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Assembly elections do not present real choice

(, Irish News)

The March assembly election is supposedly an opportunity to endorse the St Andrews agreement. But a genuine endorsement presupposes a choice, which doesn't exist in any substantial form. A referendum would have been better but the DUP feared an all-island mechanism so we face a curious election. Given that almost all parties are pro-agreement the choice is reminiscent of the old Soviet system when elections offered an opportunity to endorse the only party standing.

The election is primarily a morale boost for the two biggest parties who can present themselves as the only shows in town. Changes to St Andrews mean the old requirement that First Minister be nominated by the largest party within the largest designation was substantially altered in the Act. This states if at any time the party which is the largest political party of the largest political designation is not the largest political party, nomination shall instead be made by the nominating officer of the largest political party. Put simply, the largest party nominates so that Martin McGuinness could lead an assembly dominated by unionists or Ian Paisley one dominated by nationalists as long as other parties remain disunited or have been eliminated.

Sinn Féin and the DUP can present the election as a straight choice between Paisley and McGuinness. Paisley can say that if unionists don't vote for him they could have McGuinness and vice versa. McGuinness is thus being overly cautious in suggesting Sinn Féin might have First Minister in five years.

This is likely to colour the election and could result in a reversion to the notorious sectarian head-counting exercises of the past. The change apparently originated with Sinn Féin but was understandably and eagerly grasped by the DUP. Usually political parties can be relied upon to serve the interests of political parties and Tony Blair is so desperate about his personal legacy he colludes in sacrificing our hopes for a shared future so long as this antagonistic tribal marriage can be made to appear to work.

In mitigation it is claimed that First and Deputy First Minister constitute a single office in which one is not superior to the other. But first or prime hardly suggests equality with deputy first!

Given the DUP's refusal to even talk with the partner they are to be unequally yoked with, we face renewal of the politics of enmity. Sectarianism often raised its ugly head during past elections and mechanisms were supposed to be introduced to avoid this. But now all semblance of a shared future seems about to be jettisoned.

The proposed reform of local government adds insult to injury with its green and orange cantons that could thrive on sectarian headcounts and all of this as a short term ploy providing doubtful legacies for Tony Blair and Ian Paisley.

Any supposed endorsement will not necessarily encourage compromise because a system so clearly working to the advantage of big political parties is unlikely to stimulate an appetite for change. Instead the divisive system could become self-perpetuating in the medium term because it serves the interest of Tony Blair, Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin. Given the lacklustre 50-year history of one-party government, a two-party system potentially in perpetuity, is only marginally, if at all, better. There is provision for review after three years but I wouldn't hold my breath.

There is an alternative. The so-called centre parties – SDLP, Ulster Unionists, Alliance and PUP – could come together in a potentially powerful democratic alliance opposing those wittingly or unwittingly about to cement apartheid. Such an alliance would be a practical expression of a desire for a shared future and could become a powerful antidote to a system based on division of the spoils between pyrrhic victors.

But such a coming together presupposes considerable courage and a coming of age, neither of which appears to exist in sufficient quantities. The centre parties seem dominated by inertia and risk aversion. They reflect sectional – if not sectarian – interests. For them, compromise for the sake of peace is good in theory but not all that attractive in practice.

Perhaps we can detect a gleam of light in the changing face of republicanism and in the cumbersome about-face of Ian Paisley. If the big parties can build a stable future even on the basis of a divided society, this is perhaps progress of a kind. Politics after all, is the art of the possible.

February 6, 2007

This article appeared first in the February 5, 2007 edition of the Irish News.

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