NI21’s quest for policies this summer seems to have gone the same way as Arsenal’s quest for signings. Likewise, if Arsenal hadn’t made such a big thing of having money to spend, there would be no issue; and if NI21 hadn’t made such a big thing of “not sitting on the fence”, the fact it has even removed the policy section from its web site wouldn’t be so laughable.
Failing to come up with proper policy is not unique to NI21 by any means. The DUP just changes policy when the Leader demands it, even when he’s in Florida. Sinn Fein has been back and forth on abortion like a tennis ball at Wimbledon, and no one is quite sure how. However, even that isn’t the real problem.
The real problem is there is no point in coming up with policies for their own sake – after all, plenty of people get elected without them! The real problem is failing to define what society’s problems are before you attempt to solve them; in other words, we don’t need any new policies, we need policies (actually, proposals) with a clearly defined purpose.
That is NI21’s biggest problem, just as it is everyone else’s. Like many parties before it, NI21 is making three cardinal errors: first, it is on a course of developing policies at random by committee; second, there is no real way of ensuring the policies are linked to each other, even in terms of basic core themes; third, it assumes policies matter in the current Northern Ireland set-up.
I can probably admit now that about ten years ago, the Alliance Party went into an election pledging to reduce income tax to help business, and at the same time to raise it to pay for health! That is what happens when you devise policy by committee – it all depends on who happens to be on the committee, and not on a clear analysis of the underlying problem. (It is perhaps even more noteworthy that no one seemed to notice – after all, people don’t read manifestos!)
Asked what Northern Ireland’s underlying problem is, and you will encounter another problem with NI21 (again, not unique to it by any means) – namely that any attempt at answering the question will be political (i.e. about political institutions). There is no polite way of saying this – that is garbage, coming from right in the heart of the “political bubble” that NI21 should be stepping away from. Northern Ireland’s problems are socio-economic. They will not be solved by tampering with Assembly speaking rights or whatever, they will be solved by a clear analysis of what the problems are (around social decay, worklessness, low educational attainment, indebtedness and so on), and then the development of evidence-based proposals.
The third point above is perhaps the most important, however, and ties to the last word of the previous paragraph. I referred to “proposals”, not “policies”. Here is where NI21 and perhaps others could do something significant (it would still have been helpful for it not to have mentioned “fence-sitting”, because what I am about to suggest will look awfully like it): it could bring forward evidence-based proposals.
Why “proposals”? In most electoral systems, one party or coalition is in government and another is in opposition: the opposition develops policies distinct from the government, and will then be judged on its implementation of them once it is in government. This is not so in Northern Ireland. NI21 (or the Alliance Party or whoever) is not magically going to “come to power” tomorrow, with a sweeping mandate to pass all its policies unhindered. So, for example, a hugely detailed transport policy is probably a waste of time – even if it got the Regional Development ministry, it would have to negotiate everything with other parties, and inevitably would have to compromise. What makes far more sense is a set of proposals outlining what the problems are (and stating the case for this outline), and then what action can practically be taken at Assembly level to resolve those problems. This has the specific aim of getting other parties to respond – where a detailed “policy document” developed by a committee seemingly at random could simply be rejected, broad proposals based on sound analysis could force a response (and a negotiation).
For all that, what is really needed is a sound analysis of what Northern Ireland is, why it is that way, what change is desirable and feasible, and what practical action can be taken to achieve that change. I don’t see the slightest hint of that emanating from NI21, or really from anyone else. There will be a reward for the first party which grabs that challenge and runs with it constructively.