All far from lost in Northern Ireland

A few weeks ago the media spoke of a “deal” between the DUP and Sinn Fein being nigh. The truth is, it was never that close.

Now the media speak of the end of all things, as if all roads point to Direct Rule. The truth is, that is not the case either.

Let us look at it this way. There was a referendum in Australia last week on same-sex marriage, which passed with 61.6% of the vote – a result remarkably reminiscent of that in the Republic. If there were such a referendum in Northern Ireland (and, to be clear, there does not need to be), what would the result be? I would venture to suggest it would be remarkably similar again. Interestingly, at an election under a proportional system in March, at least 53 out of 90 MLAs (perhaps rather more) were elected having stated they are in clear support of same-sex marriage – again, a remarkably similar proportion.

Northern Ireland will at the end of the year be the only English-speaking jurisdiction in the Western World where same-sex marriage is not legal. But let us be clear, that is not because the population opposes it (plainly it does not); indeed it is not even because most of the people they elect oppose it (plainly they do not); it is because of the structure of Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions.

Northern Ireland has its problems, of course. Racially motivated hate crime, levels of suicide, and rates of domestic intimidation are appallingly high. Yet in other ways things are not so bad: community relations are good enough that parades disputes are, more or less, a thing of the past; exports are soaring; unemployment is almost too low at just 4.0% (and even youth unemployment is among the lowest in the West). In the midst of all of this, we should be clear that the social attitudes of the population really are not much different to those in any other comparable jurisdiction – in terms of same-sex marriage and many other things.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, therefore, I am concerned about the simple route to restoration of devolution. Yes, in theory the requirement is for two particular parties to agree to form an Executive and to do this we could in fact simply pass composite language and culture legislation incorporating an Irish Language Act and we could have a free vote on same-sex marriage. That would get us Ministers back at their desks – and indeed, that should happen. But we must not fool ourselves that that is the end of the story, because the structural problem would remain.

Here, we have to face a fact the two largest parties will not like very much. The 2006 Agreement actually set us back. It was inferior to the 1998 Agreement. Ever since 2006, the two Governments and others have continuously sought to soothe matters and ensure maintenance of devolution by playing exclusively to the interests of the two large parties who agreed to the inferior 2006 deal. Since then absolutely everything – from the Review of Public Administration to the Social Investment Fund – has been done by those two parties for those two parties. Elections then take the form of a farce, with voters forced in effect to choose one of those two blocks based on their own background rather than on what is good for society as a whole (as represented most obviously by the race for First Minister based on a sneaky amendment which did not even appear in the 2006 Agreement). The other parties are left playing by different rules – and yet still manage to command 44% of the first-preference vote, only to be routinely ignored by the Governments as they seek to tempt the DUP and Sinn Fein with another democratic skew.

So although we may regard it as positive that Sinn Fein says all that is required is movement on “rights issues” (by which it means the Irish Language Act and maybe Same-Sex Marriage), and indeed that should be addressed and Ministers returned to work, we should be under no illusions that the current structure is going to see us through. It isn’t.

The fact is we will get nowhere for as long as we reward clientelism over competence.

It is time for reform. Actually, it is time we actually tried democracy.


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