Alex Kane has delivered a fairly damning critique of unionist vision and strategy in the News Letter. Some of his sharpest comments are not on line but are worth repeating:
I fear that all the unionist parties – and I include the TUV in this criticism – still believe that this process is the only show in town. They have allowed themselves to be spooked by ‘Plan Bs’ and the repercussions of walking away. Worse still I hear no clear thinking from unionism either inside or outside the Assembly. Oh yes they will talk tough about this, that and the other – but that toughness will never extend just to upping sticks and walking away.
As a TUV supporter I would take issue with a great deal of that. However, these comments should make all unionists think. He continued:
Unionism has compromised. For almost forty years we have budged positions to try and accommodate nationalism. We have accepted electoral, political and governmental practices which would not be tolerated anywhere else in the world. We have watched as the IRA bombed and negotiated its way into government because successive British Governments decided that it would be easier to accommodate rather than defeat terrorism.
The nationalist definition of unionist compromise is that we we weaken ourselves as we roll out of the UK and into a united Ireland. Well I am not prepared to accept it any more. There has to be something better. There has to be some way of ensuring that unionism is allowed to flourish and prosper.
After all that negativity he has a more optimistic longer term analysis.
Unionism is in a much stronger position than many people imagine. With some clear thinking, organisation, strategy and vision we can surprise both ourselves and our political opponents.
Exactly where Alex sees unionism going is difficult to understand from this article though hopefully he will enlighten us as both those who hold a differing position within unionism and even those within nationalism would be wise to look at whatever Kane has to say.
Alex might well dissent from this but leaving aside the mechanism of getting there: either walking out and collapsing the current structures, or negotiating within them; there are two obvious ways forward. One is to embark on further Direct Rule, the other is to consider a renewed devolved government.
To consider the second option first (I will try to look at the other option on another occasion). moving at least somewhat beyond the confines of the current agreement would be to achieve voluntary coalition and proper cabinet government with collective responsibility: too cautious maybe for Alex but a change none the less.
The advantages of both these are interrelated. I have discussed Voluntary Coalition previously but briefly to recap:
If we had voluntary coalition and collective responsibility it would then be the responsibility of the governmental parties to bring forward a common agreed programme for government: something which has been far from true thus far. Fudging important issues and ignoring them would become much more difficult, and if they were fudged, the prospect of defeat at a further election would face the governmental parties. Hence, decisions on these issues could not be kicked into the long grass: yet the issues themselves used as sticks to beat the other party in government; as they are now.
As an example there would have to be a proper compromise over academic selection. That compromise very probably would not be entirely to the liking of Catriona Ruane and she would have to accept the compromise or be replaced. Equally, however, it would be most unlikely to be exactly what Mervyn Storey wants either. Furthermore it would mean that elected politicians would be making the decisions rather than as now, where Boards of Governors and the like are de facto made into the decision makers simply because no one else will organise a proper system.
If a compromise on academic selection would be likely to be more in keeping with the wishes of the unionist parties than the current stated (and completely flouted) Department of Education position there are other areas where nationalism might expect to gain. Nationalists could make progress on the Irish Language Act a precondition of entering into government.
There are of course enormous problems with voluntary coalition and most specifically persuading nationalists and republicans to enter into any such arrangement. Voluntary coalition cannot simply be seen by unionists as a panacea unless nationalists are prepared to play the roll of collective Uncle Tom’s: something which would automatically consign the nationalist party in question to political oblivion at the next election.
Furthermore Sinn Fein have tended to view any and all suggestions regarding voluntary coalition as devices to keep them out of government. Whatever the benefits of voluntary coalition they ring extremely hollow for Sinn Fein as they always sound like a tactic to remove their hands from the levers of power in Northern Ireland.
The TUV have clearly stated that they would not be willing to enter into power sharing with Sinn Fein and as such their view of voluntary coalition does not involve Sinn Fein unless they (the TUV) are outside that government. However, the other two unionist parties have entered into power sharing though mandatory coalition. It might now be time, if the DUP or UUP are serious about trying to change the system, to propose voluntary coalition and explicitly state that they would go into such a voluntary coalition with Sinn Fein for at least a certain period. Such a move might reassure republicans that unionist demands for voluntary coalition are not simply a more sophisticated variation on the “No republicans about the place” or even “No fenians about the place” mantra which unionists are often accused of secretly harbouring.
Such a change might well lead to better government as it might then allow for a proper cabinet government to emerge. In addition it would also likely produce a real opposition with potentially a UUP and SDLP (and after the next election TUV) in genuine opposition rather than their current semi detached status. Such a period of opposition might even help the UUP and SDLP to produce a credible strategy for regaining their previous places as the lead parties in their respective communities or even if (by chance) the CU project works producing a real cross community party which could move beyond the current confines of the designation system.
Since the DUP and UUP have demonstrated by their actions that they are not in principle opposed to Sinn Fein in government it would at least be honest to state publicly that they would accept Sinn Fein as partners in a voluntary coalition. Such a position would then at least potentially allow for a more efficient form of government.
There are clearly potential problems: Sinn Fein might not accept the bone fides of the unionist party(ies) in question. Hence, some sort of system might have to be devised to ensure that at least for a time Sinn Fein could not be involuntarily removed from the executive.
Furthermore if the DUP be willing to enter into voluntary coalition with Sinn Fein would face the wrath of the TUV and probably the UUP for so doing. Whilst the TUV opposition would be legitimate, that of the UUP would seem somewhat more synthetic seeing as they had previously been in mandatory coalition with SF. Sinn Fein might of course be unwilling to play ball with this in view of their oft stated proclamation that Northern Ireland is a failed political entity. However, if a unionist party stated that it demanded voluntary coalition and would share power with Sinn Fein, the lure of power might be too much to resist, coupled as it would be with a further opportunity for Sinn Fein to gain power and respectability which might help it in the Republic of Ireland.
These options are complex and extremely high risk for the unionist party in question. However, in principle the DUP and UUP have accepted the idea of remaining in government themselves with Sinn Fein. Hence, to use the cloak of mandatory coalition as a veneer to hide their willingness to share power is somewhat disingenuous. If they truly believe that voluntary coalition devolution is the way forward for Northern Ireland it is possibly time for one or both of them to at least propose putting their policy where their mouth is.