If “Others” have the casting/blocking vote, both nationalism and unionism need to show they are open for development

Fintan O’Toole yesterday (or at least his headline writer does) poses a useful questionWhat if Sinn Féin makes Northern Ireland viable? But to that hypothetical I would add another: What if Northern Ireland already is viable?

This is a non trivial consideration. Reform processes have been ongoing for at least two and perhaps three generations (depending on how you count them (in the country where people marry later one generation is thought to be 30 years).

There are issues that require collective solutions to problems like health, infrastructure, inequality, housing, and education. Employment in many respects is and always has been a matter of government knowing exactly when to get out of the road.

The DUP/SF duopoly has excelled at in the last few years is how to get out of the road of government. Since the 2016 Assembly collapsed after just seven months (with SF and the DUP isolated in power together without cover), we’ve had just two years.

It didn’t bother many people when Sinn Féín pulled the plug in quite the way it seems to now that the DUP are the main culprits (an apt term for any party willing to wreck the pillars of the democratic temple when it suits their own party’s interest).

This is part of the abject co-dependency that Arnold writes about here on Slugger. This emphasises the Prisoner’s Dilemma predicament both the DUP and Sinn Féin face in getting to the top of their respective ladders. This from A Long Peace:

…two players are locked together in a game where, on each move, they choose either to ‘cooperate’ with each other or to ‘defect’ – a selfish and hostile act. If one defects and the other cooperates, then the former is highly rewarded and the latter gets nothing (the sucker’s payoff). If both defect, stalemate results and each receives very little (which is better than nothing). If both cooperate, they each receive a middle reward.

The piece was not intended to be a prediction. It was written in hope that people (journalists as well as politicians) would anticipate the nature of the trap and take politically evasive action to avoid the sort of low pay out stand off we have today.

Both have pitched right into what we warned of 20 years ago this month would swallow both traditions. If you take Miyamoto Musashi’s advice to view “distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things” there is no pay off.

Not many do. And that’s to be expected. Not many folks (whether politician or political journalist) do think in such future friendly  terms. In a flat earth world everything we’ve not quite seen before within the goldfish bowl becomes, ahem, historic.

If it is what people need to see, it is good news that a Sinn Féin politician can become First Minister and the world not fall apart. But that appears also to be where the good new ends. The NI’s signal to the DUP also nearly flattened the UUP and SDLP.

But the DUP still has the dFM job, and can continue to stymy any move on their own core political agenda. Meanwhile SF daren’t move on demands from the Alliance party for reforms that would dispose of their own equal privileges under the SAA.

There’s a negative equivalence between how many in the media measure the DUP and Sinn Féin. But the truth is between them  they are the act. The power sharing legislation of 1998 (amended in 2006/7) means neither can succeed if the other doesn’t.

The battle a day that Peter Robinson promised has led to a prolonged period of government inaction in the face of growing need. That’s because governing was never the point, one of these parties getting larger than the other was the whole point.

This dynamic arose from a late change by Jonathan Powell just as the paper version of the St Andrews Agreement was about to be printed didn’t mean the DUP had to agree to its internal competition throttling effects on unionist and nationalist politics.

The new provision was that First Minister be nominated by the largest party overall, while the deputy First Minister by the largest party from the next largest community “block” (understood to mean “Unionist”, “Nationalist”, or “Other”).

You can tell it was late by how the statute was changed, with the text saying that the largest party in the largest designation should be First Minister left in but a later clause superseding it. It has helped redirect our attention away from real politics.

Bengoa just a name of a report whose unread pages are blowing in the wind. Michelle O’Neill told us the health budget would swallow the rest of the Executive without the ten year plan she launched in October 2016. Nearly seven years later, what of it?

Out of those seven years only two have seen an administration. You cannot initiate a plan if you don’t show for work. Without that work you cannot earn the capital you need to persuade the sceptical 2/3 of the population that a united Ireland will work.

Nor, despite all the rallies, the call for citizens assemblies, the call for optimism, is “one more push” going to take Republicans anywhere but to “the top of the blocks”. Right now, even after a clueless Brexit disruption, a UI is no closer than 25 years ago.

Yesterday’s census results from the south shows the proportion of Catholics falling by a full 10%, even as, despite a much higher birth rate in Northern Ireland the proportion of adults identifying as Catholics is increasing only at a glacially slow rate.

Twenty years ago a parity referendum seemed likely enough for us to use it as a thought experiment to encourage unionists to take a broader more inclusive view of their cause. Now, even as they’ve got weaker, they may be saved such circumstances.

Sinn Féin has managed to keep the nationalist tribe together, whilst the DUP’s leadership has weakened and fragmented theirs. As a result both blocks are in rough parity but ten points each adrift of the 50%+1 they need to secure the prize.

“Others” have the casting/blocking vote. Research from Liverpool tells us that that 20% (and maybe even another 10% in the tribal blocks) are at the end of they tether listening to constitutional issues they were told was parked twenty five years ago.

Despite the efforts to snuff it out with violence or to bore us all with fruitless intransigent politics, Northern Ireland is still here, still working, and still offering a critical mass of its people a fair go at the world, if not those at the margins of society.

What Sinn Féin just accepted this reality and made live better for those poor and disaffected on those margins that vote for them in such droves? Since the DUP has similar (but less poor) constituencies, it would be an offer they couldn’t refuse.


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