Michael Shaw is a Chair for the Ulster University Young Democrats. He is also a central executive member of the Democratic Unionist Party and one of the regional group leaders for Leave.EU in Northern Ireland.
“If you keep voting for the DUP and Sinn Fein, nothing will change.” A phrase I often hear from cynical politicos and commentators alike and a phrase I’m sure you have heard too.
Well, let’s look at what has happened under the DUP and Sinn Fein, accepting the other Executive parties’ narrative that they are not in the same executive when in reality they are.
The DUP and SF lead executive has provided free travel on public transport for everyone over 60. A scheme which is the most generous in the whole of the UK, something that could only be achieved through Stormont. In fact there’s now over 60,000 smart-passes in circulation and 5 1/2 million free journeys have been made since the scheme was started. There’s 20% discount on rates to every person over 70 living alone, free prescriptions for everyone in Northern Ireland and there’s no water charges. With special concessions for Northern Ireland on welfare obtained in the hard earned Fresh Start Agreement there’s no doubt that the Assembly is delivering more for the most vulnerable in our society than what we would see under direct rule.
But we haven’t only safeguarded and protected vulnerable people, Northern Ireland is a place barely recognisable to someone who grew up in the Troubles and a place magnificently different to the one I grew up in even during the 90s. We have record levels of employment, record levels of international investment, University students here are graduating nearly £20,000 better off than their English and Welsh counterparts and with corporation tax set to be devolved, the obstacle to growth of having a higher rate of tax than the Republic will be consigned to the history books and we’ll see an even higher level of inward investment, jobs, growth and exciting new industries.
Of course, we still have a long way to go in terms of balancing the economy. Years of violence halted private sector growth and we have a bloated public sector but we are moving in the right direction. Who would have thought one of the biggest if not the biggest television show in the world would be made right here in Northern Ireland? Things could be better, they always can be, but they would be a hell of a lot worse without Stormont.
It would be wrong for me not to address the fact that there’s two sworn enemies sharing power on the hill. Critics often point to that as enough to denounce the place as dysfunctional without actually going into much detail. The fact that it is these two sworn enemies working together for the greater good is why we have seen the longest period of stable government in Northern Ireland since the start of the Troubles. The fact that the “two extremes” or the two poles of political opinion in Northern Ireland are represented and taken into account is the reason we have that stability. If others took decisions with complete disregard to often marginalised, disenfranchised and impoverished Loyalist and Republican communities it’s safe to say Stormont wouldn’t have stood the test of time and the flag protests would have seemed like a walk in the park.
Some people seem to forget that we had a violent conflict over these issues. I don’t live with any desire to engage in violent conflict over those issues but I remember that refusing to recognise and at least pay homage to people’s deeply held allegiances is quite literally a recipe for disaster.
Rather than disregarding Loyalist and Republican communities and slamming the pedal to the metal as if they were not there, it’s the representatives within Sinn Fein and the DUP who hold their hands up and say; Wait, Stop, Hold on, Be careful; when others are happy to move along at their own pace without regard for those who are not so happy with that pace.
Whether it is the DUP’s successful blocking of the Irish Language Act or Sinn Fein’s strong stance on loyal parades, Stormont offers the arena for these disagreements to be dealt with in a democratic and rational manner. You can debate all day about who has been the biggest winner and who has been the biggest winner but the reality is we’ve managed to confine that debate to solely democratic means and whilst it’s still an issue for many within the electorate and at Stormont, it’s an issue that is now resolved solely via the ballot box and gift of the gab and not with “an armalite in one hand and ballot box in another.”
So far no-one, and I mean no-one, has actually come up with any credible, rational or even reasonable proposals to reform Stormont in such a way that would address many, if any, of the alleged problems at Stormont.
Earlier I quoted what is a commonplace argument from opponents – “If you keep voting for the DUP and Sinn Fein, nothing will change.”? I think I have my answer for this May – “Dead on. DUP 123, Thank you.”