Be grateful for small mercies. With less than a hundred days to go before the election, implementing the Stormont Hose Agreement has had the effect of postponing the worst kind of dog-eat -dog sectarian campaigning – so far. Sinn Fein like the rest of them have had to swallow the basics of the Welfare Bill in the interests of political reality. Syriza type resistance has collapsed. To ask a different question: are there any signs at all of left-right politics beginning to develop or a progressive tendency emerging through the sectarian divide? Mick posed the question, rather hopefully I thought, arising out of an Economist piece some weeks ago, that if at least tacit agreement can eventually be reached on flags and parades, social conservatism may mark a new divide. What does that look like? Sinn Fein and the Alliance party versus the rest?
Up to a point Lord Copper. The SDLP are doing their best to differentiate from Sinn Fein. On what may be seen as the left flanking movement, they’re doing it over the Welfare Bill. This may be gesture politics as David argues but it’s at least a viable position. Over abortion reform in cases of rape or lethal foetal abnormality the SDLP are firmly on the side of the all-Ireland conservative majority. Alasdair McDonnell’s political error here was to commit his party to what should be an issue of individual conscience as well as tarnishing his own reputation as a doctor. The SDLP has backed arrangements to allow the National Crime Agency to operate in Northern Ireland Agency but this can be seen as a right wing issue however much in the interests of the whole community. But at least the SDLP have been committing themselves to clear positions on which voters may pass judgement.
What of Sinn Fein? The position is mixed. Together with the DUP they will claim they have saved the Assembly by passing a Welfare Act consistent with Westminster’s current requirements. Whatever the post-election circumstances, the DUP are in a stronger position to bargain for better terms because they will take their seats. Sinn Fein like to insinuate a progressive position over abortion but without real commitment. In the Dail, they have just abstained on the private member’s bill. But this is a dog that has not yet roared.
Is the Irish Language Bill progressive? Although no doubt based on human rights arguments, in my book the institutional use of Irish in the public arena is profoundly reactionary, the politics of the 19th century. It runs directly counter to the creative adoption of the language for cultural enrichment and should be opposed regardless of the sectarian attitudes which coincide.
What of sharing and integration? Plenty of lip service to sharing will be paid no doubt but will anything more appear substantial appear in the manifestos? Will the parties take their cue from the British government’s incentives for integration in the Stormont House Agreement? Metaphorical bullets need to be bitten like a new programme for schools networking to accompany closures and a single teacher education college. Economic pressure may prevail over moral – or moralising – argument. That may become the enduring legacy of Stormont House.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London