The Northern Ireland electorate heads towards the 5 May with little enthusiasm for the choice being presented, little interest in the institutions, and little understanding of what the Assembly has achieved over its past four years.
No doubt there will be general media attention in the run-up to the election on issues around the budget, perhaps, education, almost certainly, and health. Why bother? With all the main Parties at the Executive table, and assured a place if not the same seats following the election, the electorate has little alternative but to vote for the same old same old, or not at all.
Constitutional matters are never far away from the discussions and serve all parties well in avoiding having to answer the question of what has actually been achieved for the past four years. Some would say that a full four years was an achievement (ignoring the Sinn Fein six months sulk over the delay in transferring Policing & Justice). With nine years prior practice, it was about time a full term was possible – the Assembly has been in existence since 1998.
It seems that everything remotely positive is claimed by all, whether Unionist, Nationalist or Republican, DUP, UUP, SDLP and Sinn Fein, and even Alliance. Who wouldn’t or couldn’t claim to be responsible for free bus passes and prescriptions, or low household rates and taxes? Just don’t mention or question the cost.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty arises for the UUP and SDLP who will of course wish to claim the specific successes of their Ministers. This inherently also praises the Executive and the institutions, and the two large parties with whom they are in the Executive alongside. This also lauds the huckster’s shop, built with ugly scaffolding. Following Hillsborough 2010 (Section 3) it was the UUP and SDLP leaderships who were charged with bringing forward recommendations on improving the working of the Executive? Not much progress there.
For the DUP and Sinn Fein there is a fine balance to be walked between condemning coalition partners, with whom the success of the past four years must be shared, while claiming that it is they who have held the entire edifice together. Balanced indeed; while seeking the adsorption or marginalisation of their two respective principal rivals. At the same time the two largest parties must also ensure that they keep the UUP and SDLP on the inside and not drive either or both into opposition outside the Executive, even if an ‘unofficial’ opposition.
In the short term the DUP and Sinn Fein would find an ‘opposition’ easy enough to handle. However, over the next four years the collective ‘blame’ for all the hard decisions (and at this point those decisions are barely being admitted) would be shared alone by the DUP and Sinn Fein together. This will involve implementing fiscal tightening and, as would seem likely, increasing the burden of tax (called rates/charges/levies) on individual householders and businesses.
The most recent outcry over the decision by Michael McGimpsey as Health Minister to postpone the new radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin is a good example of political rhetoric trumping rational discussion of the issues, and the absurdity of political posturing when all parties are in Government. Was McGimpsey’s decision political? Was the decision by Barbre de Brun to place a new maternity unit at the Royal Victoria in West Belfast, rather than at the City Hospital in South Belfast political? Was Martin McGuinness’s decision to abolish the 11+ within his final days of being Education Minister political? Is the decision to fund the A5 rather than other bottleneck and poor links inside Northern Ireland political? All of these decisions could be believed, or presented, as playing to ‘core’ constituencies. The fallout from the decision was certainly political. Of course it was, its politics; a politics without purpose or progression. A politics of the past. The politics of blame.
Martin McGuinness’s statement provided a clear demonstration of the dysfunctional nature of the Stormont structures and the consequential ease of placing decisions into a sectarian context: shoring up that ugly scaffolding. Ministers are able in the first instance to make decisions outside the collective of the Executive. There followed a response from Ministerial colleagues that was also outside the collective. A Government that is also it’s own opposition is, at best, confused. This doomed the Major government, ultimately, when the country was presented with an credible alternative. Ministers of the Stormont Executive lack the democratic credentials of being accountable or responsible to anyone, even within their own collective. Where is the credible political alternative in Northern Ireland?
Northern Ireland needs a political opposition. True, it would be fair to say that neither the UUP nor SDLP would be likely to offer much by way of policy alternative to the DUP or SF in the near term – though in the bigger national picture, Ed Milliband does not seem to be doing too badly at present.
The absence of any coherent alternative proposition does not help an opposition in the run-up to an election. David Cameron might not have had to enter coalition politics had he been able to convince the electorate on what he actually believed: many are still unsure, which may be why Ed Milliband does not have to try too hard just now. Lesson learned?
Once the election is over in May it will be at least three years before the next scheduled election (Europe 2014). A lot can happen in politics over the course of three years. There is plenty of time for any Party at Stormont to become a challenging opposition and to provide an entirely valid and valuable ground-breaking democratic function. An opposition holds the potential of bringing accountability to the Executive and to the process of Government.
It is entirely wrong to suggest that there needs to be money to create an opposition at Stormont. It does not. It takes courage, imagination and determination to fulfil an essential function of democratic government. Hopefully, in time, an opposition party (or parties) could show the electorate that there is an alternative leadership that is worth voting into the Executive to take the top posts, on merit of ideas and policy commitment.
Of course Parties need to get over the idea of a natural place in Government, or that there is some right to be at the Executive table by virtue of being. Both counts ignore electoral will. The electorate should have the right to choose a Government through the ballot box rather than the dictate of legislative pre-ordination. But to choose a government there must be a choice. What choice has the electorate in the forthcoming election to the NI Assembly? Will anyone’s vote be cast with the hope of change?
There is an argument that opposition might tinker with ‘stability’ of the current institutions. Underlying that argument is an attitude that that the electorate should not be trusted with that choice, that it is not mature enough to make a choice, or that the electorate is somehow not ready to make that choice? Is the Northern Ireland electorate less ready than Iraq’s to make that choice? Is choice in the face of instability not an essential aspect of embedding democracy in any state, divided or not? The streets of North Africa and Middle East are alive with the sound of the people demanding the right to vote for a government of their choice where previously, for example, in the ‘democracies’ of Syria and Egypt a vote returned the same old government time and time again.
Are democratic elections, the right to choose and to change your government, not the universal principle being hailed as fundamental across the world? Are the consequences of Western powers choosing stability over democratic change not being felt by the people of Libya today, or the protesters in Bahrain, or Yemen, or Syria, or China? Hasn’t ‘stability’ been the cause used to justify the suppression of democratic movements in these countries and the acquiescence of the West, left and right?
Stability is much over-rated, and can easily tend towards stagnation and sterility in ideas and innovation, in politics every bit as much as economy. Ultimately this leads to the suppression of any alternative because the elite have nothing to offer but more of the same, lacking the intellectual coherence to justify their status and resorting to a corruption of the process of government to avoid the emergence of any challenge to the status quo.
So the challenge to the UUP and SDLP is whether they will continue to shore up the DUP and SF oligarchy or strike a blow for democracy by making the ‘game-changing’ move into opposition. Are they part of the self -regarding political class, caring for the few, or do they care for the many in Northern Ireland ready and willing to move on to real, meaningful change. Are the UUP and/or SDLP chicken, comfortable with the status quo and unwilling to move on? Or will they provide the egg start of a new beginning, and a positive future politics bringing new life and to a sterile coop?