Review, refresh, re-engage.

The outcry over the attendance of Jamie Bryson at the House of Commons Northern Ireland Select Committee (NIAC) misses the point. This is a hearing as part of the Committee’s look at “Devolution and democracy in Northern Ireland – dealing with the deficit.” in Northern Ireland.

The NIAC look at “dealing with the deficit” in Northern Ireland has most probably been considered timely given the seemingly on-going impasse in discussions through 2017 (and into 2018) towards restoring devolution: or not, as at present. Presumptive or with great foresight, the Review now seems of greater interest in looking forward – notwithstanding the attendance of Mr Bryson and the subsequent Alliance Party hissy fit in that regard.

To move forward a good start point is to  review where Northern Ireland has been these past 20 years, and more.

Beginning with a look at the out-workings of the democratic framework of the region.

Back to the basics of democracy – elections and votes. Our political landscape is largely shaped by how people vote, the politicians they elect and the mandates sought to secure that vote. That needs to be then reviewed in respect of the structural institutional framework in which those politicians must work.

Three graphs.

First, the registered electorate and turnout.

Thankfully more recent numbers are available election to election – someone else might find the numbers to complete the graph (above) from 1969, but for present purposes the broad sense of earlier years is enough.

The registered electorate has grown in line with general population. Sometimes there have been cries about missing voters or faults in the registration system; but these are probably marginal in the overall picture, even if important to one political party or another at a local level. Also, it just might be that people were not that bothered to register.

Turnout has been rising generally – slight variations may be due to different eligibilities in different elections.

Interestingly, the lowest polls are for elections to the European Parliament (priorities?) and that even with the higher vote in 2014 that was on the same day as Local Council elections – even then, 150,000 fewer votes were cast for Europe than for local representatives! Otherwise there are broad ebbs and flows not dissimilar to pre-1998.

The first big point to note is that the vote turnout in 1998 (823,565) and 2017 (812,783 / 815260) was largely the same. Whatever might be meant by “democratic deficit” that definition cannot encompass lack of electoral engagement. There is nothing in the numbers to suggest ‘fewer’ people are engaged in politics at points when, where and how they think it matters.

The outcome in terms of Party shares of the vote in 1998 was very different to that of either vote in 2017. This may show a shift in the electorate’s expectation or outlook on political developments; it does not mean that we can in any way believe that the electorate is deficient or does not know for what it is voting. No matter how many might dislike the electorate’s judgment, it is what it is. Disrespecting that judgment is itself undemocratic.

Accepting the judgment of the electorate, it is still worth considering what that vote represents.

Second, others

Working back from the 2017 electoral dominance within Unionism and Nationalism, by the DUP and Sinn Fein respectively, there sometimes is a lazy explanation of the size of DUP and Sinn Fein voting strength; that in some way the two parties squeezed smaller Party votes and eclipsed independents. The evidence doesn’t support that.

The decline of small parties has been steady – or it could be said the success of small parties has often been exaggerated. Beyond the Forum elections which were structured in such a way to get as many Parties and representatives into the room as possible, and carried into elections in 1998 and a few years following, votes have since coalesced around the larger five parties, just as they had before the Forum. The early 1970s represent the massive disruption in all aspects of Northern Ireland life in that period.

Third, voting patterns.

Again, this graph takes a long view from 1969. Some judgments on the very small party/individual votes had to be made, based on whom or what they were at the time (the second chart above shows the scale of that challenge early on); hand up, here and there a small marginal vote for a person or Party might have been missed. The bigger picture is what is important.

Taking only the five big Parties of today, there are some general observations that are striking.

Alliance has bounced along at about the same level, forever – up here, down there; never showing indication of a breakthrough moment. The introduction of PR in the early 1970s, to enable the ‘middle-ground’ to assert itself, didn’t make much difference. Partly because the Unionist Party (OUP or UUP) was always broad enough to have many voices, and to moderate Unionists offered room to speak out; the DUP was there to provide a populist option. While with nationalism, ditto SDLP: though until the late 1990s populist would have been a kind description of Sinn Fein.

On the two Party electoral dominance, we first see that it is reasonable to state that the rise of Sinn Fein has been reflected in the decline of the SDLP. The decline of the SDLP has been a steady trend, most marked since 1998 – almost a cross over point: Sinn Fein has in effect replaced the SDLP electorally.

The picture within Unionism is more nuanced. Certainly the DUP has seen a rise to dominance in 2017, but only a certain rise since the mid 00s. Before then, even before 1998 the DUP and UUP could be said to have been locked in a competitive political engagement for the unionist electorate. Even though some of those DUP peaks are Ian Paisley Sr European votes (Unionism’s equivalent to a UKIP message, even before UKIP), there is an ebb and flow to two parties strengths, with the UUP on balance just about staying ahead.

It makes the size of the DUP vote in the 2017 Westminster election all the more remarkable.  Given the high DUP vote only a few months earlier it would seem that, besides a number of Unionist voters from other parties, there were also a significant number of voters who either had not previously voted (or had not voted in some time): the Garden Centre Prods are back, and as angry as everyone else? The vote that carried David Trimble into Government, told the DUP enough was enough.

Coming after the near tie for votes in the March Assembly election, where Sinn Fein came within a 1000 votes of pipping the DUP as the party with the largest electoral mandate, the Westminster election was a knock in the republican notion that pushing Unionism into second place was just a poll away.

What is certain is that the 2017 Westminster vote represented the outworking of the changes created following the 2007 St Andrews Agreement – yes, the one that changed the unchangeable and blessed ‘Good Friday Agreement’.

