‘Reform or fail: the challenge facing Stormont’ – by Independent Unionist John McCallister

Social share:



(Speech by Independent Unionist MLA John McCallister, in Limerick to: ‘Tangible Ireland, extension of Tangible’s Leadership seminars.’)

This month, across Europe, we commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

As we remember a lost generation – those who fell in France and Flanders, and further afield – we can be grateful that Europe has changed.

Even now, as tension mounts in the Ukraine, even the most pessimistic is not expecting August 2014 to take the turn of events seen in August 1914.

Europe has changed.

The grave tensions and very real confrontation occurring in the Ukraine do require a response from Europe and the international community…

But we are not talking about mass mobilisations of armies across Europe, of declarations of war.

We might wonder what the statesmen and diplomats of August 1914 would think about today’s Europe.

Perhaps they might ruefully reflect that we have learnt from their bitter experience.

Dreary steeples

Europe has changed – has Northern Ireland?

I ask the question in light of Churchill’s famous words after the end of the First World War:

The whole map of Europe has been changed … but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.

Northern Ireland has changed.

Northern Ireland has changed because of the Good Friday Agreement.

In August 1914, Ireland stood on the brink of civil war.

Less than a decade letter, the newly formed Free State experienced a bitter civil war.

From its formation, Northern Ireland experienced violence and division, culminating in the dark years of the Troubles.

And for most of the 20th century, the relationship between the two parts of this Island was marked by suspicion and hostility.

We changed all this in 1998.

The great unionist and nationalist political traditions created common ground.

The future of Northern Ireland would be determined by its people, not Westminster.

The Union or unity would be the choice of the people.

Unionist and nationalist would share power in the government of Northern Ireland.

There would be a new set of relationships between Belfast, Dublin, on the basis of shared interests and shared values.

Where Churchill saw only “dreary steeples”, in 1998 we saw the potential for a shared and reconciled community – a beacon of hope in a world marked by historic hatreds and conflicts.

Return to the past

It is, therefore, deeply ironic that the summer which witnessed the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War should now see – after the landmark achievement of 1998 – the re-emergence of those dreary steeples.

In recent months, old rhetoric has returned to Northern Ireland politics.

Tribal politics has reasserted itself, over and against the hope for a politics of the common good.

In the past few weeks we have witnessed the First Minister, DUP leader Peter Robinson, appearing to suggest that a return to direct rule may not be such a bad thing – ‘we can’t work with Sinn Fein’.

And then Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams declared Stormont to be incapable of dealing with the issues its faces – ‘we can’t work with the DUP’.

This is indeed a crisis because integral to the Stormont institutions is power-sharing, partnership government.

If power cannot be responsibly and productively shared, a question mark begins to emerge over the future of the institutions.

And this is what we are seeing in August 2014.

It is a time to urge both the DUP and Sinn Fein to pause…

To step back from the highly-charged rhetoric…

To avoid the temptation of falling back into the easy, comfortable but dangerous attitudes of past years.

When the two lead parties of government in Northern Ireland appear to be questioning the future of the devolved institutions, it is time to ask ourselves some fundamental questions.

Unionism, nationalism & devolution:

Ever since the old Stormont Parliament was prorogued in 1972, unionism sought the restoration of devolved structures.

It did so on the basis of both political philosophy and hard political reality.

There was the conviction that devolution  – a regional parliament and executive accountable to the people of Northern Ireland – were necessary for the region to flourish, rather than being governed remotely from Westminster.

There was also pragmatism.  If unionists wanted influence, real political influence to shape the destiny of Northern Ireland, it required regional government.

We need to hear this two-fold case being made much more robustly and confidently by political unionism.

The apparent flirtation with direct rule is bad politics – in both tactical and strategic terms.

It foolishly – and inaccurately – suggests to unionists that there is another, better alternative to power-sharing regional government.

And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, further undermining confidence in the devolved institutions.

Collapsing political institutions is no mere temporary act, easily undone when your short-term political aims have been achieved.

I was just born when the old Stormont parliament was prorogued in 1972.

I was a 35 year old member of the Assembly when devolution was restored on an apparently stable basis in 2007.

The years in-between were marked by division, violence, and chronic instability.

But what, then, of nationalism?

We might suggest that there is here much more significant common ground between unionism and nationalism than the current situation points to.

Nationalism, like unionism, has a philosophical commitment which recognises that remote government from Westminster is not in the interests of the north-east of this Island.

