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The delicate art of coalition-building – an insider’s view from Canada

I imagine that many readers of this blog will, like myself, have spent much of the past few days gripped by coverage of the election results, and the ongoing coalition negotiations.

This is just a brief post to point blog readers in the direction of an absolutely fascinating Canadian article on the whole topic of coalition-building, which was written a few months ago by blogger and NDP strategist Brian Topp for the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail.

Brian Topp was a senior negotiator for the New Democratic Party (NDP) (Canada’s left-of-centre party) during their late-2008 coalition talks with the Liberal Party (Canada’s large, centrist ‘natural governing party’).

The article, entitled “Coalition Redux”, weighs in at a hefty 10,000 words or so – it’s absolutely gripping stuff and once I started reading it I found I couldn’t stop until I had finished the whole thing. It’s very well-written and offers a fascinating insider account of the kind of challenges and intricacies involved in coalition-building, and of the potential pitfalls along the way (for example, the Lib-NDP coalition failed in large part because negotiators didn’t adequately consider the impact of the role of the Bloc Quebecois).

The article was posted on Brian Topp’s Globe & Mail blog as a series of six chapters – here are all the links:

  • Part 1 – Coalition Redux: The Prime Minister makes a big mistake
  • Part 2 – Coalition Redux: The shape of the deal
  • Part 3 – Coalition Redux: The shape of the new government
  • Part 4 – Coalition Redux: Things come together
  • Part 5 – Coalition Redux: Things fall apart
  • Part 6 – Coalition Redux: Lessons Learned
  • Enjoy!

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    Filed under: general election, power sharing, Voluntary Coalition

    Thoughts on Voluntary Coalition

    In my first blog on Open Unionism I looked at what I see as increasing confidence (with good reason) within unionism. I have also looked at the need for an increase in civility within unionism and previously on slugger on the unionist consensus for a way forward in Northern Ireland. The question is can we be civil enough to one another and can we have the confidence to think about what would be required to make the unionist consensus vision a reality?

    The consensus seems to be in favour of an end to mandatory coalition and some form of more normal political system with weighted majorities to ensure no return to a simplistic majority rule which nationalists rightly remember as being discriminatory. The problem of course is that this very real and very reasonable sense of grievance and fear of unionist dominance means that nationalists are not going to leap at the prospect of dismantling the “ugly scaffolding” of our current arrangements. The rapid back tracking of Mark Durkan after he made the comments about dismantling the ugly scaffolding show that there are severe dangers in this for nationalists. Those unionists who expect the SDLP to play the role of collective Uncle Toms allowing a cross community veneer to cover a return to the halcyon days of Viscount Brookebourough are sorely mistaken.

    The SDLP are of course efficient and competent politicians, they showed themselves the match of the unionist politicians in negotiations prior to the Belfast Agreement; indeed one could suggest that for many years in the 1980s and 1990s John Hume ran rings around unionist politicians. If unionists think that the SDLP would meekly take up the proffered status of junior partner in order to make a weighted majority workable they are also surely mistaken. Again the SDLP are far too clever to buy into such a system. In addition by some incredible chance they were that stupid they would of course be decimated at the polls in the next set of elections.

    If unionists are to persuade nationalists and especially the SDLP of their bona fides and indeed the advantages which would accrue to the whole community from a radical change to the current system they need to consider just how much massive outreach would be needed and just how much we would need to be willing to concede. To appeal simply to nationalists public spiritedness and point to the current chaos, deadlock and inertia which passes for government is not enough. The offer of increased competence in government or additional power for SDLP ministers is also not enough.

    Rather unionists need to be willing to consider massive and radical outreach on issues with specific resonance to nationalists. These issues would need to be placed very clearly on the table beforehand. To be specific we need to consider an Irish Language Act, movement on the devolution of policing and justice, cross border bodies and the like; maybe even the issue of the Maze stadium.

    Furthermore it would not be simply a case of offering nationalists a set of predefined positions on each of these issues, rather it would be to tell them that we would negotiate and agree compromises on these and other issues of concern to nationalists, compromises which would be considerably more pro nationalist than they are now.

    For parties such as the TUV and DUP to assume that in a weighted majority system we would have to make less concessions than now would be extremely naïve. It is abundantly clear that we would be unable to convince nationalists of the merits of such a system and as such would be unable to get the British government to agree to it. The CUs may feel that they can move beyond unionist / nationalist politics and offer a new future. That may be the case but short of some sudden seismic shift that is extremely unlikely in the short term. As such they too need to understand that in moving towards a system of government closer to a normal understanding of democratic norms then we need not merely to offer nationalism concessions but allow nationalism to choose the issues and concessions they want.

    Whilst I am not suggesting that we concede to every demand nationalism might place upon us we would need to be willing at times to move to a place wherein we would be less than wholly comfortable. Let us remember that we would be asking exactly the same of nationalists.

    If we could do that and persuade nationalists of this then there would be considerable benefits for unionism in terms of competence of governance. However, those nationalists who might putatively enter into government would also have to feel likely to gain from government and that means not only gain power for themselves and their party nor merely improve the competence of government but also forward the nationalist agenda.

    If that were to happen those nationalists might well gain electorally at the expense of those unwilling to enter into such arrangements (realistically likely to be SF) but that would only be by having advanced not merely the cause of good governance but also the specific interests issues and concerns of the nationalist population of Northern Ireland.

    We need to understand and respect that the SDLP are not nationalist lite but nationalists green in tooth and claw, in favour of a united Ireland, proud of and fully entitled to that. They have enormous advantages over Sinn Fein in terms of ability, lack of support for the criminality of the past and a willingness to engage properly in attempts to make this society work for the benefits of all its citizens.

    In addition none of them are about to suggest that a future generation of their supporters might have to go back to violence, nor are any of them remotely likely to justify the existence of the IRA army council. They are not going to go and talk to the IRA after they murder someone and come back and tell us that it was not really the IRA. In addition absolutely none of them ever murdered any of our kith and kin. However, they are nationalists with an aspiration to have a united Ireland, an aspiration to persuade us to enter into that united Ireland and a desire to promote moves towards that unity. They want to promote Irish culture and heritage here within Northern Ireland in ways which at times we might not like.

    If unionists want to persuade nationalists of the benefits of voluntary coalition we would need to be aware that the issues mentioned above are the sorts of things we would be implicitly and quite possibly explicitly signing up to. In addition it would be absolutely no use agreeing to such suggestions beforehand and then reneging on them afterwards. That would most likely result in the nationalist partners collapsing the whole agreement and us unionists being blamed for it, or if by some chance the nationalists were willing to stay in it, their electoral annihilation at the next set of elections.

    I like many unionists believe in voluntary coalition and an end to the current system of government. However, we need to understand that it is not an option that involves no pain for ourselves as unionists. In addition if a confident unionism is to pursue its fairly consensus goal of voluntary coalition within a renewed power sharing arrangement then we will need to rediscover the willingness to be civil to one another and not simply grandstand every time the other unionist coalition partners make a deal with nationalists which is not exactly to our liking.

    Filed under: Voluntary Coalition

    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

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