Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has predictably taken a hammering over his personal choice to vote SDLP next. The Newsletter has helpfully quoted 8 UUP candidates who think otherwise. They can hardly be blamed. Most of them rely on DUP transfers to get elected and aren’t expecting SDLP transfers anytime soon. They mortally fear a DUP plump that leaves them high and dry and in some cases, Sinn Fein cosy and warm and elected instead.
So why did Mike do it? He’ll speak for himself but to me he’s trying to address the deep frustration people of all parties and none are feeling at the vista of deadlock and collapse that suddenly hit centre stage again last December just when cautious hopes were raised that it was fading at last.
So let’s introduce the notion of a little flexibility where we can afford it. If it matters at all, it will figure after the election more than before it, when sooner or later, the talking will start. Barring an electoral miracle, this is when the UUP and the SDLP will have to return to the abiding question – what are they for?
Forming an opposition after last May’s election was something the leading parties felt the could concede at little cost to themselves. Strongly backed by the two governments it was a significant victory for the idea of greater democratic choice all the same. Following the precedent of forming an opposition, more reforms may become possible, like less resort to the notorious blocking mechanism of petitions of concern, as promised in the Fresh Start agreement of December a year ago. (See the Detail’s excellent report on use since 2011).
The significance of petitions of concern lies less on their actual use but in the threat to use them and as a display of DUP strength as the only party able to block alone. Failure to win fewer than the threshold of 30 seats this time would be quite a blow, perhaps the margin between success and failure. Fresh Start hopefully stated that most petitions would be followed not by a block but a mere ” take note” motion for debate in the Assembly. Faithful observance should already have made it more difficult to resist cross community support for say, same sex marriage by requiring the DUP to state the “clear detriment” caused by the passing of the measure.
The matrix of the Stormont House – Fresh Start agreement has now failed twice because too many cans were kicked down the road. In spite of consensus emerging that the Assembly won’t be revived at least until after Coghlin has reported, the British government stay schtum. Not an intelligent word has emerged from them about the future. Shades of the first six months of the Art 50 “ debate”.
Also available are a second election after three weeks ( futile ); “greenish” direct rule vaguely threatened if the St Andrew’s Agreement had failed, (anathema to the two governments) and bargain basement, bog-standard direct rule, with or without a “transitional Assembly,” as elected on 2 March ( least worst if the parties don’t move to elect an Executive).
Once again Sinn Fein are the challengers in attack mode, north and south. The McCabe controversy has “ brought the government to the brink of collapse,” according to the Irish Times and Sinn Fein inevitably are moving a motion of no confidence and calling for a full public inquiry.
In the North they are presenting themselves are the party of progress and open accountability with a longish list. Conor Murphy is still it a leading Sinn Fein strategist if not its nominal northern leader. He made an interesting speech last night about their wider agenda. Concerned about voter apathy he asked rhetorically, “what’s the point of voting?”
“My initial reaction was, people sitting in a cold cell with a blanket wrapped around them weren’t asking what’s the point.
“Not everybody draws from that, that’s history for a lot of people. So they don’t draw the same personal inspiration from that struggle that I do, so what is the point?
“If you have somebody belonging to you who was injured or hurt or killed as a consequence of British state-sponsored violence or torture in this country, and they are trying to get access to truth and justice, that’s the point.”
He added: Irish language rights which apply in Wales and Scotland; the right of a gay son or daughter to live a normal life , and refuges from abroad to go to the shops and buy a pint of milk – that’s the point.”
It may or may not be significant that he didn’t mention linking Brexit and the border to a renewed demand for a border poll.
None of these strike me as non-negotiable but the idea of Arlene Foster standing aside is another matter. Will Sinn Fein’s little list keep them all going until the Coghlin reports in six, twelve or more months?
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