Don’t be cynical. Seize this moment for a real Fresh Start, with a transformed atmosphere between changed Labour and the newly led government in Dublin

Thankfully we have a break in elections until 2027.  Mick has carried out his distinctive analysis of  GE24. For all the emotions engendered, it shows how little has changed in the balance of forces in identity politics. In seats, Nationalists 9, Unionists 8, Alliance 1. You mightn’t have noticed but the Unionist share of the  vote was 43% , Nationalists 40%, although both on a record low turnout of 57%. I would only add  a couple of things on this.  One, that despite all the limitations of First Past the Post the minor parties the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP  survived and even flourished. And secondly voters showed real discrimination by tactical voting, – for example if they thought MPs were getting above themselves. Sleaze or the suspicion of sleaze  played the bigger part in Jim Allister’s defenestration of Ian Paisley. Remember Peter Robinson losing his seat in 2010? And the massive 17% swing in Foyle in 2019  from Sinn Fein to Colum Eastwood, now cut down to size but surviving in 2024. Jeffrey Donaldson’s court appearance just before polling day may have played a part in the DUP’s loss of the seat.  Unionist splits almost sunk DUP veterans Gregory Campbell and Sammy Wilson.

Behind the headlines the picture is even more complicated. Sinn Féin’s hat trick of coming top in recent elections on a rising curve. The DUP squeezed on opposite sides leaving no seat safe except possibly Upper Bann. Four different type of unionist off to Westminster.  Stormont  is  permanently like France in turmoil  at this particular moment . In our system no one can rule outright, cooperation and compromise is essential  for government to function, strong forces loom on both sides ready to split the community even further. The difference from France, crucially,  is that almost everyone has a seat in government. So you might ask: what exactly are they contesting if ( nearly) all must have prizes? The answer of course, is the existential struggle power sharing was supposed to banish, or at least soften. Politics is still about struggle, even inside the.same fraction.  They might have guessed better when they thought it up.

What then of the future of our politics?

For unionism another fork in the road lies between Jim Allister’s cul de sac and a new pathway yet to be built and may never be.  A stiff test of unionist self discipline  will come towards the end of the year when MLAs will  vote on a democratic consent motion on the Windsor Framework governing the movement of goods. As only a simple majority is required, consent will presumably be given. But DUP disgruntlement may run high again even in Jim Allister’s absence. Falling short of another boycott? Surely so. But they might relieve their frustration in other unwelcome ways.

To face the true facts, maximum transparency is  vital. The Assembly’s Windsor Framework  Scrutiny Committee  and  the UK government who are after all responsible for the Framework, should publish regular reports on the workings of  the Protocol at the ports, warts and all.  The Protocol must be made manageable and normalised. The DUP ‘s panacea of mutual enforcement will not happen.  No amount of screaming and shouting will make Brexit go away – unfortunately.

The change of atmosphere created by the Labour government with a grownup as secretary of state allows  for – wait for it – a fresh start with Stormont  and the new Dublin government.  Will Sinn Féin’s ’unity drive rhetoric be strong enough to thwart it? I doubt it.

This time it involves more than Northern Ireland. We are promised an end to “ devolve and forget”  by means of  Labour’s plans for improved coordination  of UK devolution. Still to be fleshed out, these will  be more substantial  than the Tories’ blatantly political Safeguarding the Union deal that was  so derided by the unionists it was intended to appease and nurse back into the Assembly.  We are credibly assured they will be entirely compatible with strengthening the GFA institutions, so perversely neglected by the Tories.

Here lies an opportunity to boost cross border investment through the shared  future programme.  It will be Sinn Féin’s ambition in the south supported by minor parties to transform this cautious programme with  a commitment to constitutional change in next year’s election. SF’s call is their raison d’être. Although hardly a priority with their own voters, it  can’t be completely ignored by the present  governing parties now in the ascendant. Let’s see how they finesse it. If they don’t, the shared island will be in jeopardy as far as Northern power sharing is concerned.

More urgent than anything just now is a financial settlement in the North whose parameters have not shifted since the change of government. With no elections in sight  the Assembly must bite the bullet of modest revenue raising in order to win a bigger settlement . Instead of dealing mainly with the DUP like his devious predecessor, Hilary Benn should nudge all parties along, also aware that Sinn Féin holds both economics portfolios. Rachel Reeves’ Treasury will keep as tight a rein as Jeremy  Hunt’s.

A Good Friends strategy all round  based on the enthusiastic implementation of all strands of the GFA would be well in accord with Labour atmospherics and cautious southern ambitions.

The best hope is a new sense of direction from a revived  British- Irish relationship.  Sinn Féin know that for all their efforts to create a stampede, unity referendums by 2030 are a faint hope.  There aren’t enough elections  to build momentum and in the south their star has faded. It would take an earthquake to change the scene.

Benn has yet to form his approach, whether he will  have a major sit down with all the parties and hammer out a new version of New Decade New Approach, like that steered by the one half effective Conservative secretary of state since 2015, Julian Smith. If he does, better luck this time after Stormont House Agreement, Fresh Start etc etc etc,

You might think Making the Assembly Work is enough to be going on with.

Whether the Stormont  parties will respond to metropolitan nudging remains to be seen. That’s the most even the most fervent optimist can say. Meanwhile..

 

Matthew O’Toole

 

 

This is what our political debate should be about, not sectarian drivel from attention seekers. With greater stability in both London and Belfast, the Executive now has a platform to make progress on rescuing public services. Our job will be critical in holding them to account.

Quote

Marie-Louise Connolly

@mlchealth

  • NI Cancer Waiting time statistics reveal continuing delays for treatment & unmet targets. There is a dramatic drop in number of people getting a timely breast cancer referral 34.1 % within 14 days. The target states ALL urgent breast cancer referrals shld be seen within 14 days.

23h


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