In the latest “Together Building a United Community” proposals from OFMDFM there remains very little detail, but also a particular concern that a “united community” concerns only bringing together “Protestants” and “Catholics”. This does not reflect the reality of modern Northern Ireland.
Firstly, modern Northern Ireland, not least in inner-city areas, is also home to recent immigrants from other countries and to people who simply cannot be reasonably identified as “Protestant” or “Catholic”. Implicit in what little we have seen of the proposals is that people who do not neatly fit into one “side” or the other should be forgotten about. This simply does not reflect the contemporary situation.
Secondly, there is more to the issue than faith. For example, not only is the sectarian divide reinforced by the education system, but so is the class divide – is there any chance of agreement on education reform? Health inequalities continue as a marker of social and economic disparities – is there any chance of a serious anti-poverty strategy? There are often rivalries merely between neighbourhoods. Segregation exists along many more lines that the “traditional” ones. What have the proposals to say about all of this?
A serious set of “Shared Future” proposals would pay a lot more attention to the reality of the present. There is a lot of positive work going on in community relations, but the challenge is to bring people together in a “united community” from all sorts of backgrounds, not just along a single dividing line. That is the objective – can our political leaders rise to it?
Is running a political party easy? Think about what goes into merely delivering, say, 10,000 leaflets in a particular constituency.
Someone has to manage the process of writing the content; a team has to go out and get the relevant photographs of the relevant campaigners (probably over several days); someone has to determine where they are to be delivered; the local Association has to ensure it has enough people right across the constituency to deliver them; maps and delivery routes have to be drawn up to ensure no cross-posting; someone has to oversee the printing and dispersal to the deliverers; and of course a few people have to have raised the money in the first place to pay for the print run (ideally in colour, of course). This requires a combination of good management, political experience and a large number of willing volunteers. It is far from straightforward!
There has been raised discussion, given recent events, of new parties in Northern Ireland. This is far from new – when I myself left the UUP in 2010, discussions had long been on-going about the potential for a new party. However, over nearly three years, they have remained just that – discussions. This is at least partly because running a political party, or even an Association of a political party, is no small undertaking and requires a lot of volunteers to be effective. Before even asking where any “new” party would fit on the spectrum, some key practical questions need to be asked.
Firstly, a new party will need volunteers. Leaflet delivery is only a minor challenge, compared to the real need to be out knocking on doors, collecting polling data and engaging with the public at civic events. This will require literally hundreds of volunteers who are prepared not just to meet for the odd lunch or write the odd letter, but to go out regularly – in the wind and the rain – and do the groundwork. Where are these people?
Secondly, to do any of this, it will need funds. Even a basic electoral campaign costs tens of thousands, usually a six-figure sum. Add to this basic running and administration costs on an on-going basis (even just for printing leaflets etc), and the turnover required is not insignificant – and even this excludes research funds (below). Where are these funds to be raised?
Thirdly, a point which is often understated – such a party will require information. Without any prospect of an Executive seat or even a Committee Chair in the near future, a new party will be poorly informed at legislative level compared to the established parties. This brings with it the need for highly knowledgeable research personnel and further funds to enable them to carry out their information and policy work. After all, you cannot develop meaningful policy if you do not know what is going on at the heart of government! How could a new party match the research resources of established parties who have access to public funds and information for this work?
Fourthly, outside a few constituencies, such a party would have no reputation for delivery “on the ground”. When Unionists in East Belfast turned away from Peter Robinson they had the choice of a well-respected, high-profile Unionist candidate in Trevor Ringland – yet they chose Alliance’s Naomi Long. They did so because of her nine years’ hard work for people “on the ground”. If a new coalition didn’t stand a chance against that, what chance a whole new party?
Fifthly, it will have to be administered – so it will need to recruit people with knowledge and experience of the legalities electoral returns, the practicalities of good corporate governance and the management of sound financial arrangements, as well as a willingness to risk a career move to a party not yet off the ground. Where are these people?
Finally, even after all this, you have to be sure you are offering something new to the electorate that no one else offers, while at the same time being broad enough to make you attractive to voters in sufficient numbers. If you are “Unionist”, what makes you different from the DUP? If you are “Republican” what makes you different from Sinn Fein? If you are for a “Shared Future”, what makes you different from the Alliance Party? If you are so sure your distinct approach and policies are capable of gaining widespread support among the electorate, why do you think none of the established parties is offering it?
