Monday, 17 November 2008

Putting it off 'til next time?

It would be, I acknowledge, unduly churlish to pen a virtual heckle at news that the impasse over Stormont executive meetings may be close to resolution. If, at long last, Sinn Féin has decided to return to work and meet its counterparts at the executive table, then a start can be made on the long backlog of work which has accumulated over the course of 152 days. Doubtless there will be relief in Downing Street and self-congratulation from Northern Ireland’s two main parties if the stuttering show can be kept on the road for a while longer.

However, although a resumption of executive business will offer the optical illusion of effective government and although Provisional Sinn Féin may be placated for the time being, the same system which resulted in over five months of stasis will remain, with all its weaknesses and failures intact and the same parties predominant. Redemption’s Son offers some useful analysis of detail which might comprise a deal between the Shinners and the DUP. But where Ignited shows most perspicacity, is in his realisation that the detail of any deal matters less than what created the deadlock in the first place,

“namely …. one party can hold it (Stormont) and the Northern Ireland people to ransom. It is unacceptable, and it could be repeated in the future unless legislated against.


Rather than provide bypass surgery which could tackle root causes of the patient’s problem, the blockage will merely be pushed further along his arteries, where it remains a permanent mortal threat (you will note from this metaphor that I am not a heart surgeon by profession). Jim Allister puts it rather more crudely,

“this short-termism will be rewarded by Sinn Fein returning for more when they next need to gorge on Unionist concessions.”


David Trimble liked to use Henry Kissinger’s formulation, ‘constructive ambiguity’, to describe areas of the Belfast Agreement which were deliberately left open to the preferred interpretation of either side. As devolution beds in, problems naturally surface and under the existing system, with Sinn Féin and DUP in the ascendant, ambiguities, pre-existing and newly invented, provide an open ended excuse for refusal to govern.

Ignited suggests that unionism in particular must show initiative and tackle issues before they arise, rather than merely reacting to the latest crisis. I wholeheartedly agree. Unionists had the chance, for example, to produce suggestions on how the Irish language might be accommodated within Northern Ireland, thus drawing poison from the debate and shaping it preemptively, into a form amenable to unionism.

Whilst the DUP leads unionism this type of constructive approach is unlikely. The party, in common with its Provo rival, seems increasingly to relish crisis. Intractable, inefficient and occasionally inoperable government will await Northern Ireland for the foreseeable future. Over a longer time frame, if devolution is to persevere, then surely voluntary coalition (with cross community safeguards) must be what all sane parties should strive towards. With the prospect of endless deadlock and no opposition to hold the executive to account, efficient government is an impossibility under the present system.

11 comments:

fair_deal said...

"Ignited suggests that unionism in particular must show initiative and tackle issues before they arise, rather than merely reacting to the latest crisis. I wholeheartedly agree. Unionists had the chance, for example, to produce suggestions on how the Irish language might be accommodated within Northern Ireland, thus drawing poison from the debate and shaping it preemptively, into a form amenable to unionism."

I can appreciate the theory and sentiment. However it has a number of flaws.

While this sounds like strategy it isn't. It is essentially a well-prepared counter-strategy. This has too often been Unionism's approach in the past. Unionism needs to develop it's own strategy. You cannot control or accurately predict the actions of your opponents so don't bother, set your own goals and work to achieve them.

Also the approach lends itself to exploitation if your opponent is using incrementalism. They may soon work out what your approach is so they start dropping hints so that a 'pre-emptive' measure will appear and they get some of what they wanted easily.

If Unionism is to try and engage with the nationalist community then it should do so directly not use the filters of political party wish-list as their source for guidance.

For the scenario to work it involves nationalism simply accepting whatever unionism offered. There is nothing to prevent nationalism to call unionists proposals nasty words and demand something more substantial so they can play identity politics? It is based on the hope that by being nice they will be nice in return.

In power-sharing structures no one is in sole control of an initiative, things can be blocked by one side but they cannot be made by one side.

Also while we have mandatory coalition it is practical politics that you do not give anything away for free. It may be a useful trade at some stage. Not very high minded I know.

On the particular example, the existing irish language policy is pretty much what Unionists would live with, and it is not enough for the nationalist political parties or irish language groups.

Plus the UUP did shift its position on Irish in the late 80's early 90's. It had no effect on the demands of Irish language groups whatsoever.

Chekov said...