The 2007 change of the rules on who becomes First Minister, from the largest Party of the largest designation (Unionist, Nationalist or other) to nomination from the Party with the largest number of seats had an almost inevitable (some would say deliberate) impact on electoral calculations.

That change could be considered a deliberate play by the DUP or Sinn Fein, or presented as a “bribe” to get an agreement over the line. Either way, the consequences of the change were clearly anticipated – Party or ‘legacy’ were put in advance of both plural democracy and longer-term stability/development. It was a calculated act that had the approval of both the Parties and, shamefully, of both the Governments who were meant to be co-Guarantors of the Belfast Agreement.

The change in rules on who became First Minister created an electoral pitch based largely on being the biggest Party, winning the most seats so that the other Party didn’t take the First Minister prize. That largely explains the surging of both the DUP and SF vote to absolute dominance.

That calculation underlying the change also meant that any competitive strains with in the two voting blocks between the two larger Parties in each were lost in the single focus of being ‘the largest’.

Of course, being ‘the largest’ Party has absolutely nothing to do with bringing good Government to bear on Stormont. Perhaps we should not be surprised that the day-to-day issues have not featured prominently in any election over the past decade. Even the March 2017 the Sinn Fein focus on RHI as a prime reason for collapsing the Executive, was quickly forgotten – the intimate involvement of Sinn Fein in finding an internal Executive resolution to the RHI scheme was lost in the rush to achieve “the largest” prize.

The 2007 change in rules on who becomes First Minister also meant that the creation of an ‘Opposition’ at Stormont was largely meaningless where the outworking of the 2007 change is to channel voters into protecting or pursuing “the largest” vote. In such circumstances, ‘accountability’ becomes secondary.

The immediate impact of the lack of an Executive on every aspect of life in Northern Ireland is that there is no-one obviously making decisions on policy going forward, or giving direction to public services. While essential reform and infrastructure funding has been bound into the DUP/Conservative Party confidence and supply arrangements at Westminster, without Executive Authority from either Stormont or Westminster, much needed developments remain on hold beyond budget-setting, putting the Northern Ireland Civil Service in a holding pattern of administration.

To look solely at the events of the past few years is to miss the lessons that may be learnt over the past twenty years, using the Belfast Agreement as an anchor point. The ‘deficit’ that has arisen in the years subsequently has been exaggerated since 2007 by the removal of competitive engagement and accountability from political discourse. Policy, indeed constructive politics, didn’t have a chance against the single goal of retaining/gaining the First Minister role.

In that regard the change in the rules around who is First Minister has removed debate around the performance of the Executive. While at face value the introduction of an ‘Opposition’ was the right idea, it was stillborn given the electoral imperatives in gaining “the largest” vote, as was any notion of accountability that might have been possible. Lack of funding for Opposition research and policy development is a secondary issue in relation to effectiveness, but inconsequential when being in Opposition lacks potential for any electoral gain.

It should be pointed out other than moments of high drama, the vote at elections along the top two graphs tends to bounce along with broad indifference to issues of identity. The electorate broadly relaxed its interest in identity (and voting) expecting politicians to get on with it – Government that is. Sinn Fein polled more votes than the DUP in the 2010 Westminster election and in the 2014 Local Council elections: the sky did not fall on our heads. It is only in the Assembly where being ‘the largest’ seems to turn the political discourse into a poisonous impasse.

There are of course other considerations in looking at these numbers, and many possible comments to be made – not least Sinn Fein’s alternate focus on elections in the Republic of Ireland, and its self-regarding, self-adsorbed, sense of destiny to the exclusion of all else; and not forgetting that Sinn Fein’s performance in the Executive is fairly abysmal. There is a sequencing along the 2015, 2016 and two 2017 elections on which much has already been written, and much more could be said.

To keep a focus on matters specifically relating the nature of Northern Ireland devolution and the idea of a ‘deficit’, alluded to in the NIAC inquiry, there are just a few conclusions to be made from the above.

Rather than wholesale restructuring of the Belfast Agreement, the past twenty years suggests that the element of ‘competitive’ electoral engagement needs to be returned. In that respect, return to something of original rules for First Minister (taken from the largest designation), drop the necessity that it must be the largest Party that takes the First Minister role and add in a weighted majority for approval of any Executive. Additionally, having Official Opposition is only proper, but give it the funding to do a better job of well-resourced challenge to policy and performance of those taking on an Executive role.

While there is talk of reforming the Assembly community failsafe device of Petition of Concern, it would be expected that that might be less of an issue if more trust were to be present – again, ‘trust’ in sharp decline since hardly a high point of 2007.

Sometimes to move forward you need to take a step back, review, refresh the ideas based on what has happened so far, and re-engage positively moving forward having learned from experience.

The evidence of electoral engagement suggests that on the whole the people of Northern Ireland weren’t too exercised over who was in Government. It seems the electorate just wanted Good Government that delivered public services effectively in such a way that those items were not something of a worry. Day to day life for most people is a challenge without having to worry unduly about aging, health care or the best education for their kids, or grandkids.

The ‘deficit’ is in delivery of that basic standard of good Government.

Perhaps. Or by throwing the two Parties into their dominant position the electorate does not want compromise. Maybe it is the electorate calling time on the process and demanding someone else, Westminster, takes the necessary decisions. After all, it was Sinn Fein who opted for Westminster to take decisions when it was unwilling to implement necessary (and previously agreed) Welfare Reform. Perhaps the electorate is saying, “more of that please.”

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