Welcome to my world in the North, for a minute or two.
For half a decade, the worthy burghers of South Dublin and suchlike places have had to suffer the horror of Gerry Adams in the Dáil, doing unspeakable things in two official languages. Bad enough but now you have a variant of the whole Northern political system, probably smuggled down in Adams’ beard.
So now it is not possible to write Irish political fantasy any more. Reality is far more fantastical.
The North has taken you over. Your two big parties have come together, just like ours did a decade ago. They will, of course, go through the motions of the occasional spat. They’ll keep a visceral and useless hold on their history but primarily they will always stick together. Particularly when it’ll about the prime business of their politics – freezing others out.
Fantasy as reality started with the Sinn Féin- DUP deal in 2007. Nobody would have imagined that before… well, 2007. Suddenly, they didn’t just hate each other or even just work together – Paisley and McGuinness enjoyed each other.
We of the hard left regularly used to say that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would be driven together. We never believed, truth be told, that we would ever see it but it sounded appropriately deprecatory. The fierceness and depth of their enmity could match anything between Sinn Féin and the DUP.
So take it from a Nordie who’s seen it before – your election was supposed to be about changing the government – but now it’s been revealed as the Opposition re-electing the Government. At least, we in the North know that our Assembly election is about slightly rearranging the furniture. That’s why so many of us have stopped voting. Parties go up or down a couple of seats, there are personnel changes in a few constituencies, but the Executive remains the same – because the legislation says it has to stay the same. Since 1998, we have been told that the political arrangement in the North is an even greater thing than sliced Ormo. It has solved all our problems. Apparently, we Northerners aren’t mature enough to have an opposition.
Now, Southerners are finding the same. You have no opposition except the once-dreaded Shinners, though having been house-trained at Stormont they are generally behaving themselves in the political litter tray that is Leinster House than they once did up here: the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit: and a small number of left-wing independents.
The forces to the left have real talent, but lack numbers.
There’s something about what’s happening that makes some of us glad you’ve been bitten. We’ve had a sectarian political system imposed on us.
All Assembly members have to designate as ‘Unionist’, ‘Nationalist’, or ‘Other’. ‘Others’ are second-class members. The thinking was that anything other than the historical bog standard might be dangerous. Presumably there was a patronising sense from our international betters that, left to their own devices, Nordie lawmakers would declare as scientologists or moonies, or Bombers.
“Key decisions requiring cross-community support will be designated in advance…including election of the Chair of the Assembly, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, standing orders and budget allocations”, according to the Good Friday Agreement. “In other cases such decisions could be triggered by a petition of concern brought by a significant minority of Assembly members”.
On the surface, that looks good. The North has a history of discrimination against the Catholic minority. In fact we moved from bigotry to political fantasy without stopping off at popular democracy. Thirty members are needed to launch a ‘petition of concern’. So, for example, the DUP lodged a petition of concern to stop us getting third-party objections to planning applications. Sinn Féin launched one to defend the A5 Dual Carriageway, the North’s biggestever road building project, over which there are big environmental questions.
Imagine ‘Others’ some day gain a majority in the Assembly, for a (Village pipe-dream) Eamonn McCann/Greens Coalition Government. But they would be second-class political citizens. On the current legislation, they could be vetoed by Unionists and/or Nationalists.
At least you still have a viable opposition. We don’t: the big two are dragging their feet on installing any provisions.
Ok, we have a small opposition. Usually he’s called Jim Allister. He is one man, but he opposes so much that he can’t always land the killer blows. Now, there’s another piece of political fantasy. Allister used to be a leading light in the DUP. He was so loyal to Ian Paisley that his questioning Paisley was as improbable as Paisley going into government with Sinn Féin.
Once or twice the opposition has been Stephen Agnew of the Greens. Agnew is more focused than Allister, but lacks Allister’s Northern ability to get under the skin of opponents and really vex them. So here’s another fantasy: the conservative Allister and leftish environmentalist Agnew are co-operating as The Opposition. Think Ronan Mullen and Eamon Ryan, if you can.