The number of unresolved issues in the Northern Ireland Assembly is increasing – such as the transfer test replacement, the new good relations strategy, the Review of Public Administration and, of course, the devolution of policing and justice powers. All have foundered on the attempts of parties in the mandatory coalition to make gains for ‘their’ community, with economic and social issues taking a back seat. Recent events show that a party political system based largely on seeking electoral support from a constituency determined by religious background and national identity is not a suitable basis for modern governance.
That may be all very well, and many people may agree with me, but how do you actually make the change? The parties that appear to have cracked the problem are Alliance and the Greens. But a quick look at their web sites reveals nothing on their policy on constitutional issues; ignoring the issue isn’t the way forward. All parties have to accept the importance of national identity to many people in Northern Ireland, and the legitimacy of the accompanying aspiration to be part of a particular nation.
It’s interesting that we are moving towards a situation where unionist parties are broadly more to the centre right and nationalist parties to the centre left on a spectrum based on economic and social policy. But this leaves right-wing nationalists and left-wing unionists marooned (more or less – there’s always the PUP). It’s possible to vote for the ‘other side’ in the privacy of the ballot box, but the real damage is that a public declaration of an alternative allegiance isn’t easy, and most choose not to make it. The pool of political activists is reduced, with a knock-on effect on selection of candidates for elected office. Is it a coincidence that the quality of our politicians is often criticised?
So let’s imagine a political system which accepts that its members have different views on the national question, and which offers the opportunity for active political involvement across the left – right continuum to all people who identify as British, Irish, both, or neither, including minority ethnic groups. What does this mean for parties’ views on the constitutional question? It points firmly to Northern Ireland’s political parties refusing to have a collective view, and to party members having a free vote on constitutional issues, should they arise. A kind of conscience clause, as has been the case in some parties for issues such as capital punishment and abortion.
So, under such a system, what if there were to be a border poll? It would obviously upset the ‘conscience clause’ situation if parties decided to campaign for a particular result. Therefore, all parties should be legally prohibited from doing this and the government should establish and fund separate ‘for’ and ‘against’ campaigns, which anyone would be free to support without it affecting their political future in the party of their choice. There have been suggestions that the options should not be limited to yes or no; a case might be made for another option, such as a co-federal relationship with both states. Essentially, a state-sponsored campaign group should be formed for each option on the ballot paper.
The adoption – or rather evolution – of such a political system doesn’t mean unionist and nationalist parties have to deny their history, any more than do, say, the older parties in the Irish Republic. The narrative would be ‘we came from a unionist/ nationalist background but chose to change, because circumstances changed.’
Bonkers? Perhaps. Necessary? Certainly. It’s not going to happen overnight, but discussion could start right now.
Latest posts by Jenny Muir (see all)
- An interview with Claire Hanna - October 13, 2010
- Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the 20th Century - August 17, 2010
- The 2010 General Election – A Turning Point for Northern Ireland? - May 8, 2010
- An interview with John Barry - March 1, 2010
- Are We There Yet? - February 5, 2010