Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

Politicians are not addressing issues that worry voters

The people's verdict on how the Assembly has performed shows our MLAs are still fighting the wrong battles, argues Robin Wilson

The key political question asked respondents to assess the performance of the Northern Ireland Assembly, by comparison with direct rule from Westminster.

It should be stressed that this sets the bar very low for the main political institution arising from the Belfast agreement of 1998: before the agreement, direct rule was widely castigated for its 'democratic deficit'.

For most Catholics, direct rule was just dressed-up imperial domination by ministers whose patrician English accents grated. Many Protestants also found it frustrating: legislation was by unamendable 'orders in council', often passed after little debate in a sparse Westminster chamber.

This democratic perspective provided the strong, cross-sectarian majority - albeit stronger on the Catholic side - in favour of the Good Friday agreement in the subsequent referendum.

Unionist resistance to a transfer of power and the persistence of the IRA meant devolution was postponed until late 1999 and was frequently suspended until direct rule was restored in 2002.

The British and Irish governments then invested huge efforts in its renewal, which eventuated in May 2007.

And the popular verdict? Half of those who expressed an opinion said the relative performance of the Assembly, against direct rule, had been 'poor' or 'very poor' and another 40% said it had made 'no difference'. Just 9% said gave Stormont a 'good' mark and a minuscule 1% 'excellent'. The results were consistent across the religious divide and varied little by gender, age or social class.

So why has devolution be given such a public raspberry?

Most Northern Ireland politicians look to the public like generals fighting the last war. The unionist parties have never disowned the ancien régime at Stormont replaced by direct rule in 1972, while the Sinn Fein benches contain a remarkable proportion of ex-IRA prisoners.

Northern Ireland Life and Times survey data indicates that just 13% believe the priority for the assembly should lie in maintaining or ending the union with Britain - the fundamental political axis at Stormont. Two thirds say the focus should be on reconciliation or unemployment and poverty.

Like most generals, too, the main Northern Ireland political leaders behave like commanding officers rather than democratic facilitators. Hence, 64% told Life and Times they did not agree that devolution had given ordinary people more say in government.

This disconnect between the public and the political class has seen turnout already plummeting - it fell by eight points in the 2011 Assembly elections - and this poll shows it has much further to go. Asked which party they would prefer in an election tomorrow, almost half of respondents (48%) said they would not vote, opted for a party outside those represented at Stormont or refused to answer.

This rose to 59% among women, who of course are almost invisible in Northern Ireland's heavily male-dominated party system. And it rose to 69% among those who refuse to be labelled 'Protestant' or 'Catholic', a growing category reflecting the region's increasingly cosmopolitan life. This barometer of public attitudes will also cause big tremors in the other main apparatus of state.

Precisely because the ethnic politicians could not agree on policing in 1998 and so had to transfer the problem to an impartial commission, the Police Service of Northern Ireland had appeared to be the agreement's unexpected success story.

It survived the suspensions of the institutions, and a prolonged boycott of the Policing Board by Sinn Fein, as Catholics for the first time joined in significant numbers a previously Protestant-dominated force which the Patten commission had reconstructed with a commitment to human rights.

But, as we know from the recent Peace Monitoring Report by Paul Nolan, those Catholics are still disproportionately few, not representative of the Catholic population and more likely to leave than their Protestant counterparts.

The 'dissident republicans' have of course made them primary targets. And the poll shows the truth of the political scientist's adage that divided societies like Northern Ireland suffer from a 'troublemaker veto'.

From Paisley through the Provos to today's paramilitaries, a fundamentalist minority has been able to call the shots.

That only one in 10 Catholics now say they would encourage a close relative to join the PSNI tragically bears out Dr Nolan's conclusion: the policing deal is not secure.

The biggest single thing the political class could do to make itself relevant and reassure a jittery public is find a common language to marginalise violence.

For unionist politicians, (republican) paramilitarism is 'cowardly' and 'terrorist', by contrast with the legitimate forces of the state.

For republicans, the 'dissidents' have no 'strategy', by contrast with the legitimate IRA.

Each attack is water off a duck's back to alienated young Catholic men who see no change between the PSNI and the old RUC or between what the IRA did then and they do now.

Only when there is a political consensus that violence is wrong because it challenges the democracy, human rights and rule of law on which every civilised society depends will we all finally sleep easily in our beds.

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