It is not as if this has not happened before. 20 years ago, the “national” Conservatives were the largest party in North Down Council; 15 years ago, the “integrationist” UK Unionist Party briefly held as many legislative seats as the Alliance Party; 10 years ago, the “non-sectarian” Women’s Coalition held two Assembly seats; yet within an electoral cycle they had each lost all their elected representatives. They, alongside the UPNI, UDP, NIUP and others, all show how difficult it is without the membership base, the funds, the researchers, the reputation on the ground and the electoral knowledge. This is even more the case when the reason you exist loses relevance, or when a larger party adopts your position, or when a main rival sorts itself out. Why would a new party now be any different?
Who knows, perhaps it is time for a new party to appeal to one particular segment of the electorate or another. However, those on the sidelines must realise that establishing a new party is much easier called for than delivered. It is only possible when all the above questions can be satisfactorily answered. Can they, really?
Sinn Fein’s recent call for a ‘Border Poll’ in three years is outside the terms of the 1998 Agreement, and is every bit as inflammatory as the delivery of leaflets targeting the Alliance Party on false grounds. Like those leaflets, it constitutes a deliberate attempt at raising tensions for an unattainable goal within this time-frame, causing untold harm by so doing. The fundamental problem is that politicians on either “side” of the sectarian divide are simply not telling people the truth!
Sinn Fein is, of course, democratically entitled to campaign for a Border Poll and there would be nothing at all wrong with a rational debate about it. However, anyone with even the remotest comprehension of Northern Ireland knows perfectly well that, if such a debate were held ahead of a referendum right now, it would be anything but rational. That is why the conditions required for the so-called “Border Poll” were so rigidly enshrined within the 1998 Agreement; conditions which state that there has to be evidence that it would lead to a change. No such evidence exists.
On 3 December, for the first time in the history of Ireland, Irish Republicans voted to fly the Union Flag over a Civic Building in line with the Crown’s own recommendations and in line with local authorities across the UK. That is what actually happened – think about this for a second! But how rational was the “debate” which followed? How should “confident Unionism” have responded to this obvious triumph?
Northern Ireland remains a fundamentally divided society. People’s choices – educationally, socially, politically and even constitutionally – remain more often than not conditioned by their “background”. Whenever that background is perceived to be under threat, however real that threat may be, there is potential for disruption and even violence. Sinn Fein proposing a three-year campaign at this time appears to confirm the fears of so many of the protestors that the “spectre” of a United Ireland is looming – even when, rationally, we know that it isn’t.
Any parent would know that the real issues we face are jobs, not flags; education, not symbols; health, not street names. Yet children are allowed out to block roads night after night, depriving themselves of training and education, and risking a criminal record. This is not the rational thing to do – but in the history of Northern Ireland, it is what happens when fear enters a community which perceives itself to be under threat.
To be clear, some Unionist Leaders are hardly helping matters with the suggestion that a return to the old days – in general, or specifically through things such as 365-day flag flying – is an option. We have seen this through, for example, the DUP bringing this to the Assembly Commission at Stormont – also at the height of recent tensions. To overcome the fear, change towards a better Northern Ireland has to be promoted, not manipulated. One of the biggest frustrations in inner-city, majority-Protestant communities is quite simply that people are not being told the truth!
Far from suggesting constitutional change is nigh, the census in fact suggests people are becoming ever more content with a “Northern Irish” identity, and that the key priority for politicians should not be inflaming tensions over flags or mock campaigns for “Border Polls”, but actually tackling the real issues around jobs, education and health that are most people’s daily focus. If politicians were to deliver tens of thousands of leaflets demanding better educational facilities, or calling for local polls on health provision, this would be a mark of a truly functioning, democratic society – this would remove the fear which is so much in evidence on the streets currently.
There is no justification for a single road to be blocked, but we should be clear: one of the reasons for the on-going protests is the straightforward point that too many politicians are not doing their job and people feel they do not know who to trust. Now, more than ever, we need politicians prepared to stop raising false expectations and instead to tell the people they represent the truth!
I am the very proud mother of two children – an elder son, and a younger daughter. The age gap is nearly three years.
Soon after my daughter was born, my son was able to walk in and out of her room more or less as he pleased. After all, it is his house and it is his right. No one was worried because he caused no trouble and no damage, certainly not deliberately.
In later years, as any parent of children of different genders knows, this began to change. He began deliberately intervening when her friends were around; he began deliberately obstructing her from doing what she wanted to do; he began, frankly, being a bit of a nuisance sometimes. Inevitably this led to a situation where I, as both children’s mother, had to adjudicate on this childish behaviour. I had to determine whether his protestations of innocence were genuine; I had to determine whether she was over-stating the problem; I had to determine what the appropriate bounds of his entering her room would be. There was no doubt that he still had every right to do so, even theoretically when he was not wanted, but not if he was setting out deliberately to cause her offence or nuisance.
