As sure as night followed day, the sonorous tributes to David Trimble flowed from those who in their day had stabbed him front and back. Some were no doubt observing the Irish habit of never speaking ill of the recently dead. Perhaps some rose above hypocrisy. For behind the traditional political rhetoric lies latent acceptance that they are all inheritors of his legacy. As Trimble himself put it:
In 2005 I came a cropper but, in the seven years between 1998 and 2005, we changed the political situation in Northern Ireland irreversibly because, after that, the DUP was unable to reverse it. We changed it and we changed it for the better. They are going to operate faithfully the structures and mechanisms we put in place nine years ago. The delicious irony is that they are going to be operated faithfully by my bitter enemies. I shall enjoy that sight.
The problem today lies the continuing evidence of the disconnect between the rhetoric stuck in sectarian ruts and the voting habits that appear to endorse it, and the freely expressed longing for change that Trimble identified a quarter century ago, that has yet to be properly fulfilled.
Reaction to his death has rather overshadowed the highly relevant latest political attitudes survey from the Irish Institute of Liverpool University under its redoubtable chief Professor Pete Shirlow, and published in the Irish News. In the light of the current Assembly standoff, the survey suggests strong support for removing the single party veto on forming a new Executive
- 75% agreed that there ‘should be an independent review of the Assembly and Executive to explore how they could function better’. This was supported by 74.4% of unionists, 87.2% of nationalists and 85.5% of neithers.( a.k.a. others)
- Fewer agreed that if the governance structures of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement are to be changed, this change should be led by the Irish government (16.9%), the British government (22.7%) or MLAs (38.1%). This may point to a lack of trust and a desire for more participative forms of democracy.
So although change is very much wanted, neither the two governments nor the local parties are trusted to deliver it.
- ‘If a party refuses to nominate a First Minister, or a deputy First Minister, another party should be permitted to nominate for this position’ was agreed by 45.5% of respondents compared to 9.9% who disagreed. 44% of DUP voters compared to 87.7% of SF voters, 90.8% of SDLP voters, 85.6% of Alliance voters, and 64.3% of UUP voters agreed. •
- Among voters 81.5% agreed that there ‘should be an independent review of the Assembly and Executive to explore how they could function better’. This was supported by 74.4% of unionists, 87.2% of nationalists and 85.5% of neithers. • That such a review should be supported by citizens having a say also gained inter-community support with 65.8% of unionists, 79.6% of nationalists and 73.4% of neithers agreeing.
- Among voters 72.2% agreed that ‘the British and Irish governments should set up a constitutional convention, comprised of civic society groups, business, charities and interested parties to, to explore how the Assembly and Executive could be improved to function better’.
- Among voters 79.1% agreed that ‘if the governance structures of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement are to be changed…the public should have a say in this decision through a referendum
Now if you are invited to a festival of democracy in a survey you may be likely to accept. Changing the narrative and political behaviour of people and politicians alike are more daunting tasks. Tearing down the now familiar architecture of communal voting blocs is a radical departure that could inflame the insecurities of those inside, making the disagreements over the Protocol look like a tea party. Marginalising either SF or the DUP might impose too great a strain on the smaller party in block terms to represent its whole community. It would require bold thinking to abandon the block structure and substitute a weighted majority. Yet the risk might be worth it, like the greater risks of 1998.
Why is politics so static is the habitual question. Because it’s rooted in pessimism, Shirlow suggests, and in ignorance of real positives all around us. The extent of factual ignorance is indeed a major theme of the survey, partly explained by the fact that the issues are so often political footballs denied the objective treatment they deserve by political parties obsessed with “controlling the narrative”. Positivity could transform the whole political atmosphere and unlock change the only way possible, by consent. But on whose initiative?
A significant number of respondents had either no knowledge of how Northern Ireland performs against the rest of the world or significantly underestimated the contribution that it makes.
Only 11 per cent estimated that in 2022 agribusiness in Northern Ireland fed 10 million people in the UK
. Less than 6 per cent could accurately place Belfast as ranking 7th out of 179 regions in terms of contribution to the UK economy.
Almost half believed it ranked no higher than 37th or as poorly as last. In measuring change since 1998 fewer than 10 per cent were able to accurately identify that reported sectarian crime has decreased significantly (i.e. by 60 per cent) and less than 10 per cent knew that conflict related convictions fell by 90 per cent.
Despite a landscape dotted by wind farms fewer than 5 per cent knew that 40 per cent of our electricity is produced by renewable energy – at twice the EU average.
Yet, in a terrain of negativity respondents were closer when estimating the levels of poverty.
Challenging the political deadlock on the legacy, 45.1% compared to 18.2% agreed that if someone is willing to engage meaningfully to provide truth to families about harm caused to a family member, a conditional amnesty should be offered to that person. Agreement was higher among SF (58.6%) compared to DUP voters (33.5%)
Overall the legacy results register a great deal of confusion and ignorance of what is on offer – hardly a surprise because for one thing, the offer has significantly changed.
On the Protocol…
Despite extremely high numbers agreeing that the Protocol is complex and difficult to understand support for the EU’s position that renegotiating the Protocol would lead to prolonged legal uncertainty and instability divides strongly along identity lines with nationalist support at 71.1%, Unionist at 28.5% and neithers ( others) firmly in the middle on 45.7%.
- However, when asked if the UK Government was correct in introducing legislation to address the Protocol whilst an expected almost 80% of unionists agreed, nearly 46% of nationalists and 49% of neithers also agreed suggesting that support is growing for the idea that the Protocol does require some changes.
- A high level of respondents agrees that goods coming from GB or the rest of the world should not be checked if destined only for Northern Ireland ranging from almost 75% of unionists, to 60% each amongst nationalists and neithers
Shirlow believes that if political parties were more in tune with cross community opinion it would be win: win for all of them regardless of constitutional preference. The political atmosphere would lighten, the art of the political possible would expand and the whole community would gain.
The problem is how to create the catalyst for change even under pressure of the increase of support for “other.” The implication is that “other” can never be big enough to force change by itself. Two thirds still favour retaining the identifiers of unionist, nationalist and other.
If confidence is lacking in politicians to foster change who should? More than 70% would favour a consultative citizen’s Assembly and about the same a Constitutional Convention set up by the British and Irish governments to suggest ways in making the Assembly work better.
Shirlow’s frustration with the political order runs deep. The parties he claims, don’t even recognise their own successes .
A political class that created a new economy and reduced sectarianism but infuriatingly deny their role in so doing. Certainty of negativity allied to the absence of hope and even more damning lack of imagination for a politics that should turn into the 21st century.
It is the freethinkers who challenge the need for assembly reform, who grind against sectarianism and who have taken risks for a new economy. Those who unlocked themselves from habit and belief as they rallied against the lingering politics of the Edwardian era in which partition was framed. Tolstoy contended freethinking ‘is not common, but it is essential for right thinking’. Political passivity around progress will at some point become exposed when more assertive understandings of the present and the future emerge. That is the direction of travel and not what we are told the ‘ordinary’ people demand or even contemplate.
Either the long grind should begin to mobilise society for change or the governments should press for it. Both risk alienating local political parties particularly those which currently have the veto, unless they can be persuaded by weight of public opinion at the polls. I would suggest the former is the more feasible, Why should turkeys vote for Christmas?
A creative political strategy is now needed as urgently as was the GFA nearly a quarter of a century ago. When the dust settles over the Protocol ( if?) and a new UK government settles down, another window should open comparable to 1998, around a review of the Agreement that is provided for.
Photo Prof Pete Shirlow, Courtesy Liverpool University
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