So there we have the DUP’s vision of what Northern Ireland’s government comprises. Two sides with respective wish lists digging into the trenches, occasionally to emerge and indulge in a skirmish which will result in one or other achieving certain sectional aims. And if something appears on one side’s wish list, the other shouldn’t even attempt to form is own constructive view on that issue, instead it should choose something of its own wish list to trade against it. Your comment actually encapsulates everything that is wrong with the current system of government.

Unionists should be formulating its policies on all issues, whether or not they are considered of special significance to out community. It is the right thing to do. And whether Irish language activists will be satisfied or not, most nationalists have a residual affection for the language and do not particularly want it foisted upon them either. A benign attitude from unionism, constructive ideas on how the language might be encouraged as a cultural phenomenon and certainly a less confrontational approach WILL draw the poison from the debate and minimise the leverage SF can gain from it. It’s also the right thing to do, because IL is part of the cultural mosaic that makes up the UK.

fair_deal said...

"So there we have the DUP’s vision of what Northern Ireland’s government comprises."

I am not a DUP spokesperson.

I had coming looking a debate about the possible approaches of Unionism but I see the inability to think beyond acronyms and urge to attack other parties over-rides as usual.

I could have went off on one how this was the UUP proposing to give away the store yet again but no I accepted the idea was profered and repeated in good faith by people who like to take time to think about politics and Unionism and treated it as such.

"Two sides with respective wish lists digging into the trenches, occasionally to emerge and indulge in a skirmish which will result in one or other achieving certain sectional aims."

There are plenty of issues were neither has a sectional wish-list so plenty to be getting on with.

I also specifically warned against accepting wish-lists at face value "If Unionism is to try and engage with the nationalist community then it should do so directly not use the filters of political party wish-list as their source for guidance."

"Unionists should be formulating its policies on all issues,"

I'll think you find it is a DUP minister who is formulating the Irish Language strategy as we speak.

"everything that is wrong with the current system of government."

Then let's change the system, won't hear any objections from me.

In the meantime I'll play football by the rules of the game until FIFA say different. I'll gladly tell them what is wrong with their rules and seek to change them but I wouldn't sit in a huff on the pitch nor scream from the stands.

"Unionists should be formulating its policies on all issues, whether or not they are considered of special significance to out community. It is the right thing to do."

Yes I agree. However, as I said the starting point for policy formulation should be strategy not counter-strategy. Both paths may cross at various points but the former gets you to a better destination.

I would appreciate Unionism having policies never mind for either community or none.

"A benign attitude from unionism, constructive ideas on how the language might be encouraged as a cultural phenomenon and certainly a less confrontational approach WILL draw the poison from the debate"

You wilfully ignore the point that the constructive things are already being done. There are Irish langauge schools, adult classes, books etc, on the radio and television, scope for it in public space, international recognition under the Charter, document translation etc.

Perhaps rather than vague niceties you could identify what is not occuring for the IL that you would consider acceptable to Unionists?

It will also not guarantee the withdrawal of "the poison" as Unionism will not be the sole arbiters of the issue. Identity politics can pretty much make a slight out of anything even well-meaning measures. To a degree your argument is the same as the one offered in the late 80's early 90's but it did not remove the poison.

"It’s also the right thing to do, because IL is part of the cultural mosaic that makes up the UK."

Yes and that is already recognised and catered for.

Conall McDevitt said...

Great to see a forward thinking unionist analysis Checkov

Conall

Chekov said...

Thanks Conall.

FD

“I could have went off on one how this was the UUP proposing to give away the store yet again but no I accepted the idea was profered and repeated in good faith by people who like to take time to think about politics and Unionism and treated it as such.”

Ok. Maybe I misunderstood what you were saying. I read your post as a justification for perpetual horse-trading by the two sides in government, which is something I want us to get beyond. Although for my part, I’m not suggesting pre-emptively answering nationalism by meeting all its demands half way. I’m simply saying that unionism should spend more time considering how it would tackle many of the sticking points.

“There are plenty of issues were neither has a sectional wish-list so plenty to be getting on with.”

There is plenty to be getting on with. But the crux of the entire post was that the sectional priorities would keep coming up and causing logjam, if something is not done to change the system.

“I also specifically warned against accepting wish-lists at face value "If Unionism is to try and engage with the nationalist community then it should do so directly not use the filters of political party wish-list as their source for guidance."”

I didn’t advocate engaging the nationalist community through the filters of a nationalist wish list. I advocated constructively addressing the most intractable power sharing issues before they arise. That also involves considering matters which might be of primary importance to the nationalist community.

“I'll think you find it is a DUP minister who is formulating the Irish Language strategy as we speak.”

As his party capitalise on a perception of fighting the language’s development at every turn.

“In the meantime I'll play football by the rules of the game until FIFA say different. I'll gladly tell them what is wrong with their rules and seek to change them but I wouldn't sit in a huff on the pitch nor scream from the stands.”

Actually the kernel of my post was that the system was flawed, rather than any party political point. So we have some agreement.

“Yes I agree. However, as I said the starting point for policy formulation should be strategy not counter-strategy. Both paths may cross at various points but the former gets you to a better destination.”

I didn’t advocate ‘counter strategy’. You implied that I was advocating ‘counter strategy’ simply because I was countenancing unionism taking a more constructive role in addressing certain issues which are primarily perceived as being of concern to nationalists.

“You wilfully ignore the point that the constructive things are already being done. There are Irish langauge schools, adult classes, books etc, on the radio and television, scope for it in public space, international recognition under the Charter, document translation etc.”

Why doesn’t unionism explain this then or highlight its role in implementing these things? Why is unionism consistently presenting itself in opposition to the Irish language?

“Perhaps rather than vague niceties you could identify what is not occuring for the IL that you would consider acceptable to Unionists?”

I want to see unionists no longer presenting themselves in opposition to the Irish language at every opportunity. I want to hear no more boasting about how little the IL is being supported. If unionists, as you claim, are playing an active and constructive role in the things you have mentioned, I want them to point that out without shame.

“It will also not guarantee the withdrawal of "the poison" as Unionism will not be the sole arbiters of the issue. Identity politics can pretty much make a slight out of anything even well-meaning measures. To a degree your argument is the same as the one offered in the late 80's early 90's but it did not remove the poison.”

Because unionists have continued to fall into the trap set by Sinn Féin by presenting themselves as opponents of the Irish Language and allowing the provos to appear as its defenders.

fair_deal said...

Chekov

Apologies if I can;t respond to all the comment here are some points.

"Ok. Maybe I misunderstood what you were saying. I read your post as a justification for perpetual horse-trading by the two sides in government, which is something I want us to get beyond."

Thank you. I would concur in wanting to get beyond it.

"Why doesn’t unionism explain this then or highlight its role in implementing these things? Why is unionism consistently presenting itself in opposition to the Irish language?"

First the media don't really buy into it. What will make the nolan show, talkback etc a good old identity politics row.

JD issued a statement about the importance of diversity last week, how many outlets and how prominently did you see it in?

Gregory Campbell visits a GAA club in south Belfast and says nice things - 30 secs on TV or writes an article in the newspaper praising the positives of the GAA. This move gets buried in an instance when someone goes gaa-gaa because in the same article he included some criticism. Conflict in whatever forms sells. It is also an example of how an attempt to engage or show greater understanding is simply ignored and the identity politics card still played (I have two threads on slugger and the identity politics one is getting more comments than the one on the progress on policing and justice. That is not unusual)

Second there are some in Unionism who do not like the Irish language so to avoid antagonising them it is simply done quietly but it still gets done.

Third the IL movement should not be given a free ride, money is not always well-spent and some of its demands are not based in reality. Read POBAL's proposals on an ILA.

Four part of it is the internal politics of power-sharing were fights are picked to establish the ground for potential trade offs and to stop the respective party bases are not being ignored.

"I didn’t advocate engaging the nationalist community through the filters of a nationalist wish list. I advocated constructively addressing the most intractable power sharing issues before they arise. That also involves considering matters which might be of primary importance to the nationalist community."

How did you establish that the irish language is a touchstone issue for that community?

Also having trade offs is a means of dealing with the "intractable power sharing issues".

"As his party capitalise on a perception of fighting the language’s development at every turn."

The UUP's position is not significantly different.

There is to a degree that the issue of an ILA became over-inflated simply because the DUP made much of the new vetoes they secured and they had to show they worked. The ILA ended up as the demonstration.

"Because unionists have continued to fall into the trap set by Sinn Féin by presenting themselves as opponents of the Irish Language and allowing the provos to appear as its defenders"

Be wary of makig Unionist the source of all difficulties in your analysis of the situation.

Disputes between Unionsim and nationalism will not be avoided all the time. Again you are moving towards I believe your comments are coming from a counter-strategy point of view.

The provos are pro-irish, they do not come to defend it because Unionists oppose an ILA.

Chekov said...

“JD issued a statement about the importance of diversity last week, how many outlets and how prominently did you see it in?”

You’re not seriously proposing that the DUP’s sterling work to foster an inclusive society is being covered up?

