Will we ever truly share power?
As our political leaders clash once again on old issues, we might never see a government capable of working cohesively together
Published 28/02/2014 | 09:30
Forty years ago today, February 28, 1974, the United Ulster Unionist Coalition (UUP/DUP/Vanguard) secured 51.1% in the general election. That result represented the death knell for both the Assembly and the Sunningdale Agreement, because it confirmed that, with just 13% of the vote, Brian Faulkner didn't represent a majority of unionism.
He held on for another few months - hoping, one supposes, that opinion would shift his way - before being forced out of office in the aftermath of the Ulster Workers' Council strike in May 1974.
Today, on the 40th anniversary of that death knell result, Peter Robinson will address an emergency recall of the Assembly. He has already made it clear that he will not be a stooge for the British government, but he has withdrawn his resignation threat after gaining assurances from David Cameron that an inquiry will be held into the distasteful on-the-run letters deal.
This has given the first minister room to manoeuvre, by allowing him to have his concerns addressed, while not crashing the government.
Nevertheless, it's been quite a dramatic period for a man who has spoken on many occasions of his pride in the "stability of the political process and of the institutions."
These two events may be 40 years apart, yet at the heart of both crises is unionism's ongoing difficulty with power-sharing.
Back in 1974, it was the SDLP who were branded as "the same old united-Irelanders, with the same old agenda". Today it is Sinn Fein.
The DUP didn't want to share power with the SDLP in 1974 (although it was willing to offer chairmanships of departmental committees in any new Assembly); and, let's be frank about it, doesn't actually share power with either Sinn Fein or the SDLP in the present Assembly.
Instead, they share positions, but not to the extent of bothering to reach anything resembling consensus on the big issues like health, welfare reform, education, the environment or a shared future.
So, to some extent at least, not very much has changed since 1974. But there is, I think, one crucial difference. In 1974 the SDLP did seem genuine in its desire to stretch itself across the divide and reach consensus with Faulkner and the Ulster Unionists.
Yes, some rookie, fundamental mistakes were made when it came to the Council of Ireland proposals (allowing the UUUC to campaign under the slogan, 'Dublin Is Only A Sunningdale Away'), and both Alliance and the SDLP could have done more to make the overall package easier for Faulkner to sell.
That said, I never had the sense that the SDLP's top priority was a united Ireland anytime soon. Anyway, none of that mattered, because against a background in which mainstream unionism and the IRA weren't buying into Sunningdale, it was never going to succeed.
2014 is different: the IRA and mainstream unionism has bought into an agreement. The problem - or one of them, at least - is that a united Ireland does remain the top priority for Sinn Fein.
There is no sense of them having any particular interest in stretching themselves for unionism and nor is there any sense of them wanting to 'make a go' of the Assembly in terms of it being anything other than a staging post to eventual unity.
So, there's the supreme irony after 40 years: the DUP wouldn't sign up to a deal with the SDLP, but it did sign up to a deal with the much greener Sinn Fein.
It's no real surprise that we are where we are. Neither party wants to be in government with each other: they have different agendas and different ambitions, both of which are mutually contradictory.
And the knock-on effect of that sort of relationship is that neither has anything to gain by making any effort to understand, let alone accommodate each other. The reverse is true: they will both grow stronger in terms of seats if they remain at loggerheads.
Neither of them has anything to fear from the SDLP or UUP (who have shown no signs of a Lazarus-like comeback); and there isn't a middle-ground party which seems capable of damaging them, either (although NI21 may spring an unexpected surprise).
And there's the other irony: 40 years on and the agreement to which almost everyone signed up has left us more polarised and fractious than before.
If Robinson was serious about bringing down the structures, there are a number of things he needs to bear in mind before going down that route again.
In that event, the Secretary of State may choose not to allow an early election, opting instead for a 'cooling-off period' of direct rule.
Also, it's very unlikely that Sinn Fein would be damaged by an early election, so forcing one could prove to be an own goal.
This is also the first time for a long time that Robinson seems to be singing from the same sheet as the UUP, Alliance and SDLP, none of whom would welcome an early election: so, now that he has some sort of allies in his scrap with Sinn Fein, he will want to keep them on-side.
On the other hand, the DUP hasn't had a particularly good 15 months in terms of flags, parades, the Maze and Haass, so shifting to a harder stance with a cause that unionism can gather around could prove useful - particularly with Euro and council elections due in about 10 weeks.
He is therefore probably glad that this row allows him to sound tough; has support across unionism; doesn't provoke another spat with Alliance and the SDLP; and doesn't bring any of the risks that could accompany the forcing an early election.
Yet when all is said and done, an election, now or later, makes no real difference if ongoing hostility and mistrust remain the fixed points of the executive.
If the parties cannot work together, then all we can hope to have is government in name only. If increasing numbers of people are opting out of the political/electoral process, it becomes very difficult for government to survive, let alone exercise authority.
And there's the third irony: 40 years on and the present Assembly and Executive seem just as unpopular as the 1974 version.
Are we capable of change? Do we want change?
Will we ever have a genuine power-sharing, popular settlement here?
Will we ever have a government and political process worthy of the name?
Ask me again in 2054.