The future of Northern Ireland politics

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Alan Whysall gave a lecture at Ulster University in February on the future of Northern Ireland politics. The full text of the lecture is available here in revised and expanded form. In this post he discusses the key points it raises, which are a development of themes raised in blogs on this site. The views set out are personal ones, but the Constitution Unit will be doing further work in the coming months on how the institutions in Northern Ireland might function better.

In a lecture at Ulster University in February I argued, in summary, that the underlying politics of Northern Ireland is such that the institutions remain in some danger – and in the longer term the sands are shifting in unexpected ways. Meanwhile grave problems that face Northern Ireland are not being addressed as effectively as they might be. For the institutions to have the best prospects of surviving and delivering, leadership is needed from the wider Northern Ireland community. There is a need to develop a clear vision for what can realistically be achieved by the Executive, capable of inspiring people; new capacity to develop policy in support of it; and a more positive political climate to ensure it is done. If that leadership cannot be found, it is hard to be confident of Northern Ireland achieving its full potential: the British, Irish and US governments have an important role, but lack the time and focus to resolve the fundamentals.

More fully, I argued that the Fresh Start package of last November is welcome because it keeps devolution on the road. Politicians had a strong self-interest in saving the system, but matters might have run out of control. Few others in Northern Ireland love the institutions.

Some there looked forward to the prospect of resumed direct rule. But in reality that would be very troubled. Ending the arrangements for working across communal boundaries, however imperfect, would have let loose serious division and recrimination, and the institutions would have been hard to bring back, possibly for many years.

The agreement is also welcome for the elaborate commitments of the then First Minister, and the deputy First Minister, about their future work together. But its substance is not at all as far-reaching as the rhetoric: it does not tackle all the fundamental weaknesses in the present political arrangements. Hence the institutions are still liable to upset, for several reasons.

First, their political underpinnings are still potentially threatened. The commitment of the parties to the institutions and to the common good above other political interests – such as satisfying sections of their supporters, or achieving success in the Republic’s elections – has in the recent past seemed limited.

Meanwhile much of society feels excluded from politics: loyalists – a long-standing and critical fault line; many in the centre; and markedly, according to recent research, the young. And this sense of exclusion narrows the contribution to public life from beyond the political sphere. Given that business and academia have also often kept their heads down, not least because they are often beholden to the Executive, the civic society voice is not loud, though there are signs that it is growing.

Hence Northern Ireland politics is even more a bubble activity than elsewhere. Political debate focuses on well-worn themes and fails to address the real challenges of government policy that bear on future wellbeing. So far as a vision is projected by political parties, it has chiefly been about the constitutional future. And there is too little capacity to develop public policy – both within the Executive, which of its nature finds new thinking especially difficult, and outside: there are no think tanks.

For the immediate future Northern Ireland faces acute problems, for example in community division, in the economy, in public service provision. Though to a large degree they are masked by Treasury largesse, they need to be tackled if Northern Ireland is to move on.

Will the performance of the institutions improve?

There is an assumption that much in Northern Ireland politics is set for the foreseeable future – including the dominance of the DUP and Sinn Féin, and, according to polling in recent years, the existence of the border. But there may be shocks around the corner: for example from Brexit, and Scottish independence, which play into the border issue, and into that of identity, where sands are shifting. Those possibilities, and the alienation of various groups, potentially create threats, as well as opportunities, for political parties.

Short of that, though, it’s not clear Northern Ireland politics can of its own devices avoid future crises, still less address seriously the key problems of public policy.

In the lecture I suggested that ensuring effectively performing devolved government requires leadership from among people in Northern Ireland, going beyond the current political sphere. There is a need for their contribution to develop a clearer sense of what government should be seeking to do, and the costs (irrespective of final constitutional destiny); and bring about a change in the climate in politics to help achieve it. This is not to denounce the whole Northern Ireland political class, only to suggest a need to change the political imperatives to which they respond.

A starting point may be to develop, with public participation, an explicit vision of how Northern Ireland might develop. And that might include a commitment to become a recognised world leader in reconciliation, building on the substantial international goodwill Northern Ireland still enjoys.

Home grown leadership is necessary because nobody outside Northern Ireland is going to sort out its problems. The interested governments, British, Irish and American, now lack the focus and resources to do so (unless the problems get very much worse). But they do still have a key, proactive, role, rather different from the one they have played in the past, as critical friends, helping politics succeed.

There are signs now that people outside politics are ready to make a greater contribution to public life. Finding effective channels for that impulse is essential: it has had its successes, but they have been spasmodic.

Meanwhile there is an urgent need for more capacity for thinking on public policy, independently of the Executive, prepared to think through ideas that may be politically difficult.

And we should scrutinise the way that the institutions operate more closely. In time, radical institutional change may be possible. It is unlikely while politics is founded on its present sectarian basis, but improvements to the system we have are worth pursuing.

