Tuesday, 5 January 2010

I have a dream .... 2020 in a (near) perfect world

Last week every newspaper carried at least one article in which pundits made their predictions for 2010. It was an invitation for rioting imaginations. But they missed a trick restricting themselves to one year. What about the decade to come?

How would we like politics in Northern Ireland, specifically, to look approaching the year 2020?

I have a very definite idea how I’d prefer business to be done.

As yet it remains a distant fantasy, but there are some developments which offer hope that it could, possibly (plausibly) be realised, if the will exists. However the events and developments which appear below are certainly not predictions. They represent a best case scenario.

Let’s look ahead.

As 2020 beckons politics in Northern Ireland have changed, utterly. The last decade has witnessed a transformation which swept away parochial parties in the province and established, effectively, a four party system, integrated with the rest of the Kingdom.

To cast an eye over the past ten years is to contemplate a transition from politics as communal, cultural battleground to a system preoccupied with the every day business of government, locally and nationally.

In retrospect, the first murmurs of the revolution to come could be detected, way back in 2010. That year saw the Conservatives sweep to a 42 seat majority in the House of Commons.

For the first time in a generation Northern Irish MPs took seats on the government benches. Four Conservatives and Unionists from Ulster would become eight, five years later, as the transition to normal politics gathered pace.

At the start of the decade an acrimonious leadership contest did not prevent the SDLP galvanising to achieve a creditable result in the general election. However fissures grew between representatives prioritising ‘social democracy' and the party’s more traditional, nationalist wing.

When David Cameron went to the polls, early in 2015, seeking a mandate for the Tories’ second term, three of the SDLP’s five Westminster MPs ran on the understanding that they would take the Labour whip in a new parliament.

Ballot papers in the 2015 general election had an unfamiliar appearance to local voters. Conservatives and Unionists stood again, eventually emerging from the poll as Northern Ireland’s biggest party. But alongside Labour Social Democrats were a coterie of Labour aligned unionists, drawn from a rump DUP, the UUP’s left fringe and former loyalist groups.

The Alliance party stood on the basis of the Liberal Democrats national manifesto and a Nationalist and Republican grouping comprising greener elements formerly within the SDLP and a reconstituted Sinn Féin, shorn of its abstentionist dogma, emerged.

When the Conservatives won a third term, in 2019, the new political landscape was more familiar. Candidates aligned with the three main UK parties contested seats in Northern Ireland, with the Nationalists and Republicans offering an outlet for those who could not reconcile themselves to parking the constitutional issue until a referendum might prove meaningful.

At Stormont traditional divisions proved more resistant to change. The Assembly in 2012 incorporated Northern Irish Conservatives, added to the UUP’s Assembly team, and a lunatic fringe of Traditional Unionists, but otherwise carve-up government continued unabated.

However, with Northern Ireland’s contribution at Westminster revitalised and a series of logjams paralysing the Executive, change became inevitable.

In 2014, having brokered a deal for the forthcoming general election with constitutional nationalists, Sinn Féin finally dropped its opposition to weighted voting in the Northern Ireland Assembly. A cross community coalition of Conservatives and Unionists, centrist SDLP MLAs and Alliance emerged after a series of heated discussions and party meetings.

With little alternative, an opposition reflecting a Labour bent and unreformed nationalist predilections, either Irish or Ulster, began to cooperate closely.

The transformation in local politics would not be tested against the electorate until 2015, when Northern Ireland’s public showed its appetite for the new configuration. Heavy losers were the TUV, whose obstructionist rhetoric was rapidly becoming redundant and the unreconstructed wing of Sinn Féin, weakened irreparably by Republican infighting over the decision to drop abstentionism.

Northern Ireland’s reshaped political scene has enabled it to prosper as the United Kingdom has emerged, slowly, from recession. Participating in national economic arguments has proved the surest way to recovery. The province certainly shared national pain, as a new Conservative government struggled to contain the deficit, but equally, it flourished as the upturn saw an increase in private investment.

