Open Unionism


A forum to discuss new ideas and perspectives on Unionism…

Fantasy politics? An Assembly based on voluntary coalition and a shared future agenda.

Around this time of year, as the new football season gets under way, supporters pick their ‘fantasy team’ selections, composed of the Premier League’s top players. It is a good opportunity to let one’s imagination run wild and put together a line-up which would doubtless romp to title glory, in the full knowledge that it will never actually take the field. When we speculate as to how the Northern Ireland Assembly could operate more efficiently, or when we suggest strategies which it could implement, in order to improve society, it might seem that we are engaged in a similar exercise.

There are organisational changes to power sharing which, if they were initiated, would improve incomparably our province’s governance. And there are strategic objectives, which, if they were pursued resolutely, could begin to address some of the problems which our society faces. However, with a sectarian face off well-established at Stormont, all these schemes are so many Torres and Drogba centre forward partnerships. They are simply not going to happen, unless we have a dramatic shift in thinking or representation.

As the Assembly resumes business, this week, after its summer recess, attention has focussed on the threadbare legislative programme which will form its workload. If I were setting the agenda, I would focus less on specific bills, than on the power sharing structures themselves and the broad strategies on which they should be focussed. I will describe two prominent examples below.

It is an issue which rather exemplifies the futility of attempting to reform Northern Ireland’s institutions, but the stark truth is that the Executive will not be accountable to the Assembly, or by extension, to the electorate, until Stormont functions with an official opposition.

Each of the main parties, other than Sinn Féin, favours eventually implementing some type of voluntary coalition. Indeed SDLP leader, Mark Durkan, was attacked vigorously by republicans when he suggested that such a system would ultimately provide Northern Ireland with a more efficient means of government.

Prima facie, Sinn Féin’s argument holds that voluntary coalition would represent a return to unionist domination. There are an array of possible mechanisms which could ensure any Executive would require nationalist participation, none of which the party is prepared to discuss. We must assume, therefore, that it is only the likelihood of Sinn Féin’s exclusion from government which concerns its strategists.

Currently the four main parties are locked into mandatory coalition, but power is effectively retained by the DUP and Sinn Féin. With a de facto veto available to either of the bigger parties, Stormont operates through a system of communal horse-trading. Each party decides the priorities of its perceived community and drives them forward, to the best of its ability, by making certain countermanding concessions to the other. The SDLP and UUP are required to accept mutual responsibility for the Executive’s programme, but they are essentially powerless to shape its contents, outside the particular remits of their ministers.

The system does not make the Executive accountable, nor does it encourage a plurality of ideas to be put before the electorate at election time. Although the current dispensation is designed to achieve ‘cross community’ participation, it actually perpetuates division, and an exceptional brand of political discourse, rather than encouraging normal politics to emerge.

In some respects, therefore, new ideas in terms of strategy are unlikely to emerge unless there is an impetus to reform the institutions first. With Sinn Féin and the DUP relying on their positions as totems of their tribes to entrench their political ascendancy, there is little possibility that the ‘Shared Future’ document, or a viable alternative will be advanced soon (despite assurances). Neither party, in any case, has a genuine understanding of the dynamics of integration.

In a recent blogpost on ‘Three Thousand Versts’ I argued that ‘shared future’ is about much more than airy liberal aspirations. It is about cutting down on waste and encouraging people to emerge from their communal ghettoes in order to play an active role in THE community (as opposed to A community).

Integration does not involve the diminution of culture, or enforcing friendship on those who do not want it. Rather it allows us to have one well used leisure centre where previously there were two poorly used facilities, or one quality health centre, as opposed to two inefficient services and so forth. If you chat to employers, or to people who work in recruitment agencies, they will observe that jobseekers from areas where a particular communal mentality flourishes are often reluctant to take a bus to a town centre in order to work, because the employment is not within their perceived ‘community’. It’s a mentality which the Executive should be seeking to combat.

