that the parliamentary groupings and memberships of our governing parties are the only bodies between elections that can keep their colleagues in check and ensure that duties are carried out properly. However, this doesn’t seem to happen at all in Northern Ireland. The annual conference which used to be a forum for hammering out the party platform has now become an exercise in cheering the leader as he gets up to speak and gaining positive coverage on the Sunday morning politics programmes.
It is all too easy to simply believe that all the incompetent, dishonest and devious people are on the other side. Every party, with the best will in the world has politicians who don’t cut the mustard or make huge mistakes. I have never understood why it makes you a good loyal soldier to simply sit back and just let things happen. Why sign up to a party if you are not going to try and influence policy and actually stand up to your leadership team?
If you have been in a party for years and can honestly say to yourself I have never disagreed with a single word of a manifesto that has been issued, then you have joined a cult, not a political party. Parties are supposed to be a coalition of interests, with differing factions and opinions. It is impossible that debate and tension does not come up at some point.
When you join a party it is your duty to try and stay true its core values, not the leadership team. Leaders come and go; it is your job to ensure the party can outlive any one person. It isn’t easy and yes, you have to be careful not to become corrosive. But you have a voice, use it constructively, you have ideas, put them forward forcefully, you have a brain, put it to better use than simply processing press releases and more importantly you have an opportunity to make a mark, don’t waste it by simply cheering “me too.”
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs