We’ve been having recurrent ‘all party talks’ in Northern Ireland for over 15 years – inevitably with quite a mixed record of ‘success’. So should we not allow ourselves to ask the question: ‘is it really so necessary that we all agree?’ There may indeed have been a need in the 1997-98 era to forge a broad consensus between as many of the major strands of political opinion in Northern Ireland as possible in order to exit civil conflict with confidence. But does that need still exist? Might we now have grown out of that particular stage of political infancy? If what we have is a peace, then why can we not allow ourselves to respectfully disagree with others on some matters? If we could, would that not make us more of a ‘normal’ political society? Isn’t it time we moved to a ‘post peace process’ mentality, where normal political disagreement is allowed to take place? For it is indeed ‘normal’ for political parties to disagree on big topics like welfare reform, public spending adjustments, taxation levels and indeed questions of ethnic identity and expression. These are enormous issues that will always divide opinion and thought – and it is, in this author’s opinion, perfectly ok for political parties to disagree on such issues. Indeed, I would question whether there is a European country where political parties are NOT taking quite strongly diverging opinions on such matters. The difference is, in a grown-up democracy political parties are content to agree to disagree and fight the battle for ideas on the territory of electorate opinion. REAL political parties tirelessly seek to win the endorsement of the people for their way of thinking, to build their mandate, grow their vote from new sources and to put their policies into practice after gaining the legitimacy of been proven victors in the battle for ideas that is a popular election. So why do we choose to deny this healthy democratic process from taking place in Northern Ireland? Why do we allow parties that never achieve above 25% of the popular vote to hold an entire political system to ransom for years on end? Why can we not allow the 75%, or 60% to forge ahead with a policy, allowing the discontented 20ish % to go back to the opposition benches and try to earn vindication at the next election? In the particular scenario we are in, couldn’t that indeed produce unexpected but politically healthy results? Sinn Fein might choose to reject welfare reform, leave the Executive, and seek votes from sections of the electorate concerned on this topic from outside their core constituency, like deprived loyalist housing areas. The DUP could leave the Executive on the basis of freedom of conscience infringement, and seek electoral support for their position amongst the non-Protestant religiously faithful who may also be currently alarmed on this topic. With issues of disagreement between Executive Parties showing early signs of moving away from those of an entirely tribal and troubles-related nature, maybe we are closer to allowing ourselves more normal avenues for political disagreement and agreement. Perhaps then these should be considered the last all-party talks to rescue a system that is no longer fit for purpose. Next time the Executive logjams into a stasis of disagreement and rancour, the political parties should resolve to agree to disagree. Those who can call a majority for their way of thinking (perhaps weighted to 65% to take account of lingering power-sharing requirements) can proceed with policy enactment comfortable that they possess over and above the standard democratic legitimacy in doing so (even under the Labour ‘landslide’ election fo 1997, the Party never achieved more than 43% of the public vote for example. Those who cannot call such a majority may then focus their energies more squarely on securing a better electoral position at the next election and winning the hearts and minds of smaller parties and potential coalition partners. We might then call this “an agreed collapse for better and more responsible politics”. Because continuing to put financial petrol (as Sinn Fein increasingly improbably demand) into the currently broken political engine of Stormont, institutionally requiring as it does the near-impossible (“ALL must agree”), does not look likely to take Northern Ireland much further in the path to normal, decent and democratic politics. [It is noteworthy, for context, that all-party agreement on constitutional reform in England (the so-called “English Votes on English Laws”) proved impossible this week… – Ed]
GUEST: Why must we all agree?