If Northern Ireland is caught in an endless trap of powerlessness, is it time to ditch St Andrews?

“You can’t have it both ways” explained Ian Paisley – refuting Gareth Gordon’s suggestion that people didn’t vote for a recall byelection because they thought he would win anyway – making the puzzling claim that 90.6% who didn’t vote had endorsed him as MP! 

Having it both ways has become a Northern Irish habit. Paisley’s is the same dour culture of entitlement and hubris of the DUP that we see in the now familiar exchanges in the Coghlin Inquiry. But ‘it is not’, as they say in rural west Mayo, ‘from the wind he took it’.

Form dictates content, said Marshall McLuhan, not the other way around. We don’t have a broken system because of the behaviour of malign individuals, we have a system that designs poor behaviour and poor government.

Good government wasn’t the overriding aim of the original Agreement or at the review of those institutions which took place eight years later in St Andrews. That said, each achieved important short-term aims that should not be casually surrendered to fate.

However, it comes at the cost of our ability to prosecute a functional peace: in which those in charge of our public services feel some obligation to answer to a body of their peers for what they’ve done, and/or what they haven’t achieved with their mandates.

In his Irish News column yesterday, Newton Emerson identifies the key design flaw which has led to the continual deadlocking of Northern Irish politics: ie, the St Andrews rule change on appointing first and deputy first ministers.

What had been two separate electoral contests within each designation, walled off from each other to let voters choose between parties, was transformed into a cross-community race for the top spot.

This has removed all pressure at the ballot box for the DUP to change. Reform of the petition of concern might allow it to be outvoted in the assembly but it is now inconceivable it could ever be voted out as the executive’s largest unionist party.

Coming within a whisker of Sinn Féin in the last Stormont election ensures unionists will keep flocking to the DUP for the foreseeable future. [emphasis added]

To what end? Electing the DUP over and over has certainly thwarted Sinn Fein whose record in government has consisted of many huge overpromises (Casement, the Maze, Irish Language Act), but it has also meant poor delivery for its own electorate.

One key failure of the draft agreement to restart Stormont was that the party’s negotiators expended all efforts on circumventing Sinn Fein’s proposals but no time considering what they might deliver for their base.

Such failure of imagination is common to parties that spend too long in power (and no recourse to internal renewal), but it is also a logical response to the negative incentives of the system set up at St Andrews.

Goals are limited because in most elections since 2007 they both pretended to their electorates that the cross-departmental co-operation needed to achieve even the most modest ambitions in government hadn’t happened. Not long after, it wasn’t happening.

This negative cycle drives both to greater and greater dysfunction, and talent is driven out.

Newton highlights the contrast with the original Belfast Agreement rules, “under which the SDLP outpolled the UUP without panicking unionists into shoring up the UUP”. This allowed each “electorate” to quality check the offering of any party, and ‘kick the bums out’.

Under St Andrews ‘the bums’ get cast iron pensions that many of their struggling electorates only dream of. Any rival claim to power is dismissed “as weak on Unionism/Nationalism and the weak on the cause of Unionism/Nationalism”.

Within the politics it has given birth to no one can get what they want, and no voter gets what they need. Gone are the reforms of health, the renewal of the A5, vital education reforms and other vital infrastructure improvements.

In absence of that vital accountability, the clever, clever lads of the DUP now find themselves locked within a political pressure cooker, bouncing around in the mess of their own intrigue.

Meantime, Sinn Fein is reduced to using a crass nativist logic and promising a future border poll on little more than ‘outbreeding the Prods’. Each of these tactics simply deepens a fatalistic zero-sum that sees the other’s failure as proof they’re winning.

In reality, it’s Groundhog Day. But as Newton observes, however, neither party appears able to learn even the most basic of lessons:

In its ‘one last push’ call for a second Stormont election last year, Sinn Féin was clear it would see surpassing the DUP as a watershed moment in triggering a border poll and advancing a united Ireland.

While that is the party’s right, unionist voters are acting rationally when they prioritise preventing it over any and every other issue. The nationalist electorate is not acting any differently in flocking to Sinn Féin.

In the meantime, as this mutual ritual of childish face slapping continues, they drift further and further from reality as it’s lived in Northern Ireland which is largely settled and focused on the much larger futures of individual lives.

However, as he concludes:

One of the most divisive aspects of this permanent two-horse race is that both communities are beginning to defame each other with the worst aspects of their elected representatives – ‘bigots’ on one side, ‘IRA supporters’ on the other.

Far from parties changing cultures, their cultures are being projected onto everyone else. [Emphasis added]

Small changes are easier to manage than big ones (which have problematically large unintended consequences). Dumping St Andrews strictures along with the petition of concern won’t fix everything, but it might give us a sustainable restart.