Platform for Change panel of politicians fails to inspire about how to overcome political inertia

Platform for Change’s latest – and perhaps last – panel event was hosted last night by Mark Carruthers in the Crescent Arts Centre. Around 40 people attended the session with its bizarrely worded title:

Political Inertia to a Flourishing Society – How?

The six panellists from centre-ground parties made four minute opening statements before the discussion was opened to the floor.

Alasdair McDonnellAlasdair McDonnell (SDLP leader, MP & MLA) had come straight to the venue from the airport. He said there was plenty of talking but not the right kind. He wants “to move towards a place we might call ‘hope’”. People on the margins of society want a bit of respect, dignity, the hope of employment, the hope of a pound in their pocket. But in moving towards change in an entrenched society.

Politics hasn’t matured fast enough or far enough in his opinion. Post-conflict, voters have adopted “safe positions”, in some ways “having their cake and eating it”. We need reconciliation and social justice, but if we don’t have the economic driver of a job and a pound in their pocket, people won’t [shift their votes].

Danny KennedyDanny Kennedy (UUP MLA & DRD Minister) felt that despite the hard work and effort put in, the Assembly and current system needs to change. Too many Assembly members and departments. Politicians need to be more connected with the population.

Clear argument for Assembly structures for a formal opposition, with resources … to avoid parties jumping off a cliff without a parachute. He cited the Scottish referendum and wished for turnouts and engagement at that level in Northern Ireland.

Johnny McCarthyJohnny McCarthy (NI21 councillor) pointed to budgets are being cut across the board, yet we’re spending £1.8billion on conflict. Rather than talk about flags, parades and the past, why not talk about jobs, innovation and the future. Complaining about speaking Irish and cakes are hiding the real issues in Northern Ireland. We need to ask more of our politicians. He quoted ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky …

A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.

… while also noting another ice hockey quote that he felt was applicable to the electorate:

100% of the shots you don’t take are missed.

Clare BaileyClare Bailey (deputy leader, Green Party) singled out experiences from her childhood and education, as well as experiences as an adult that made her feel different.

She does not expect parties and politicians to step forward to make the changes we need.

Instead she called for louder civic voices to push for change and bring forward different ideas.

Stephen FarryStephen Farry (Alliance MLA & DEL minister) acknowledged that we’ve come a long way over the last 15-20 years. But we are in a difficult and challenging place, complete with speculation about institutional collapse and direct rule.

The current talks themselves won’t create the trust and partnership that need. Reform of institutions is needed. Taking away mutual vetoes. The most fundamental intervention needed is a real commitment to a shared future. Unless people vote differently we won’t break through this deadlock

I don’t really foresee change unless there is a step change in voting patterns.

John McCallisterJohn McCallister (Ind Unionist MLA) said he was a huge believer in opposition, but he was also a “believer in proper government … that has collective responsibility”. We don’t have that and “we’re in permanent peace process mode” – in crisis. We need to create a roadmap to what a new normal society will look like.

The Scottish independence referendum has fundamentally changed the United Kingdom and “we as an Assembly and Executive are not at the races in that debate”. The small things you can do around the edges on tax-varying powers can make a big change. “Stormont either reforms or it will fail.”

The first questioner from the audience asked why the six panellists couldn’t come together to form a single middle-ground party. It was a crazy idealistic question, but it developed a theme that ran through much of the evening.

Another question asked why the parties represented couldn’t run an agreed middle-ground candidate against SF and DUP in Fermanagh & South Tyrone? No one on the panel was keen on pacts in the middle ground (or forming a new party).

“Artificial unity is useless” (Alasdair McDonnell)

Jenny Muir (Green chair) pointed out that three of the parties on the panel are in the Executive and all three either abstained or voted against the budget. Post-public consultation, if they still disagree with the budget, why wouldn’t they use that as a trigger to leave the Executive … rather than waiting for the Secretary of State telling them that it was time to go.

Later questions asked about newcomers, reducing the number of MLAs and departments, sectarian murals.

– – –

Trevor Ringland introducing panelAt times the debate and discussion was depressing. At others it felt pointless. Occasionally there were moments of clarity and fresh thinking that bubbled up before the dialogue lapsed back to inertia and depression.

Our politicians fail to inspire. I’d rate some of those on tonight’s panel in the top quartile of NI elected representatives. But even they lacked sparkle. The middle ground was unappealing.

The two ministers present are trapped in an Executive in which they think they are doing more good by staying in than leaving. Stephen Farry described the autonomy that ministers have to pursue their agenda within the bounds of the Ministerial Code. Yet remaining in the Executive seemed to be preferable to the fear of what Sinn Féin and the DUP would do if left to their own devices with all the departments. I’m not sure the two main parties really want control over all the departments. Is it in their interest to be solely at loggerheads with each other around the Executive table? For every unplanned disaster to give them bad publicity? Collective responsibility across four or five parties spreads the risk and the blame.

Fear isn’t a good enough reason to stay.

Lack of resources and proper opposition structures isn’t really a good enough reason to stay.

Individual departments might be worse off – temporarily – if only two parties reigned. But voters might quickly catch on.

Platform for Change panel - empty chairsPlatform for Change at its inception might have hoped to facilitate the generation of shared policies that multiple parties could pursue and promote. But Platform for Change’s ideals seem long dead. Forty wasn’t a great turnout given the expense of hiring a venue. Forty wasn’t a great use of the panellists’ time.

While I’d love to see more local hustings and an injection of energy into local politics, with regret I don’t think Platform for Change in its current form is a vehicle that will encourage greater interest and participation.

(As an aside that perhaps deserves a full post: the #MakeItWork campaign has good branding, but it too runs the risk of being seen to point the finger at politicians to tell them to “make it work” as opposed to pointing the finger at civil society and saying “make it work in spite of the political structures and failure”.)

How do we overcome political inertia and develop a flourishing society? After tonight I’m still not sure we’ve the first clue how to start …

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.