UUP, SDLP trapped by constitutional question

It is a fact of life that anyone associated with the Alliance Party faces constant questions over the party’s stance on the ‘constitutional question’. These are usually opposed by parties which perceive themselves as its closest rivals, and are placed as if they are somehow a trap which will cost Alliance votes. It is increasingly the case that the reverse is the case – it is in fact the UUP and SDLP who are trapped into defining themselves by a question to which everyone knows the answer.

A recent, fairly reliable poll showed that only 7% of NI’s population would vote for a ‘United Ireland’ tomorrow. If it takes nine years to merge North Down and Ards Councils, it is not difficult to see why! With such vastly different economies, legal systems, case law and so on, a ‘United Ireland’ is not exactly a practical prospect at the best of times – and this is anything but the best of times. It is a fact of Northern Ireland society that we don’t go around saying this too often, and perhaps even some correspondents here will wish to go through the optics of disputing it – but we all know in our hearts it is true.

This is why the UUP and SDLP are trapped. The UUP defines itself by supporting something which is already self-evident – it may as well make support for the grass being green a central policy! The SDLP defines itself by supporting something it knows it cannot deliver any time in the foreseeable future. Both positions are ludicrous, yet both parties are obliged to endorse them.

The truth is, it is suddenly the Alliance Party that looks like the sensible one. Endorsing the “principle of consent” means – even if no one says it – endorsing the current constitutional position (which frankly everyone endorsed at some time between 1998 and 2006), namely power-sharing devolution within the UK with cross-border cooperation, a position the Alliance Party was in fact the first to arrive at. People who are contentedly British have no problem with this obvious reality and no need to be any more overt about it; people who in their heart would prefer a ‘United Ireland’ can nevertheless vote for a party which recognises this obvious constitutional reality but doesn’t feel the need to shove it in their face.

The good news for the Alliance Party is there is no obvious way for its nearest rivals out of this trap. The even better news is that representatives of those parties do not seem even to have noticed the trap in the first place.


11 thoughts on “UUP, SDLP trapped by constitutional question

  1. james McKerrow says:

    Nice try Ian, but the UUP (albeit with internal opposition) and SDLP reaffirmed is commitment to consent, as did Alliance, in 1998 in signing The Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Fein and DUP did not sign and to my knowledge have not since.

    The big change for the UUP in 1998 was the switch from defending the Union by exclusion to selling the Union by inclusion. Alliance may feel that UUP and SDLP are wearing some of their clothes. DUP and Sinn Fein have yet to embrace inclusion, however.

    In practise, this matter has been in the hands of the electorate since 1922 of Norhern Ireland. Rather idiosyncratically SDLP added the electorate of the South into this equation in parallel in 1998.

    • I think if the UUP actually presented things the way you suggest they do/should, they would be in much better shape.

      As it is, it is hard to see how anyone would say a party led by someone elected, in his own words, to represent the Protestant side, is inclusive.

      Thus, the distinction you propose – an exclusive DUP versus an inclusive UUP – is not at all obvious. Interestingly, it does take us back to previous posts on “civic unionism”…

  2. I agree Alliance aren’t trapped, they promise nothing, they deliver nothing, their politics isn’t relevant in at least 12 of the 18 constituencies here. More peace walls under Ford, more integrated schools under O’Dowd and more peace bridges under Foster.

    Perhaps being utterly ignorant to division, makes you utterly incompetent with dealing with it. 😉

  3. harryaswell says:

    Ian, you are being your usual self again I see! Alliance is affiliated to the UK LibDem party. Liberals! Well, really! For God’s sake! Whenever did we get any proper political results from anything Liberal! – I think you should try again!

  4. NorthernIrishTory says:

    Some of the parties here are more one issue pressure groups than political parties. UUP is a prime example. Apart from the issue of the union what other clear policies are there?
    Ironically the same people slag off Alliance and say it stands for nothing

    • Being impartial and objective in terms of getting clear access to policies the UUP is quite accessible: –

      … you can clearly find the UUP policies…

      > http://uup.org/our-vision/policies

      While it’s a little more complicated to get the Alliance Policies sorted out from the rest of their documents to find a list of proposals.

      > http://allianceparty.org/document/proposals

      On the NI Tory Website … well where does the average web-surfer actually find any?

      > http://www.niconservatives.com/

      I come from a constituency where all three have low to no representation, I still got more election literature from a party which didn’t even field a candidate there in the UUP than I got from the Alliance who did. Forgive me if I don’t find Alliance’s policies clear, it seems they don’t really have any in my area.

      • You raise an interesting point there, Kevin, because a lot of political commentators would agree that in fact the UUP has the most detailed and reasonable policies of all.

        Yes almost everyone (political commentator or not) would agree with the original point that the UUP is a single-issue party – rendered even more pointless by the fact there is a larger party which is single-issue on the same issue!

        Ultimately this is the key point: voters don’t actually vote on policies. They vote on competence and priorities. That is why the UUP is in such trouble.

  5. Let’s take two integrated educational policies that Alliance offer, just to show the lack of movement on this issue, despite holding the power to enable one of them.

    9. Government should oppose any creation of any perceived ‘right’ to a guarantee of public funding for segregated schools, as this could forever entrench segregated schools and frustrate the process of integration.

    Why hasn’t Alliance joined with Mike Nesbitt in calling for schools to be charged twice for maintaining segregated schools?


    10. Government should advocate the de-segregation of teacher training courses and facilities, and the familiarisation of integrated education policies and practices in such institutions.

    – Why hasn’t Stephen Farry closed down St. Mary’s or merged it with Stranmillis yet?

    Are they so afraid of being controversial and offending the Catholic Church that they actively sit on their hands to maintain neutrality because they are so

    Martin McGuinness scrapped the 11+ regardless of who it offended, Peter Robinson rewrote the constitution of the Agreement to prevent an SDLP/Nationalist justice minister as resultant of d’Hondt.

    For a party of leading change, why are Alliance so bad at the art of doing things they actually advocate doing?

    The only shared future the Alliance seem to have achieved is the future sharing of the DEL ministry between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

    • 9. Because the practical effect of that is to penalize those wishing to attend Catholic schools. This is part of the Unionist case that we already have a fully integrated school system, if only Catholics would be nice enough to attend it.

      10. Stephen Farry has clearly stated an intention to close St Mary’s and to merge Stranmillis into Queen’s; but this is a big policy proposal and thus requires Executive approval…

      11 (sort of). You seem to have missed the fact that the DUP and SF wanted to close down DEL but in fact have not done so. The closure of DEL is now part of the overall review, where originally it was to happen before the review. So the Alliance Party in fact maintained its Ministry, which looks to me like good politics. Mike Nesbitt wanted to close it down for no reason other than it gave Alliance a ministry but failed, which looks to me like bad politics.

  6. 9. So why do they disagree with the SDLP & SF on this matter where the concern is the effect it may have on penalizing Catholic schools?

    It seems like fence-sitting, there is a demand for more integrated schools, but avoiding aggressive Unionist tithes on faith schools while agreeing on the matter of benign apartheid, and Nationalist contentment to the faith schools particularly in strong faith areas, they can empathize with both stances while criticizing the principles of both.

    If the APNI did have a 3rd way that did appeal to the majority of the public who back integrated schools, (given that the definition of said school even differs between communities) they would certainly be more authoritativeness than the rest they accuse of offering pragmatic concessions on the issue but no clout. They would probably also improve their mandate.

    10. Did the 11+ require executive approval or was the matter deferred? Sinn Féin managed to carry out unilateral action in the executive and almost unilateral action with only Dawn Purvis outright backing them on this. The rest with the exception of Kieran Deeney (neutral on non-medical matters) and the speaker William Hay (neutral outright)… DUP, UUP, SDLP, APNI, Wilson from the Greens and independent McFarland signed a motion for more consultation. While the SDLP and perhaps the APNI (not yet in the Executive) may have backed the removal of the 11+ in parts, there was certainly no uni-lateral action.

    The DUP example is another example, Robinson didn’t like the Assembly’s constitution so he changed it … how many moves or motions has the APNI made to do the same thing? Did David Ford win any concessions on taking the Justice Ministry?

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