“It is also an example of how an attempt to engage or show greater understanding is simply ignored and the identity politics card still played (I have two threads on slugger and the identity politics one is getting more comments than the one on the progress on policing and justice. That is not unusual)”

Of course that is the case. But if a party’s ethos is entrenched in identity politics then it is leaving itself open in this regard.

“Second there are some in Unionism who do not like the Irish language so to avoid antagonising them it is simply done quietly but it still gets done.”

My suspicion is that this is the key point. That is very wrong. Rather than humouring these people the argument for an inclusive UK in which diverse cultures are valued needs to be made more resolutely.

“Third the IL movement should not be given a free ride, money is not always well-spent and some of its demands are not based in reality. Read POBAL's proposals on an ILA.”

I didn’t suggest for a minute that it should be given a free ride. Better, though, to be clear on one’s own arguments for what might be possible, rather than to be seen to oppose the language entirely.

“Four part of it is the internal politics of power-sharing were fights are picked to establish the ground for potential trade offs and to stop the respective party bases are not being ignored.”

I know what the situation is! I know how the DUP and SF work!

“How did you establish that the irish language is a touchstone issue for that community?”

I gave IL as an example of an issue which is mainly of interest to the nationalist community. I didn’t say it was a touchstone issue necessarily. It is an issue and it is mainly of concern to nationalists.

“The UUP's position is not significantly different.”

And I’ve criticised UUP reps for that reason.

“There is to a degree that the issue of an ILA became over-inflated simply because the DUP made much of the new vetoes they secured and they had to show they worked. The ILA ended up as the demonstration.”

Again, I know what the symptoms of DUP / SF carve-up are!

“Be wary of makig Unionist the source of all difficulties in your analysis of the situation.”

I point out the difficulties which nationalists bring to ‘the situation’ on a daily basis. I spend a great deal of time defending and rationalising unionism. I reserve the right to point out how unionism can do things better and how unionists can be more constructive.

“Disputes between Unionsim and nationalism will not be avoided all the time. Again you are moving towards I believe your comments are coming from a counter-strategy point of view.”

I refute that. Of course unionism and nationalism will clash from time to time. That doesn’t absolve us from responsibility in terms of being constructive and actually questioning whether we’re contributing to making an issue a battleground.

“The provos are pro-irish, they do not come to defend it because Unionists oppose an ILA.”

Provos are pro the politicisation of Irish. Whatever their personal feelings about it, its main use for them is political. Up to this point unionists have made it easy for them.

fair_deal said...

"You’re not seriously proposing that the DUP’s sterling work to foster an inclusive society is being covered up?"

I am showing how some of the things you wish to see do happen. There is no machiavellian plan to suppress. Nice words don't make good copy.

"But if a party’s ethos is entrenched in identity politics then it is leaving itself open in this regard."

I realise you have particular aspirations for the UUP but identity politics are not the preserve of the DUP.

"My suspicion is that this is the key point. That is very wrong. "

Even when things are done quietly you run into this type of reaction
http://www.jimallister.org/default.asp?blogID=1189

"It is an issue and it is mainly of concern to nationalists."

How have you established this?

"I reserve the right to point out how unionism can do things better and how unionists can be more constructive."

No dispute here.

"Of course unionism and nationalism will clash from time to time."

Exactly. This happens to be one of them. Identity will also be the most sensitive of all and difficult to avoid disagreement.

"Up to this point unionists have made it easy for them."

No they can manage it all by themselves.

"And I’ve criticised UUP reps for that reason."

The party political element of your comments were reserved for the DUP.

"I refute that."

You did say "have continued to fall into the trap set by Sinn Féin".

Chekov said...

“How have you established this?”

So which part of my statement are you questioning? Does the Irish language constitute an issue for which politicians in Northern Ireland bear responsibility? Are the majority of people who would prioritise that issue unionists or nationalists?

“The party political element of your comments were reserved for the DUP.”

The UUP is the more likely home of people who would wish to be constructive on IL.

“You did say "have continued to fall into the trap set by Sinn Féin".”

In allowing IL to become a battleground unionists are actually allowing SF to set the agenda to a far greater extent than by formulating an alternative engaged and constructive position on the language.

fair_deal said...

Chekov

"So which part of my statement are you questioning?"

The basis for saying it is a key issue for nationalists other than it being on nationalist party's wish-list?

"In allowing IL to become a battleground "

Unionists didn't "allow it"

Chekov said...

"The basis for saying it is a key issue for nationalists other than it being on nationalist party's wish-list?"

I said that it is an issue which is most pertinent to nationalists. I did not claim it was a key issue.

"Unionists didn't "allow it""

Unionists could have prevented it becoming a major battleground.