I seriously doubt, by the way, that every one of my own determinations was fair. There are no doubt times when I allowed him to cause nuisance for too long; there are also no doubt times she over-reacted and I was too hard on him; but in the end, someone had to determine these things and do so, on the basis of experience, as fairly as possible.
Needless to say this was another weekend when I had to determine whether his initial actions were appropriate: whether he had breached rules I had previously laid down for him; whether she had over-reacted; and what penalty if any would be appropriate. As any parent knows, it is not easy. While I admit I may not always get it right, I would not appreciate some outsider intervening on behalf of either child and suggesting that someone else should make these determinations!
I should note that, on the vast majority of occasions, they do behave reasonably; most of the time they get on perfectly well in her room, watching videos or playing games. If they behaved reasonably all the time, there would be no need for me to make any determinations at all. As they get older, the need for me to intervene becomes more infrequent. Nevertheless, the simple fact remains that until they reach full maturity, my adjudications are still sometimes needed as a last resort, when there is no agreement between them.
My reasoning for opposing Elected Mayors during the week was specific to Northern Ireland, but nevertheless I was pleased to see them largely rejected in England.
The whole campaign smacks, as too often, of politicians trying to solve problems which none of the voters actually believes to exist. No one could explain how an elected mayor would help pay the mortgage, help secure the nursery place, or help fund the MS drug a family member desperately needs. Because, of course, it wouldn’t.
Such reforms were part of the Conservatives’ attempts to look modern. They have actually merely contributed to the Conservatives looking detached. This was why I was so staggered to hear Dawn Purvis was on against me on the subject!
Let’s get on to the real issues.
I was delighted to appear on BBC Radio Ulster Talkback to discuss the issue of elected Mayors.
Although it has its moments of controversy, our particular system of rotating, civic mayors has generally been a chink of democratic light even during our darkest days. People of all backgrounds across all districts have, usually at least, been able to feel represented by their first citizen at least occasionally. Indeed, it could be argued that the system has encouraged some to reach out – such as Alex Maskey laying a wreath at the cenotaph or Ian Stevenson attending a Hurling final. It is important that we do not lose this with RPA.
Elected Mayors would, essentially, be a return to majority rule and would play out carve up in Northern Ireland – with districts becoming clearly “Unionist” or “Nationalist” all the time (even if the minority were, say, 40%). This is because they bring with them a degree of executive power (otherwise there isn’t any point in having them) which puts a lot of control into a single person’s hands. The nature of our divided society is that that person would not even seriously attempt to be representative of the whole district. Power sharing would simply cease to exist – a reversal of all the lessons learned over the past 30-40 years. I have to say I find the Green Party’s stated enthusiasm for this reversal at best naive and at worst outright dangerous.
It is questionable whether Elected Mayors are really a good idea other than in the largest cities. They are essentially an importation of the American Presidential system into the British (and indeed Irish) Parliamentary model – an immediate clash. In a true world city like London I think the system works well, as the whole metropolis needs a figurehead and a decision maker; however, elsewhere the jury is out. Besides, do we really have a spare £60,000 in the pot from the ratepayers of your average small town to pay an Executive Mayor? Do we really want still more elections?
In the end, I cannot help but think the whole debate misses the point.
I accept the need for more efficient public services and thus, in some cases, for school closures and such like. However, I cannot help but think that the closure of Dunmurry High School was nothing to do with efficiency and everything to do with pure, partisan and sectarian politics – an act of sabotage.
We may remember, first of all, that school “mergers” in the area have been going on for years, and the nearby Balmoral High School closed only four years ago. Pupils who would have gone there instead went to Dunmurry – which will now close. What hope is there for them? What does it say to them about the importance of education? What does it say to them about how the State cares?
The closure of Dunmurry High School then became a self-fulfilling prophesy. It was announced that it would be looked at; parents feared the worst and many acted accordingly and withdrew children; thus the school closed. Many of those remaining were only not withdrawn because other schools were allegedly “at capacity” – yet now places seem magically to have been found. In an area of most obvious educational underachievement, the Department has mishandled the whole issue horribly.
For all Sinn Fein’s talk of tackling underachievement and specifying Protestant males as the most likely to underachieve, their actions tell us what they really think of it all. School after school is closing (or “merging”) precisely where the underachievement is most obvious – in other words, precisely where the investment needs to be put in, not taken out! We may recall that the next time they talk about it – when it comes to doing something about it, particularly in the State sector, the real facts are they couldn’t give a damn.