Despite the Belfast Agreement including a requirement to promote integrated education and housing, little work towards those ends has been completed, thus far. In fact representatives from the largest parties are frequently amongst the most strenuous opponents where shared housing provision is mooted. The political system rewards them for fighting for homes for their particular ‘community’ to the exclusion of the other. Meanwhile the education minister is fixated on children of different abilities sharing the same school, but appears impervious to a religious fissure. Indeed she is intent on exacerbating community division in schools by pursuing her pet project – Irish Medium Education.

Unionism, as I understand it, is concerned with the integrity of the United Kingdom. By definition, unionism in Northern Ireland should be preoccupied with eliminating dysfunction in our society, because that is the most effective means by which to prove that our continued membership of the UK is working for voters. We should be eager to promote a society which is at ease with itself, where a plurality of cultures and identities can feel comfortable. Every opportunity to heal division and normalise politics here should be seized. Therefore an Assembly based on cross community coalition, with a very real focus on integration, would be a profoundly unionist body in its function.


Filed under: Shared future, Voluntary Coalition

13 Responses

  1. AugherStar says:

    All ideas of a shared community are pointless ,whilst a majority/sizable minority of the nationalist people in Northern Ireland do not want the state to exist.
    Nationalists/Republicans seem to genuinely believe that their aspirations to a “united Ireland” will be fulfilled within a relatively short space of time and thus do not feel any need to make the current system work well. Untill it finally dawns on them that Northern Ireland will exist long after they and possibly their children are dead , I do not see this attitude changing.

  2. subrosa says:

    Morning. Off topic I know but does anyone know the percentages for independence/status quo please?

  3. owenpolley says:

    Hi Augher – thanks for getting the ball rolling on debate at Open Unionism.

    I think we’re approaching this topic with some common coordinates but perhaps we’re driving in different directions.

    It is nationalist and republican opposition to the existence of Northern Ireland which I believe makes shared future a compelling priority for unionists.

    We have most to gain by delivering a functional province, at ease with itself. And by championing shared future we offer a riposte to the republican narrative, which insists that it is a champion of minority rights.

    Hardcore republicans might have no interest in integrating with neighbours in a UK context, but plenty of moderate nationalists can be persuaded to do just that.

    I agree that SF is the biggest road block to shared future but I don’t see a compelling reason why unionists at least can’t be seen to pull in the same direction on this issue.

    After all we want to see a diverse population in Northern Ireland at ease as part of the United Kingdom.

  4. Finbar says:

    Firstly, on the blog, an excellent idea to have a space where Unionists of all hues can discuss ideas from their perspective without the usual under hand jabs (though I’d hazard that the opening article has a couple of them in there Owen).

    On the article itself, it makes perfect sense that an integrated community will drive economies of scale, and duplication will be eradicated, saving the public purse lots of money in the process. Look at Education, where many small villages in the country have many schools where one would do. Fivemiletown has three Primary Schools presently in the town limits & one just outside (two religious ethos, one Controlled & one Integrated). That’s four sets of teachers, four heating bills, four of everything. There are probably no more than 300 kids across all four schools. There are dozens of other examples in villages & towns across the South West & undoubtedly across the rest of NI.

    Sadly, I fear, it’s probably in isolated education where many of our county’s problems originate. If we can get the kids to work, and play together in their youth, there’s no reason why working & living together in their adulthood can’t be more ‘normal’.

    So what can Unionists do on Education to create savings for the public and increase integration??

    Unfortunately, just presenting a sensible argument for synergy is probably insufficient in it’s own right. The business logic in rationalising the education system is clear, but who would be the losers – as inevitably there would be some. Could a Unionist Minister persuade people here that a Secular State System could meet our children’s educational needs, save the tax-payer millions of pounds and not stop kids from being what they are in terms of Religion?? Would people accept that teaching their kids religion (as opposed to teaching them about religions) is their own and their own Church’s responsibility & not the states??

