Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Moving away from ethnic politics

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 here, 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 is 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 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.
This post is also up at Irish Left Review.

23 comments:

nineteensixtyseven said...

It is a necessary step, Jenny, but Northern Ireland's history is littered with parties that emerge from the sectarian flank of mainstream parties who seek to moderate their position on the constitutional question. The UUP had Vanguard and the anti-Sunningdale Unionists, then they had the DUP. The DUP have had the UKUP and now the TUV. Sinn Féin play the Green card every time the SDLP mention post-nationalism, Sinn Féin themselves have RSF and 32CSM.

It will be very difficult for politicians to make that promise to allow a free vote on the constitutional issue because whether we like it or not, quite a number of people vote on that basis. If the large parties agree a pact of internal plurality on the matter, they will be terrified of more extreme parties who have an explicit position. Even if this does not happen, voters may presume an implicit position on the part of parties and vote accordingly, making those parties beholden to whatever view their electorate might have.

I don't mean to sound hopelessly pessimistic and you know that I want a non-sectarian political system as much as you do. I just don't know how to get there but, like you, I welcome the debate and thank you for this contribution to it.

Jenny Muir said...

Thanks for this, 1967, and I realise that what I've set out is a vision rather than a way of getting there - I accept there will always be some kind of sectarian parties operating, but I think the aim should be to marginalise them. On that basis, the major parties should show leadership, make the break and see how the electorate responds. I'm sure many people vote for the ethnic parties now because they have power and get things done, not least at constituency level; if these parties changed their position on the constitution then I wonder how many votes would really go to the smaller outliers on each side.

Your point about assumptions being made by the electorate is a good one and is why, first, parties would need to make an explicit statement; and second, that the process of change would in reality be gradual, both before and after that statement, and would have to be done with respect for the party's history. That's why I have referred to the Irish Republic - who votes for FF or FG now based on what they did in the civil war?

The problem, of course, is whether there are people within these parties who are capable of making such a step. That's why I'm heartened by the UUP/ Tory link, as it's a step towards such a position. I must say that I don't see a similar sense of accommodation on the nationalist side.

On your point about not knowing how to get to non-sectarian politics, all of us who feel that way need to contribute to discussion of options, however bizarre they may appear.

BTW Three THousand Versts has a good post about NI politics in 2020, not that I agree with him on the possibility of 3 terms of the Tories!

nineteensixtyseven said...

This is interesting, Jenny: http://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/SDLP-propose-UUPAlliance-linkup.5958585.jp

Jenny Muir said...

Blimey. I'm very surprised because I would have thought that if such a proposal had come from anyone in the SDLP it would have been the other candidate. It's the Platform for Change line, isn't it? I don't think it changes the fundamental nature of the SDLP though.

Anonymous said...

Dear Jenny

Remain optimistic and also keep blogging.

The Green Party came up with one solution (BTW I am not a member of the Green Party):

http://www.gp.org/greenpages/content/volume11/issue1/world5.php

"North­ern Ireland Greens, members passed a resolution allowing any Greens elected to the Northern Ireland Assem­bly to make their own choice in designating themselves as Unionist, Nationalist or 'other", subject to the advice of the Party's executive. "

I read also somewhere that as individuals they could consider themselves unionist/nationalists but would be expected to work on a friendly basis north-south/east-west.

On another issue, regarding the SDLP, Ms Ritchie stated on "Nolan" today that recipients of various benefits eg JSA(IB) would be receiving cold weather payments. Well not without caveat: there has to be a link to the pension, disability benefits or have a child under five. So I presume if you have a six year old child, are not disabled and are on a low income you can pay all your heating bills yourself?

http://www.dsdni.gov.uk/index/ssa/benefit_information/a-z_of_benefits/cold_weather_payment.htm

Sorry, but I sometimes think these kind of public announcements are not entirely unconnected with approaching election contests.

nineteensixtyseven said...

"Sorry, but I sometimes think these kind of public announcements are not entirely unconnected with approaching election contests."

Or snow?

"I don't think it changes the fundamental nature of the SDLP though."

Maybe not but that isn't what Platform for Change is about, Jenny, if I understood it correctly.

Jenny Muir said...

Anon - I didn't think the NI Greens had completely merged with the RoI Greens as the article says, but I hope to interview JOhn Barry for Irish Left Review soon and will ask him about it.

Agree with 1967 that cold weather payment announcement is probably due to the, er, weather, but there are always issues about eligibility, and who pays for it. It's the kind of issues the NI Assembly does have power over (the position on social security is complex); exactly the kind of issue where a less divided legislature might make a decision to extend eligibility if they coudl find the time to discuss it.

1967 - if I have misrepresented Platform for Change it was unintentional, I thought their view (or rather our view, as I have signed up again) is to get the parties to work more closely together on common issues?

Jenny Muir said...

Anon - on your first point - I am an incurable optimist, and certainly intend to keep blogging!

Anonymous said...

As for whether the SDLP will reassert itself as primarily a left wing social democratic party I have doubts but that would be one solution.

Whether or not the SDLP are part of this, what is important is that voters have a Labour option that is primarily a left wing social democratic party.

I think the immediate term battle is to get UK Labour to field candidates.

The Irish Labour battle has not succeeded as of now but it is still game on for UK Labour and there is a strong case for UK Labour to stand since we are a part of the UK after all. There may even be a legal case in terms of treating the Irish membership of the UK unfairly (as worked so far).

As with desvelopments around UCUNF, then, there would at that stage be greater importance attached to forming some kind of electoral arramgement with Irish Labour and possibly the SDLP that involves MPs standing on a national platform and local (MLA and local elections) candidates having local platforms.

Jason

Anonymous said...

nineteensixtyseven said...

"Sorry, but I sometimes think these kind of public announcements are not entirely unconnected with approaching election contests."

Or snow?

Sorry nineteensixtyseven , but the content of the statement on Nolan yesterday does not convince me with full confidence that this announcement was motivated solely by snow. For example, poverty alone does not entitle you to a penny of cold weather payments - a fact unmentioned yesterday on Nolan.

To (Anon) Jason

I agree there is a case for GB based parties to stand (also IMHO Southern Irish based ones if they want).

BTW it is debatable whether the GB Labour party is left of centre; more like right of John Major(Who was a fairly decent PM IMHO). One prominent architect of New Labour even stating:

we are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich

Regards


(Anon)Peter.

Jenny Muir said...

Jason and Peter - I've just re-joined the British Labour Party, but not in the hope that they will agree to standing for elections. After my experience of trying to get Irish Labour to agree this, I now know that such decision are made by party elites and there is no point in the rank and file members trying to get a change to the status quo. At some point UK Labour (as I must try to remember to call them) will decide it's to their electoral advantage to put up for elections, and at that point they will discuss it with the SDLP and the Irish LP.

The reason I am joining the UK LP again (I was a member in England) is so that I can work with other like-minded individuals, whatever their party, without there being any misunderstanding about my own position.

nineteensixtyseven said...

"Sorry nineteensixtyseven , but the content of the statement on Nolan yesterday does not convince me with full confidence that this announcement was motivated solely by snow. For example, poverty alone does not entitle you to a penny of cold weather payments - a fact unmentioned yesterday on Nolan."

From the link you provided:

"A Cold Weather Payment is paid automatically when the average temperature is, or is forecast to be, 0 degrees centigrade or below over seven consecutive days"

Now.. think back over the last week. Has it been cold?

Jenny Muir said...

But he or she does have a point about the scope of the payments...and as I said it's the kind of think the Assembly could look at if they weren't so tied up with resolving all these other intractable issues

nineteensixtyseven said...

Jenny,

I don't know the exact details of the Cold Weather Payment but DSD is not responsible for the levels of many social security payments, a point Margaret Ritchie raised at the first SDLP leadership hustings. Mark Durkan also complained of the dominance of the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions over these matters. Furthering devolution to allow the Assembly greater tax-raising powers and greater freedom to set social security levels is a burning priority.

Anonymous said...

nineteensixtyseven said...
From the link you provided:
"A Cold Weather Payment is paid automatically when the average temperature is, or is forecast to be, 0 degrees centigrade or below over seven consecutive days"
Now.. think back over the last week. Has it been cold?


From Anon(Peter)

Dear nineteensixtyseven, also from the link I provided:

* Pensioner Premium
...
* or have a child under the age of 5
* or receive Employment and Support Allowance (Income Related) and the applicable amount includes either the support component or the work-related activity component.
* or they also receive Child Tax Credit which includes an element for a child or qualifying young person who is disabled or severely disabled.



The point I was making, which I repeat, is that the combination of poverty and cold weather alone does not render an entitlement to to a penny in cold weather payments.

Put another way, if you (or your child) are *not* on disability, and you are *not* a pensioner and your youngest child is five years old there will be NO entitlement to any cold weather payment. The temperature of the last few weeks in such a situation is irrelevant.

You have not in the slightest challenged this opinion. Over and out.

To Jenny Muir

I would agree that there are some fine people in the UKLP, Bob Marshall-Andrews MP comes to mind and there are many others.

nineteensixtyseven said...

"The temperature of the last few weeks in such a situation is irrelevant."

Which is why I was addressing your point that:

"Sorry, but I sometimes think these kind of public announcements are not entirely unconnected with approaching election contests."

A point which we have now demonstrated to be false given that they paid automatically.

As for the other point, I agree with you that is unfair but given that the Department for Work and Pensions set the criteria it is hardly the Minister's fault. Maybe she could unilaterally declare independence for NI and claim the right to set different criteria. Would you be satisfied then?

Over and out.

Jenny Muir said...

On this debate, the question of social security poicy in NI is complicated and it's hard to find a good explanation on the internet. Derek Birrell's book 'The Impact of Devolution on Social Policy' (Policy Press, 2009) has an explanation on pages 105 - 108. Essentially, most social security policy is technically devolved (with the recent exception of child benefit) but there's an agreement to maintain parity. That's why I said that the ASsembly does have power to improve on parity if they choose to do so - but of course they woudl have to find the money to do so.

Anonymous said...

From Jenny Muir:

I said that the Assembly does have power to improve on parity if they choose to do so - but of course they would have to find the money to do so.

Indeed. The criteria on cold weather payments has possibly been fixed or targeted with a monetary budget in mind. It is a means tested payment; the criteria which has been set out clearly enough on the DSDNI website (but sadly IMHO not on "Nolan").

Jenny, I won't trouble you with any further posts on this issue and would like to thank you for your responses which have been pertinent and also not misrepresented my position in this matter.

(Peter).

nineteensixtyseven said...

"Indeed. The criteria on cold weather payments has possibly been fixed or targeted with a monetary budget in mind."

They are exactly the same criteria as are operating in England and are on the DWP website so I don't see what your problem is. Sammy Wilson isn't going to give any more money even if DSD did try and change them.

As for misrepresentation, you made two points and I preliminarily addressed one of them. At no time was your other point misrepresented.

Anonymous said...

Ok well (sigh) I guess I am breaking my agreement not to post again, In mitigation I do have an email advising me to clarify a bit more:

My representations:


1. The Minister made a public pronouncement (on Nolan) about entitlements to
cold weather payments;

2. Important (in my view) caveats were omitted: example: the Minister listed JSA(IB) recipients as a class of those who were entitled to cold weather payments and did not mention that only if there was a child under five;

3. These kind of public announcements I sometimes thought were not entirely unconnected with approaching election contests;


By "These kind" of public pronouncements I was referring to a voluntary statement, not an official statement. An official statement for example saying that the temperature requirement had been met was *NOT* the subject of my comment. IMHO the NOLAN interview was a voluntary statement that glossed over certain aspects of the cold weather policy via omission.

The misrepresentations:

Now.. think back over the last week. Has it been cold?

Patronising language. I never suggested or implied it was not cold, the language used lends the appearance of being patronising or sarcastic eg that I'm stupid. My comment about omission of the child under five criteria in the NOLAN interview remains completely unchallenged.


[regarding the public pronouncement vis a vis election contests] A point which we have now demonstrated to be false given that they paid automatically.

Intemperate language: eg accusing me of making a false point. "we" have demonstrated no such thing. The public pronouncement was a voluntary statement given to Nolan, any omission to explain important eligibility criteria was also voluntary. In the interview the minister stated the payments were automatically paid, however the subject of my comments on this blog concerned, inter alia, the failure to explain the requirement to have a child under five in that interview. Perceived glossing over important eligibility criteria is something a reasonable person might link with election contests, e.g. the minister might not have felt comfortable spelling out more clearly a policy that Nineteensixtyseven calls unfair. Other people may take a differing view, not a problem either.

I agree with you that is unfair

Well, no. I actually never claimed the criteria was unfair anywhere.

They are exactly the same criteria as are operating in England and are on the DWP website

Supposition. I never claimed the local administration drafted the cold weather policy. I never implied it either. And the responsibility for the policy itself was never the subject of my comments on this blog.

so I don't see what your problem is

I never said I had a problem with the policy formulation process anywhere. I referred to the omission of an important element of the eligibility criteria in a voluntary interview. That was and is unchallenged. I stated that "The criteria on cold weather payments has possibly been fixed or targeted with a monetary budget in mind.". I never suggested or implied the local administration was responsible for the budget. I suggested that "possibly" there was a monetary element considered in the formulation of the policy. I didn't say I had a "problem" with that anywhere. The matter of who was responsible for the policy could have been clarified or explained by others without a sneering, patronising attitue, the use of suppositions or trying to read between the lines of my words sort of like adding 2 + 2 and getting 5 as the answer.


Thank you

Anon (Peter).

Jenny Muir said...

I suggest this exchange should now close. Any further comments on the subject of the post are welcome.

Anonymous said...

Yes, on reflection the first part of my original post of Jan 6 was on topic, the other bit strayed a bit too far then ended up as a dispute. I would not object if it could be agreed to edit/delete out all of the correspondence from all of us that related to cold weather payments if that is possible.

Jenny, on the topic of your most recent post as well as this one, I think that if the SDLP wants to properly act as the NI equivalent of the UK (or GB) Labour Party it should *not* require belief in nationalism from its members as it appears to do at http://www.sdlp.ie/index.php/the_issues/a_united_ireland/

The Green Party came up with one kind of solution. IMHO all of the left or centre parties should have good links with north/south and east/west to reflect the diverse society they operate in and avoid being seen by many as dogmatically fixed on border politics as it were which IMHO ends up excluding people.


Thank you.


Anon (Peter)

Jenny Muir said...

I have no objection to a certain amount of 'off topic', and it has enhanced the post because we ended up discussing devolution. But I think the points have been made on either side.

I agree, the Greens have done well with their links acroos these islands. Re the SDLP I was thinking that they woudln't have to change their name if they changed the nationalist requirement, whereas the UUP would....