Director of the Centre for the Study of Divided Societies at King’s College London, Dr Michael Kerr has contributed to The News Letter’s Union 2021 series of articles. His forthcoming book, ‘The Destructors: The Story of Northern Ireland’s Lost Peace Process’ will be published by Irish Academic Press in 2011. This latest article appeared in the News Letter on October 08…
If the UUP, SDLP and Alliance Party joined forces they could form a dominant party of the centre
By Michael Kerr
THE 1998 Belfast Agreement has radically changed both Northern Ireland’s union with Great Britain and its relations with the Republic of Ireland.
Today Northern Ireland is more comfortable with its place within the UK and Ireland is more united than it has ever been since partition. But although we are no longer a place apart we remain a people apart.
By 2021, Northern Ireland’s new political order should be consolidated and the union with Great Britain sustained. It will take more than a generation however for some of the Belfast Agreement’s more stringent checks and balances to decay organically, as a culture of power-sharing develops at all levels of society.
There is no way back to the old idiosyncratic unionist and nationalist positions of “no power-sharing” and “uniting Ireland by force of arms”. This is the dividend from the political risks and sacrifices that the UUP and the SDLP made in negotiating the agreement.
There is not going to be a united Ireland in the foreseeable future or ever at all in the terms the Provisional IRA envisaged throughout the Troubles. All the Northern Ireland parties faced up to this fact, albeit at different points, by accepting the Belfast Agreement.
Unionist unity or nationalist unity for that matter is not an essential ingredient for the agreement to work in the best interests of all Northern Irish people.
If the UUP becomes a facsimile of the DUP, as it did in the 1980s following the Anglo-Irish Agreement, then its electoral misfortunes will continue.
Why? Because the DUP have broadly adopted and successfully implemented David Trimble’s policies and Northern Ireland does not need two unionist parties with the same agenda.
For the UUP to survive they will have to change. That change will entail taking further political risks and accepting a degree of short-term pain for securing long-term gain – not something that many politicians are predisposed to do.
Northern Ireland does not need three moderate parties that accept the Union either. In February 1974, Brian Faulkner’s Official Unionists, the SDLP and the Alliance Party failed to coordinate their strategies or stand on the same platform in the general election.
The result was disastrous for the fledgling Northern Ireland Executive. Gerry Fitt was the only member returned to Westminster on a pro-agreement ticket.
These three parties – the pioneers of power-sharing in Northern Ireland – have never managed (or tried) to rekindle the partnership that held the potential to end Northern Ireland’s Troubles not long after they began.
Of course the interests of the UUP, the SDLP and Alliance are not synonymous but then neither are those of the DUP and the UUP or the SDLP and Sinn Fein.
Northern Ireland’s centre parties can offer a different vision and can again dominate the political system.
They can do so on a joint platform – seeking to work for the good of everyone in Northern Ireland and not simply their own clientele.
If the centre parties are again to offer an alternative leadership to the DUP and Sinn Fein at Stormont then their individual and joint actions in the period up until 2021 – the period in which power-sharing may be consolidated – will be crucial.
Ulster Unionists and the SDLP will again have to be brave. Firm and ambitious leadership is required from both parties if they are to move the political process on to its logical conclusion – the establishment of a power-sharing government that is not simply a mirror image of the unionist and nationalist antagonisms that divide our community.
Northern Ireland needs a power-sharing government that is forward looking and one which progressively seeks to overcome those divisions by working for the interests of both communities. This was the vision of Faulkner and Fitt after they took office.
The rules of the game have changed. If it is acceptable to the public for the DUP and Sinn Fein to govern Northern Ireland then what have the centre parties to fear in attempting to shift the political landscape back towards the middle ground through an electoral pact?
This might sound like a radical idea to some Ulster Unionist and SDLP members; lofty thinking that is all right in theory but dangerous in practice.
But then Sunningdale, which created a coalition of Northern Ireland’s progressive and moderate political forces, was a radical idea.
And as we have learnt over the last decade, it was not flawed thinking.