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