    Can budgets be made so that integration of our multitude of systems are driven towards each other, but the benefits driven from the savings can be directly attributed to improved conditions for pupils & teachers??

    • FMTer says:

      Not wishing to side-track the debate on a minor point of how many primary schools a village in Co Tyrone has but Fivemiletown has one less primary school this school term as Clogher Valley Integrated closed in June after the Education Minister turned down their application for funding.

      I’d be surprised if there is still 3 primary schools (if you include the Free P one outside the village)open in FMT in 10 years time.

  5. emanonon says:

    Why do you persist in using the word unionist which has certain unfortunate connotations here as it has been used by some less that deomcratic groups?

    Why not pro union or pro UK which has no baggage?

  6. slug says:

    If I may take on Chekov on one point. The UUP often attack DUP for changing the requirement that the FM come from the largest “community designation” to the largest party.

    Surely if we are interested in building a more normal politics, then the largest party should have the FM job, not the largest “community designation”. I say this as a unionist, knowing that Sinn Féin could take the FM as a result.

    I am aware that people claim the DUP and SF have a vested interest in this change – it creates voting incentives that may help them.

    However, it did remove designation from one part of the arrangements and can therefore be seen as a normalising step.

    On your core thesis I largely agree.

    But to take the point Finbar focuses on, integration in education, it wont happen by simply removing religious schools, however it can happen by creating favourable incentives for integrated schools. But how much should educational integration be subsidised or incentivised by the government and at what point is this unfair on existing schools? To what extent should specific “integrated schools” be the solution, as opposed to simply encouraging more diverse range of children to go to the state school?

  7. I blogged on this issue today on O’Conall St Owen.

  8. Chekov says:

    Thanks Conall. Your piece echoes my concerns as to SF’s approach to ‘equality’.

  9. DM says:

    Unionism’s biggest strength, as yet relatively untapped in NI I believe, is its plurality, ably highlighted in the closing paragraph of the blog. The United Kingdom as a whole relies ever more upon its ability to be all things to all people and to absorb new and diverse cultures under a single banner (The classic example of this, incidentally, is the USA).

    Traditionally unionism has been seen as reactionary, right of centre and beloved of ‘the old guard’. It is time for Unionists in NI to take the initiative and place their politics on the front foot, by taking positive steps to demonstrate the benefits of living within a multicultural union. I cannot help but think that a chance has already been missed by the failure of Sir Reg’s lot to come up with a better name for the new UU-Con link-up. Little Ulsterism will get us nowhere – as unionists we are nothing without our partners in the union and we should be looking to them increasingly in an effort to modernise NI unionism.

    While we continue to engage in ‘horse-trading’ and the divvying up of electoral wards into green and orange we will stand still or drift backwards. Sinn fein talk the equality talk but it is clear that they do not wish to walk the walk – unionism has a lot to gain by pushing issues such as integrated education and the removal of peace walls. Sf’s squirming over the idea of a voluntary coalition, as highlighted above, says it all – they will not take actions that rish jeapordising their position at the head table; this hypocrisy is their to be exploited.

    Agree with Slug on the point re: integrated education; it is hard to know whether a ‘forced’ move towards integrated schools would be successful in the face of our natural skepticism here.

    Apologies for a rather jumbled collection of points, stimulated by your insightul blog!

  10. Chekov says:

    My position on integrated education, DM, is not that it should be enforced, because parents ultimately should be responsible for their children’s education, but that it should be encouraged. That sort of annoying but also rather pertinent Nudge book springs to mind. Integrated should be the paradigm, rather than the exception.

  11. Ligoniel says:

    Agreed; The carrot rather than the stick approach to integrated education, a tax rebate perhaps. It seems to me to be one of the main routes forward to a settled pluralist society at peace with itself.

  12. […] we’ve looked closely at included: voluntary coalition and a shared future; education and the post-primary debate; how best to strip back public administration costs; the […]

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