Stop dreaming and learn how to take responsibility – the key demand to local parties

Alan and Mick have done sterling work in reporting and commenting  on the Alliance and Fianna Fail  conferences, with the SDLP in tow for the latter. From me at a distance they prompt the following reflections. Real politics cannot be about endless positioning, it has to be about policies, doing things for the people , how to raise and spend the money – you know,  the stuff you read about  what happens in other places.

The SDLP’s agenda is too rhetorical, generalised and introverted. A dominant all- Ireland focus may be very tempting in view of DUP intransigence and British inertia both aggravated by Brexit, and not least, the SDLP wipe-out at Westminster. But it reads like a counsel of despair.  Northern Ireland is governed by British law and constitutional arrangements, and supported by British funding. British economic links are overwhelmingly greater than those with the Republic. Unionists are closer neighbours for most people in the North than southerners. Virtually ignoring these realties is living in an escapist dream world of hypothetical Irish unity and waiting for “demographics”  to perform their magic . Like the memorable sequence in Monty Python’s Life of Brian – what have the Romans ever done for us?

The early test of the SDLP’s new links with Fianna Fail will be if Fianna Fail exert effective pressure on Sinn Fein and Fine Gael follow on. They should refuse to entertain the prospect of entering into coalition with Sinn Fein in the south unless Sinn Fein re-enter the Assembly in the North.  If the next election in the Republic runs them close, as a fallback the idea should be floated of the two main parties sharing power with each other more directly in coalition, even by alternating the lead governmental role between them as Israeli  parties did in the 1980s.

For the North, the key to any effective strategy is a united demand to revive the GFA institutions beginning with the British-Irish relationship.Whatever the outcome, managing Brexit creates a virtue out of the necessity for the two governments to stop sulking and re-focus on the North. For the first  time in over a decade they need to impose real pressure on the local parties as the big players, rather than posture  as occasional short sighted referees.

Next will be all- party insistence on Assembly reform of the petition of concern to end the block on first, social reform such as gay marriage which would then free up the logjam.  The idea of sorting out all the problems  in advance without pressure is for the birds. It’s  like  giving birth  to a host of kids before the marriage or partnership knot is tied.

Executive reform has been laid out in the first iteration of the Stormont House Agreement and Fresh Start. The RHI report will hopefully flesh it out further. Assembly and Executive conduct should be subject to joint British-Irish intergovernmental review submitted to both parliaments and the Assembly itself.

Dealing with the past is a prime British responsibility but it needs strong input and coordination with the Republic. The disposal of the absurd notion of selective amnesty for the security forces should jolt Westminster into pushing through the legacy reforms.

Alliance are totally commendable is having actual policies ( Remember them? No?). Their morale is low their frustrations are  high and  they seem  to believe – even hope  –  that Brexit must be a disaster . This is playing politics too much in the moment.  Although an undoubted setback to most things constructive, no one can afford Brexit to be a disaster. Alliance also need a specific western strategy  for economic development and cross  border links to begin to long term task of rebuilding the sort of  support  that existed just after the party was founded.  Self evidently if  lots more voted Alliance we would have far  few problems.

Outside the province/region – call it what you will –  Northern parties  and politics are regarded as an embarrassing  basket case by the casually indifferent  who comprise the wider world,  with additional moments of  horror when confronted with the reactionary nature of politicians’ preoccupations . The DUP’s stranglehold on the Tories hasn’t really changed this ; indeed below the surface it has it has  probably increased it. Sinn Fein although active in the Westminster corridors and bouncy in the floor of the Dail are regarded as – shall we say –  incomplete constitutionalists at best and jihadists lying doggo at worst. The self regard of the main local parties is in inverse proportion to their delivery and is frankly comic if it wasn’t tragic. And yes the big parties in London and Dublin are far from perfect either. But at least they want to govern, which is the alpha and omega of grown-up politics.

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