Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Electorate tires of parties doing the hokey cokey

Peter Robinson said he believed the Executive can continue, in spite of its obvious failings
Peter Robinson said he believed the Executive can continue, in spite of its obvious failings

Would the Good Friday Agreement achieve 71% support in Northern Ireland if the referendum of May 1998 were rerun?

Firstly, let's refresh the memory of what happened after that historic Easter 16 years ago. People voted in the referendum in huge numbers.

The turnout was 81%. The Yes camp attracted 677,000 votes, while 275,000 said No. Possibly 150,000 more than usual went to the polling stations, presumably because they felt so strongly for or against the Belfast Agreement. They believed their vote could make a real difference.

While only a slim majority of unionists, or members of the Protestant community, said Yes, nationalists and Catholics were overwhelmingly in favour. Eventually, the dissenting voices of the Democratic Unionists forced a revised St Andrews Agreement.

In the years since, Stormont has stumbled, but somehow survived. One side blames the other for the inertia, the failure to reach decisive agreement on a lengthening list of issues.

The First Minister, Peter Robinson, interviewed in this newspaper, said he believed the Executive can continue, in spite of its obvious failings, which even he – along with many others – has identified.

However, last week the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers (below), did not seem so sure of Stormont's future. Delivering the Government's current assessment of devolution, she quoted Edmund Burke: "A state without the means of change is without the means of preservation."

Northern Ireland is governed by an abnormal form of democracy. The five main parties ask for our votes only to join with each other and ensure that there is no constructive, questioning Opposition.

The Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, if not the Alliance Party, dance to a political version of the hokey cokey – you put your left leg in, you put your right foot out.

They continue to share power with the two major parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, whose decisions they resent and criticise and yet resignation remains a step too far and there is little prospect of any agreement on forming an official Opposition.

Mr Robinson, like Ms Villiers, acknowledges that Stormont needs to do better. In his interview with the Belfast Telegraph, he said Stormont's decision-making process was inhibited by Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.

It seems that nothing of substance can be agreed for Northern Ireland until and unless Mr Adams gives his seal of approval and ensures that whatever his party colleagues are doing up north does not undermine Sinn Fein's aspiration for power in the south. The reality is that the Stormont Executive is an assortment of political thinking covering a spectrum from socialist dogma to Right-wing conservatism.

In Westminster terms, it is Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill, Tony Blair and David Cameron, Tony Benn and Enoch Powell and many more Left and Right voices rolled into one impossible governing dream, with a few moderating minds trying to preserve some sanity.

So, back to the question of whether the Good Friday referendum would achieve a 71% vote today. While nationalists and republicans might continue to give strong endorsement, unionist support is much more questionable.

The level of Protestant working-class dissent on issues such as flags and parades and the steep decline in unionist voting habits in the past decade suggest genuine cause for concern.

Northern Ireland is living through an extraordinary period of transition from times when the unionist community had the upper hand in many social, cultural and political ways.

Power-sharing is dependent on equality of citizenship and achieving that is not without pain. If one section of a community is disadvantaged and the imbalance requires to be rectified, as has happened in Northern Ireland, then the other section must lose some of the benefits and privileges to which it was once accustomed.

The fact that the British and Irish governments are drawing ever closer together is laudable, yet what effect does it have among an unsettled, disillusioned, disaffected and apathetic section of the unionist community?

Forty years ago, they would have rebelled, as their fathers did during the Ulster Workers' Council strike, which, in May 1974, brought down the first power-sharing Executive.

Northern Ireland is now in a different place. The idea of any such revolution today is unthinkable. However, complacency is a dangerous trait.

From 81% in 1998, the decline in voting habits and level of disinterest in devolution is such that barely 50% are likely to vote in the next Assembly election in 2016.

If ever a wake-up call were needed in Belfast, London and Dublin, it is now.

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk