Friday, January 22, 2010

Questions about policing and justice

I have two questions about the long-running negotiations on the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly.

First: Why are Sinn Féin are so keen to get these powers devolved? For some years I’ve been perplexed about this. Indeed, Sinn Féin’s Ard Comhairle meets tomorrow and the party are so keen to see progress that they may, um, withdraw from talks and perhaps from the Executive altogether.

I can understand sitting in the Assembly as a tactic on the strategic road towards reunification, administering popular areas such as health, education (in the early days) and agriculture, to emphasis your fitness for all-Ireland government – although that capability has been looking a little tarnished recently. But I can’t understand the readiness to take on responsibility for the state’s legitimate use of force through the courts and police service, which is a far more fundamental acceptance of Partition. In addition, by participating in the administration of justice there is an understanding that if the state maintains order through the consent of the people, no-one else is entitled to take up this role – all ‘other’ armed groups are simply criminals.

Secondly: why is devolution of policing and justice so important anyway? Yes, it was in the Good Friday Agreement and a date was set in the St Andrew’s Agreement, but the deadline of May 2008 is long gone. We have District Policing Partnerships, supported by all parties, which are working well and have gained public confidence, ditto the Policing Board (and incidentally, why can’t the DPPs take responsibility for their local parades decisions?). The PSNI is already very accountable, given that we are a society emerging from conflict. It is argued that devolution of policing and justice completes Northern Ireland’s devolution project. But the UK’s devolved governments have different powers anyway, so it’s hard to argue that devolution has reached its end point in any of them.

However, I don’t believe the DUP’s claim that there’s a lack of public confidence in this area. My perception is that the public seems not to mind either way, but it’s our politicians who have a lack of confidence in each other. That’s not only stopping ‘P&J’ but also other difficult decisions in the Executive and the Assembly. Maybe the last thing that’s needed is yet more responsibility flung into a dysfunctional system.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Never say never again

A year ago I left the Irish Labour Party, with very great regret. I felt it was my political home and I was prepared to devote considerable effort both to party administration (I was Treasurer for several years) and to developing the argument that the party should have an all-Ireland remit with a specific appeal to all communities in the North.

I’ve spent the time since then thinking about what to do next politically. The answer ‘nothing’ was pretty far up the list, usually followed by a resolution to spend more time in the office (sorry, Nick!), courtesy of the Research Excellence Framework.

A second answer was just to keep blogging, but to tell the truth it’s rather isolating and there are too many good political bloggers out there for me to do it for any other reason than because I enjoy it. My blog isn’t only about politics anyway.

The third possibility is single issue campaigning. I’ve never been keen on this unless it’s conducted within a wider political framework, but have joined Amnesty and also, locally, signed up to Platform for Change. But it’s more about writing letters than going along to events.

So then I started to think about whether I could bear to join another political party. UUP or Tory? I’m neither a unionist nor a conservative. Alliance? I’m still not quite sure what they stand for, apart from on community relations. Green? Not as a fairly frequent flyer and a very frequent car driver, although I respect them enormously. SDLP? I know more individuals whose views I share in the SDLP than in any other party, but I still can’t join it because I’m not a nationalist. Worker’s Party? Seems rather stuck in the past to me, and very male dominated.

The net was closing. How about re-joining Irish Labour? No chance, partly because several other people I enjoyed working with stepped down at the same time as myself.

Well, in the end I’ve decided to join the British, or should I say UK, Labour Party. I don’t intend to be a particularly active member, perhaps just go to the odd meeting now and again. I certainly won’t take part in any moves to contest elections in Northern Ireland, because something I learned through the Irish Labour debacle is that such decisions are made on a top down basis, not through pressure from members. If the UK Labour Party elite decides to contest elections in Northern Ireland, it will do so because it has calculated that there will be a political advantage. Local members’ wishes will carry no weight.

So I join with many reservations, but I hope having a party card will get me back into the swing of collaborating with the people whose views I share in all the parties I don’t feel it would be right for me to join – perhaps most particularly the SDLP. I’m a pretty mainstream democratic socialist nowadays, probably centre left rather than left, as reflected by my new party membership. Part of the thinking over the past year has been about facing up to that.

Friday, January 8, 2010

It’s always sex or money – except when it’s both

The three golden rules for politicians are:

1. Do not take money from property developers;
2. Do not have a sexual relationship that you cannot justify to the public;
3. If you do either 1 or 2, you are very likely to be found out sooner or later.

In contrast, tonight’s Spotlight was a master class in all the things you shouldn’t do if you are a politician, or indeed in many cases a decent human being. Such as:

• Have an affair with someone 40 years younger
• Assist lover with identification of business opportunity through local council of which you are an elected member
• Solicit two donations of £25,000 from property developers and in one case lobby for planning support for one of their schemes
• Fail to declare said donations
• Give the money to your lover for a business venture, but keep £5,000 of it for yourself
• Fail to declare conflict of interest when lover tenders for (uncontested) lease for business premises, to your council
• Demand the money back when affair ends
• Use your political adviser as a mediation service to arrange repayment
• Think you can make it better by trying to give some of the money to your church
• And plan to keep the rest to repay your debts
• Fail to retrospectively declare conflict of interest and donations when husband (who happens to be First Minister) finds out, thus dropping him in it too
• Although of course husband should have taken action himself and is not without responsibility from this point onwards
• Use political adviser to arrange repayment of the cash once husband insists it goes back and not to the church, and most certainly not into your pocket
• Try to kill yourself when husband finds out about your affair
• Use political adviser to call doctor because husband is so pissed off that he’s gone back to work
• And throughout the whole mess, condemn homosexuality and call yourself a Christian.

It was far, far worse than I’d imagined – truly shocking. The Robinsons are finished and the consequences for the DUP are very serious, I would imagine. The next few days will be very interesting.

Here's a proper analysis of the situation so far from Garibaldy on Cedar Lounge. And Brian Walker is good on Slugger as the focus moves to Peter Robinson.

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.