Although, at the start of the decade, its education system was teetering on the brink of transfer chaos, a national culture of decentralisation has allowed parents in Northern Ireland to wrest control of their children’s schooling away from, occasionally erratic, local ministers.

In 2020 most children are educated in integrated schools, a result which is particularly apposite. Before the ’Swedish model’ became common political currency during the ’noughties’, Ulster parents were already using their own initiative to set up excellent and neutral schools.

And as political arguments normalise, division in Northern Ireland’s society has become less pronounced, although of course it remains. Sectarianism persists as a unique subset of social problems which, otherwise, are not so very different to those existing throughout the United Kingdom.

As a long serving Northern Ireland manager, now in his second spell in charge, is wont to say, ’onwards and upwards’. He deserves to be listened to, he’s taken us to two successive World Cups and a European Championship.


peteram79 said...

I share your ambitions, and I'm hopeful that something along the same lines could eventually emerge.

However, your four parties by 2020 seems a touch ambitious, with my major concerns over where current DUP and TUV support and members end up.

The rump Sinn Fein, with its single constitutional issue agenda, will be able to maintain its heady cocktail of sectarianism, left-leaning rhetoric and extreme social conservatism. But where is the home for those attracted by the similar traits within the DUP and TUV.

Moderate right-wingers can obviously join the Conservatives/Unionists and moderate left wingers Labour, although any SF split baggage (and, to be fair to even the most rabid DUP/TUV personnel, fringe loyalist involvement as well) alongside the SDLP left would obviously make that more difficult.

But what of the DUP/TUV left that cannot make the leap, and the right that wouldn't countenance the UUP link to the Conservatives? I'd guess a link-up with UKIP, mooted for the TUV at a certain point, could satisfy the right. The left may need to go it alone, although perhaps the Lib Dems/Alliance could provide a home for some as the importance of the constitutional question recedes.

I make the assumption that there is not substantial numbers of right-of-centre voters and party members in the Catholic-nationalist community that would baulk at supporting or joining a Conservative party that had had UUP links. The electoral evidence supports such an assumption. However, if such a constituency existed, there could be grounds for a further party.

Therefore, in short, I'd predict that there could be around six groupings, Conservative (UUP right, some DUP/TUV right, right-leaning "former nationalists"), Labour (SDLP left, some UUP left, some DUP/TUV left, possibly some moderate SF and possibly some ex-loyalists), Lib Dems (Alliance, some UUP left, possibly some UUP/TUV left), SF (most of the current SF, the SDLP hard nats), UKIP (most of the DUP/TUV right) and some sort of NI Left/Ulster Nats (some of the DUP/TUV left).

Jenny Muir said...

Certainly something's got to give in the next 10 years. I wouldn't want to give Cameron as clear a run as you do, and would hope that NI's Labour movement wouldn't end up as fragmented along national lines as you predict.

I suspect we'll end up with DUP and SF remaining pretty much the same, in order to cater for those who still want to vote on ethnic lines, plus three groups of Tory/old UUP; Libdem/Alliance; and SDLP/Labour as the other parties change. Which I hope they will - I have to say the UUP has shown the way here.

Anonymous said...


The Labour/SDLP is a bold prediction. We will have to wait for the new leadership of SDLP to see.

I would like a Labour option to vote for that was PRIMARILY Labour. Are the SDLP Labor? I don't think so honestly.

Jenny Muir said...

Anon - I was thinking more that the SDLP might make the kind of links with both the Irish and British Labour Parties which the UUP has made with the Tories, as a transition to the SDLP or a similar body becoming a cross-community democratic socialist party. AS you imply, the SDLP as it stands today is nationalist first and democratic socialist a very distant second.

K D Tennent said...

Interesting, but is it really likely the Tories will thrive in the long term in such a 'normalised' scenario? I rather fancy that as NI people wake up to the reality that normalisation will mean less funding from Westminster, probably not!