What the manifestos of the Northern Ireland parties don’t say…

Practically everything of importance, as far as I can make out from the cloudy rhetoric. What unites them?  Yes!  Abolish air passenger duty!  But save us from tough decisions. Blame the Brits or seek their help or possibly both at once.

As befits the party’s expected numbersthe DUP’s manifesto is about positioning  for after  the election. It’s also a rehearsal for next year’s Assembly election that offers no hostages to fortune.   Whatever the DUP professes about even handedness between Conservatives and Labour, they tilt towards the Conservatives. Their tone is British patriotic and pro defence spending. They are not as militant as UKIP over immigration. While they support an EU referendum, they are not categorical about the terms. They’ve probably done enough to be wooed by the Tories, although Cameron is making it clear he’ll have no truck with their conservative position on gay rights. Labour refer to the DUP only to hold them up as part of the unacceptable right. They don’t seem to be impressed by their opposition to the bedroom tax.

None of the above gains or loses the DUP anything in terms of votes. Northern Ireland is linked to, not part of, the political world of GB. They’re right to stick to modest ambitions. To be fair to the DUP, they’ve at least made an effort to construct a narrative of economic efficiencies as a basis for asking for a bit more dosh. .   They are still wobbly on Corporation tax  and are intriguingly ”negotiating for more satisfactory  terms .”

The DUP are  attempting to grasp the nettle of wider reform but delude themselves if they think that can be achieved without big shifts in political position. Their hopes for East Belfast and guarding their flanks in North have left them in thrall to loyalist militancy. Demographics will further narrow their base. Perhaps then Unionism will face a real choice: whether to consolidate in a single party or diversify across community.

Sinn Fein are staying in la-la land to harvest votes.  Somebody in the party has thought  it was a good idea to keep pace with the  SNP by  calling for the  devolution of income tax  and a referendum  on unity .

I like the broad agreement apart from SF on ending confidentiality over political donations.

On dealing with the past, the familiar hypocrisy persists.  They all grind their axes but nobody goes for the necessary terms of immunity to make progress.  “The past” as a political issue appears to be receding into the past.

What aren’t the parties saying?

 They are mute about how specifically to break out of continuing deadlock over the Stormont House Agreement.  The DUP basically accept welfare capping, while the others pretend not to, unless they intend to continue defying the Treasury. Nobody of course wants to go near using existing revenue powers, to increase the rates or impose water charges. The SDLP and Alliance also wax righteous about the need for  more, more money . Sinn Fein continues to hold out –SNP style – for an extra £1.5 billion. As they chose to exert no influence in the Commons, their only weapon is to bring the Assembly down. This is bluff.  All will leave it up to the new government to impose a settlement  with a little more sugar coating on the welfare pill, at best without more raiding on the block grant.

There is almost no cross community appeal in any of the manifestos except Alliance’s

The DUP’s “ identity and tradition “appeals exclusively to that  quaint ” Ulster” version of Britishness.  You’d think nobody else died on the Somme. Flags should fly in government buildings 365 days a year. As this is undeliverable, will the lower Newtownards road be impressed?  The problem of parades is the “ bias ” against the loyal orders.” How  does that take Stormont House  forward?

Integration and sharing are barely mentioned . Nationalists are considered wholly in terms of economic opportunity in the DUP plan which accompanies the manifesto.

The SDLP are mom and apple pie about human rights and equality without saying how . ( Their document failed to launch in my browser) Human rights and equality are of course nationalist causes and a warning of looming majority in the mouths of Sinn Fein.

Alliance’s ambition is  oddly limited.  For a party that ought to appeal to the mass ranks of the politically disaffected, they rely too much on setting up studies into problems and  lifting safe bits  from the  Greens and other right-on material.  Are they a progressive or a liberal Presbyterian party?  They are to the right of Sinn Fein on abortion.  As a party largely made up of professionals, where is the comprehensive plan for  the reform of education?  A problem they have is that their championing of the integrated education sector  may  simply hold up sharing, mergers and broader integration between the state and catholic sectors.  They duck issues like the anti-equality religious qualification for teachers in Catholic schools The Ulster Unionists  say they would address the latter but nobody faces the clash of rights entailed.  Where is the vision of north-south social, cultural, and economic integration appropriate for a party professing cross community appeal?

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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