Insist on Executive solidarity. It’s the new antidote to nationalist fears and DUP over confidence

I’ve exploited  my posting rights to reply to the thread started by Chris Donnelly  which includes comments by Mick and Pete Baker.

. Pete wrote:

We are long past the point of the need, or desire, for a collective approach to the programme for government.

There’s every “need” for a collective approach, Pete; it’s the only way to manage a dependent welfare state and mixed economy. “Desire?”  Right after the election the DUP FM and the SF dFM repeated their pledge to adopt it. Why dismiss it so soon? Isn’t this writing off a lot before it’s even started?

Lets look at what has actually happened. Mostly some post-election nervousness over nationalist fragmentation and irritation at Arlene Foster’s euphoria. Many middle of the road  nationalists felt more secure with an inclusive Executive, the system that emerged from the GFA.  It turns out that the shift to a two party coalition facing an opposition  has created as much fear as hope.

With the SDLP going into opposition there are fears that the breach in  basic nationalist solidarity will be exploited by temporarily rampant unionism. It’s no accident perhaps that strong criticism of SF’s  unfamiliar passivity has come from Chris Donnelly in the sectarian cauldron of north Belfast.

Eloquent  critics fear current SF behaviour is a symptom of new and unfamiliar weakness.They saw how interminable splits weakened unionism  down the decades. After the substantial gains of the last twenty years, but with a lot left to do, they don’t want the same to happen to nationalism.

But in practical terms, how would this actually happen?

People are jumping to conclusions and overreacting on the basis of very little evidence. McGuinness carries out politburo policy. No change there. The reconciliation gesture at the Somme was expressed in republican terms  What they say about Brexit has only temporary relevance, although they have criticisms of how the EU works which are angled at their natural constituency for later.

It isn’t difficult to develop an ideological position for SF post- Assembly election.  See The Detail post on “Sinn Fein’s new language”.

(Matt) Carthy said unionists had nothing to fear from Irish unity which could accommodate their feelings of Britishness, and that if Britain voted to leave the EU, there would be “democratic imperative” to allow a referendum on Irish unity…

The only type of United Ireland that interests me in is one that is agreed, inclusive, pluralist and which is constructed by all our citizens, from whatever background or tradition.”

Carthy’s position  echoes  John Hume’s “agreed Ireland” which envisaged  moves to a united Ireland at a unionist pace  and so accepted the possibility of no pace at all.  Carthy’s similarly soothing words to unionists therefore give cold comfort  to nervous nationalists who fear a revival of  unionist majoritarianist arrogance.

So is this the sellout? Hardly. The difference between Hume in his pomp and today lies in facing up to the implications of  a Catholic majority. This may become an underlying theme of the new mandate. But it has to be approached tactfully.  The ” trajectory” towards unity is  by no means inevitable and anyway it hasn’t yet picked up momentum, if  it ever does. It may always be twenty years away. The chances of it paying out an early political dividend are low.

So let’s move to more immediate tests down the track in real politics, like the response due soon to the panel report  on ending paramilitarism and the implementation of the Shared Education Act which they haven’t talked about but has big changes already funded and in the pipeline. If the Executive parties get it off the ground at all, this agenda will produce a shift in political debate which has  concentrated  so long on identity struggles, as if we were still under direct rule.and lacked the powers to govern cooperatively.

Then hopefully  they will have established the mutual confidence to tackle the deferred agenda on mutual recognition of traditions,parades management and dealing with the past.

The Executive room is not just another party battle ground. It has its own more important function, as the place to  answer  the cross community clamour for delivery  which all too often has been swept aside as a distraction from the old zero sum game, rather than the real deal that it has become.

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