Mark Durkan’s weekend speech to the British and Irish Association at Oxford University, carried in full in the comment zone of a post on El Blogador, has attracted a wealth of comment across the blogs. In a section of the speech, the SDLP leader expressed his belief that the current power sharing arrangements at Stormont will be transitional and that, as confidence and normality in Northern Ireland’s politics increases, there will be an opportunity to remove ‘ugly scaffolding’ inherent in the present dispensation and progress beyond the system of designation.
Durkan’s comments chime resonantly with the views of Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey. Indeed, the conviviality of the speech to unionist perceptions of where the institutions should be headed, has undoubtedly contributed to the vehemence of Sinn Féin’s response. Martina Anderson’s statement is typical. A sneering implication that unionists cannot be trusted to participate in normal democratic politics.
Of course there is nothing radical or threatening to nationalism contained within Durkan’s remarks. Neither the SDLP, nor any unionist party which favours reforming mandatory coalition to make government more democratic or accountable, think that it is either possible or desirable to reinstate unionist majority rule. There will be mechanisms included in any altered Assembly insuring against this possibility. Weighted majorities have long been mooted as a possible solution and a post on Slugger has raised this possibility again.
The truth is that it is not unionist hegemony which Sinn Féin fears might result from removing designation and mandatory coalition, nor do the Provisionals discern any genuine threat to rights. Rather, Martina Anderson, Martin McGuinness and their ilk, are opposed to stability and normality in Northern Ireland, and the political realignments which might reflect stability and normality. In addition, removing the perpetual lock of mutual veto and mandatory coalition, introduces a degree of democracy and accountability with which an authoritarian party like Sinn Féin are profoundly uncomfortable.
If Northern Ireland is stable and normal, if nationalists and unionists are participating in politics which do not necessarily conform to a constitutional fault line enshrined in the machinery of government, then Sinn Féin’s purpose is substantially undermined. That should not prevent other participants from both nationalism and unionism, striving to deliver a system which is truly accountable and which genuinely provides better government and a better Northern Ireland, for everyone.