Yes, there have been times – not least in the early 1970s – when nationalism thought otherwise.

But that was a temporary response.

Sunningdale demonstrated that nationalism – no less than unionism recognised that regional, devolved government was necessary if our society was to flourish.

And, just like unionism – in fact, perhaps even more than unionism -nationalism knows the political realities.

Being excluded from power in a regional administration leaves northern nationalism stranded, incapable of exercising real influence over the affairs of our society.

What I am suggesting, therefore, is that the current instability in Northern Ireland politics – the apparent willingness of the DUP and Sinn Fein to undermine confidence in the devolved institutions – goes against the grain of both unionist and nationalist philosophy and self-interest.

The Stormont problem:

What is more, there is also the fact that the stance of both parties suggests that the institutions are not working as they should.

In a way, we should not be surprised.

The specific form that the devolved institutions took in 1998 was explicitly oriented towards building cross-community confidence in order to bring Northern Ireland out of a period of conflict.

The rules governing the operation of the institutions were crafted to promote confidence, even if the cost was slow and ponderous decision-making.

The rules were designed in the shadow of the Troubles.

And now, 15 years on, where are we?

The most critical issue facing the Stormont Executive is not a Troubles-era issue.

It is not even flags, parades or the Past.

It is welfare reform – the costs, the social consequences, and the implications for the budget.

We have, in other words, a Troubles-era superstructure – the “ugly architecture” necessary at the time of the Agreement – trying to address a very contemporary, normal political quandary.

The authors of the Agreement were not blind to such a state of affairs emerging.

That is why they built into the Agreement the review process, to facilitate organic change to and reform of the institutions.

Over time, it was reasonable to assume that the “ugly architecture” would be removed.

That the normal, democratic conventions would exert themselves.

That government and opposition would emerge.

That coalition government would be properly negotiated, with an agreed platform and collective responsibility.

That the legislature would become a more robust check on the power of the executive.

That members of scrutiny committees would act like independently-minded backbenchers rather than party appointees.

None of this has happened.

We are left with a Troubles-era superstructure seeking – and inevitably failing – to address the challenges of 21st century politics.

Why, then, should we be surprised when Stormont decision-making is ridiculously slow?

When indecision characterises the Executive?

When the usual tensions between coalition partners cannot be managed in the way of normal politics?

Let me stress again that this seems to me to be an obvious implication of the dissatisfaction that both the DUP and Sinn Fein are now expressing.

Remember, we are not talking about opposition parties, or parties on the fringes.

It is not as if either the DUP or Sinn Fein faces serious political challenge – they are not.

It is not as if either does not possess a very significant electoral mandate – they do.

They have it in their power, therefore, to effect the change and reform that Stormont requires.

It is this which makes the current DUP-Sinn Fein stand-off ridiculous.

Neither party is going away.

Both will remain the senior partners in the Executive for the foreseeable future.

Why not, then, agree to a package of reforms which would make Stormont fit-for-purpose for 21st century politics rather than remain oriented towards Troubles-era politics?

The reason why not, of course, is confidence.

Sinn Fein has no confidence that the DUP would not seek to use reforms to exclude Sinn Fein from the executive – so why even begin the conversation?

The DUP has no confidence that Sinn Fein is serious about moving Northern Ireland on, about normalising our politics – so why even begin the conversation?

And so the dreary steeples emerge once again as Northern Ireland politics – while facing 21st century challenges – fights the old battles of the 20th century.

The reform agenda

What is the alternative?

Let me offer three suggestions that could allow Northern Ireland to emerge out of the current dangerous impasse.

Firstly, responsibility for the health of politics in Northern Ireland rests with the two senior partners in the executive – the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Substantive, significant change in our politics depends on these parties.

The reverse side of that coin, however, is that failure in Northern Ireland politics is also their responsibility.

The current impasse – or, to use Gerry Adams’ phrase, “crisis” – has occurred on the DUP and Sinn Fein watch.

If both parties are serious in their desire to make the devolved institutions govern for the common good of all in our society, the buck stops with them.

So, both the DUP and Sinn Fein need to begin a serious conversation about change – about reforming Stormont so that is works in ways that they both recognise it presently does not.

The alternative is not just more of the same.

The alternative is collapse of the institutions, with all of the instability that will bring to the wider community.

How Stormont presently works is not sustainable – that is evident from DUP and Sinn Fein statements in recent weeks.

The status quo is not an option – reform is absolutely necessary if devolution is to continue.

Secondly, London and Dublin have responsibilities here.

Not to be in-house nannies, looking after disruptive children, but to be encouragers and, when necessary, persuaders.

Just as the DUP and Sinn Fein must realise that the status quo is not an option, so too must London and Dublin.

They must become encouragers and persuaders for reform and normalisation.

They must clearly signal that they would facilitate and support the necessary changes to the operation of Stormont.

Thirdly, the next mandate of the Assembly will witness the 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement and the 10th anniversary of the St Andrews Agreement.

We have seen that staying the same is not an option.

To build on the legacy of the Agreement, and of the changes made at St Andrews, requires the next mandate to be one of reform and dynamic change.

It should be the mandate which sees the Assembly and Executive move from Troubles-era politics to 21st century politics.

A failure to effect change and reform…

An endless round of DUP-Sinn Fein confrontation would, I unfortunately think, mean that the Assembly would not survive the next mandate.

It would mean that 20 years on from the promise of the Agreement, we have failed.

It would mean a return to the politics of the past and to the instability of the past.

It would threaten the normality that, by and large, Northern Ireland society has experienced since 1998.

It would condemn a new generation, who have come of age after the Troubles, to a repetition of the divisions and instability of the past.

The stakes, then, are incredibly high.

There is an alternative to a decline into the past.

Make the next mandate of the Assembly the mandate of reform.

Usher in a new style of politics for a 21st century Northern Ireland.

Instead of tribalism, create space for a flourishing of democratic politics …in which unionist and nationalist accept that there is a constitutional settlement, which can be tested, when necessary, in referenda…

A flourishing of democratic politics in which right, centre and left debate how regional government should promote opportunity for all the people of Northern Ireland…

In which citizens at the ballot box can decide whether to support government or opposition.

The prize that normalisation of our politics could secure is an Executive and Assembly liberated from the shackles of tribalism…

Having an agenda determined by social and economic challenges and opportunities of the 21st century …

Rather than the failed politics of the past.

Talk of normalisation of our politics, then, is not fantasy football for the political classes.

It is essential if Northern Ireland is to flourish, as an economy and a society …

If 21st century Northern Ireland is to have a regional government authentically committed to opportunity and fairness for all…

Rather than being frozen in the politics of the last century.

A time for political imagination:

It would take both political imagination and courage for this to come to pass.

Northern Ireland politics, over the decades, has not been blessed with an abundance of either of these virtues.

Or has it?

Across the decades, there have been those who have promoted reconciliation.

Who have reached out the hand of friendship. In dark, painful years, the voices against violence were much more numerous than those for.

In 1998 we reached an historic Agreement.

In 2007, the DUP and Sinn Fein shook hands.

We need to reconnect with the values and vision which have enabled us in the past to exercise our political imagination and act with political courage.

If we do not, the chances are that Northern Ireland’s future will be more like our past.

If we do rediscover political imagination and courage, we can bring real change to our politics …giving 21st century Northern Ireland a political culture which promotes the flourishing and common good of all our people.


Social share:

About Author

1 Comment

  1. John,
    I suspect the institutions need to fail before they can be reformed. Welfare reform has exposed may well be the rock on which they founder, rather than flags parades and attempting to resolve issues of the past.

    To expect either SF or the DUP to reach for the stars in the way you describe would be to ask them to recant on positions so entrenched ( however sincerely held) that they would begin to implode. While the GFA process set up the ugly architecture of enforced power sharing it left the kind of seismic shifts in attitude required to reach the Utopia of the GFA to hope and chance. Given the choice, the DUP and SF took that main chance to achieve power in order to consolidate their ideological, moral and cultural positions. As Dr Maurice Hayes reminds us in his article on this website Utopia is merely another word for nowhere.

    The type of shift you envisage from the DUP and SF is equivalent to a Damascene conversion. ‘ Physician heal thyself’ is a leap of faith too far. The body politic here needs radical surgery; unfortunately in the British and Irish Governments we have clinicians with nervous hands unwilling to wield the scalpel.

    No new political party has emerged in any meaningful way, (sorry to remind you) since the GFA. Perhaps a period of suspension, which I agree would not be short lived, rather than becoming a vacuum, might provide the incentive with the active encouragement of both governments and the US administration for more inclusive politics to emerge. Maybe that is just my own Utopian view coming into play.

Leave A Reply