I concluded the lecture with a plea to move quickly. Fatalism often holds people back in Northern Ireland. But politicians recognise that they need to do something to repair their reputations, and there are prospects of change in the three years of ‘election holiday’ after May – subject always to the possible complications of Brexit.

You can read the full text of the lecture titled ‘Northern Ireland politics: do we have a fresh start?’ in revised and expanded form here.

About the author

Alan Whysall is a former senior civil servant who has worked on Northern Ireland for most of the last 35 years. In his retirement he has become an Honorary Senior Research Associate at The Constitution Unit, where he is undertaking further work on Northern Ireland, together with Hilary Jackson and Brian Walker.

3 thoughts on “The future of Northern Ireland politics

  1. How on earth can someone as knowledgeable on Northern Ireland politics as Mr Whysall deliver a 30 page lecture on this subject without acknowledging in any way the contribution of the Alliance Party? I declare an interest here as I was one of the 16 founder members of that party in 1970, albeit now living in London. I am not for a moment claiming that Alliance has managed to bring its anti-sectarian message to such a level of popularity that a new way forward can be based entirely on it but the party has held firmly to its principles for 46 years and has consistently offered the electorate precisely the approach of reconciliation and cross-community partnership which Mr Whysall correctly advocates. Moreover in 2010 it managed in East Belfast to secure the election of Naomi Long to Westminster on the first-past-the-post basis. She was only defeated in 2015 by a deal made by the unionist parties to support a joint candidate. Perhaps the most significant contribution has been the 6 years of service by Party Leader David Ford as Minister of Justice, including policing which Mr Whysall declares with some surprise to have been one of the successful elements in recent years.

    Mr Whysall even bewails what he sees as the absence of any centrist offer. He says –

    “Then we also have a phenomenon of exclusion from politics of the centre-the long discussed
    garden centre unionists, and perhaps some nationalist counterparts. Northern Ireland politics has at times seemed a cold house for progressives. Many have, in consequence, simply focused on other things. Or they have left Northern Ireland, especially the younger and more mobile ones. Of course it’s inevitable some will do this, but a wholesale drain of depressed talented young people is something not to be contemplated with equanimity. How real and large this lost centre group is of course hard to know. The East Belfast election result has been argued by some, persuasively, to suggest that it is there, and can be mobilised.”

    Does his reference to East Belfast have something to do with the Alliance Party? No-one reading this lengthy piece would have the slightest inkling of the party’s existence.

    • I’d not expected to be accused of hostility to the Alliance Party, of all things…

      I was trying in the lecture to be nonpartisan, and to look forward rather than back, so I didn’t ascribe credit or blame very much at all. And I was speaking to an expert audience, which did not need things spelled out to it. There are some coded pointings of the finger, in fact, but none of them directed towards Alliance. Indeed I didn’t mention Alliance, but then I only mentioned the largest party, the DUP, once. For what it’s worth, I certainly agree with Denis’s assessment of David Ford’s record as Justice Minister.

      I didn’t either, with respect, assert “the absence of any centrist offer”. But I was drawing attention to the fact that the offer is not as widely taken up as might be expected. It is undoubtedly the case that there are quite a lot of people in Northern Ireland near the centre ground politically, particularly unionist leaning types, who have opted out of political participation and even voting. I’ve had earnest discussions with a number of them about why they weren’t supporters of Alliance. I’m not sure I always understood why they weren’t, but there is something about Alliance that means it doesn’t attract much support outside Belfast and its environs, and perhaps not all that much outside middle-class areas. The polling by Pete Shirlow on youth attitudes that I cite in the lecture might suggest that the future belongs to Alliance, but I’m not sure it always has great youth appeal either.

      But yes-Denis is right-the reference to the East Belfast Parliamentary election last year was about Naomi Long’s performance in bringing out a record vote for Alliance, which might suggest that there is scope for further tapping the unengaged centre. And perhaps we shall see her as Alliance leader sometime in the next year, and find out if she can pull off this trick more widely, increasing still further the vote for Alliance which has, it is true, gone up significantly under David Ford.

      • Thanks for this reply. May I say I was not detecting any “hostility” to the Alliance Party. There are times when it is more welcome to receive hostility or opposition than to be ignored! With respect phraseology like ” the phenomenon of exclusion from politics of the centre” represents ignoring Alliance’s existence. Your comments now do rather belatedly put that right. As I have already said Alliance has fallen short of the sort of province-wide breakthrough that you describe but as you now acknowledge it has made an important contribution and certainly has more to offer. The middle class point has always been there to a degree. It might be more accurate to refer to education rather than class – one of the difficulties of making major progress in the centre is the tendency to appeal to the head more than the heart. Certainly Naomi Long’s 16,978 votes (42.8%) in the 2015 East Belfast election went far beyond anything you could call middle class.

        Incidentally I do agree with your thesis that politics alone is not enough – broader community action is essential to address the hurt and bitterness that are still too pervasive in parts of Northern Ireland society. One very hopeful feature of this which I strongly support (even as a member of the “diaspora”) is the integrated education movement.

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