Alasdair McDonnell had a two page spread in Monday’s Irish News. Although the Irish News is still pretty friendly to the Stoops, it isn’t quite the SDLP house journal it once was and a double page spread on a quiet news day is as good as it gets in terms of free publicity for the leader of a medium sized party. Although hardly something that wins or loses elections, the article was a useful opportunity for a new leader, with plenty of time before the next election, to set out his vision for his core vote and people who used to be his party’s core vote until recently.
Allowing for the fact that newspapers often either mangle or ignore politicians’ talking points, I don’t think he used the opportunity particularly well. But before I come to that, it’s only fair to congratulate Alasdair on the thing he did get very right – his clear rejection of an SDLP withdrawal from the Executive.
No-one disagrees that the Executive at Stormont is not delivering much in the way of government. Legislation that is remotely contentious is delayed into oblivion by either Sinn Féin or the DUP. This needs to change – but the way to do that is to create that removes disputes from the Executive table and the influence of Special Advisors to a more amenable forum, perhaps a Conciliation Committee in the Assembly, loosely based on the German model, with personnel chosen by the parties for their problem solving and horse-trading capacity.
For all its faults, all-party government has brought us political stability. No major governmental crisis is in view, for the first time since the current system of government was introduced in 1998. I’m genuinely surprised how blasé most of the chattering classes seem to be about this. It’s a major achievement in a deeply divided society.
In any case, Sinn Féin, like the DUP, has a veto on constitutional change and will do for as long as a majority of Nationalists vote for them. At this stage, Sinn Féin regard an all-party Executive as one of the most important elements of our complex architecture of government, and they perceive that Unionist enthusiasm for the politics of government and opposition is a thinly veiled enthusiasm for excluding them from government at the first opportunity. Indeed they probably have a good point on that score.
No official role for an opposition can be created in such circumstances and it is a complete waste of time to talk about it at this stage. Northern Ireland plc has plenty of real economic and social problems to deal with without debating changes to the machinery of government that won’t take place any time soon. Alasdair was right to nix such a pointless debate. The SDLP needs to use its limited airtime on topics more likely to get more people to vote for and join the SDLP.
I was surprised, therefore, at how much space the Irish News devoted to Alasdair talking about process and not about policies with concrete outcomes. For example, I happen to agree with him that a 15 council model would be better than an 11 council model – in fact, I fail entirely to see the need for a costly change to local councils. I also agree that the 11 council model proposed has elements of Gerrymandering favourable to Sinn Féin – pretty blatant in the case adding strongly Sinn Féin Strabane to the SDLP stronghold of Derry, when Derry is a perfectly well-sized and coherent City to begin with. But this debate has been running for some years now and has failed to catch the imagination of the electorate, unsurprisingly when even election nerds like me struggle to maintain much interest. Sinn Féin and the DUP both received strong mandates from the electorate last May, so fairness and the Assembly’s voting procedure both say that where they actually agree, they get to have their own way, even if it’s wrong.
Similarly, while there may be issues with MLA’s remuneration and pension packages, this is not a subject I would devote a quarter of a major newspaper feature to, nor is it one likely to inspire much sympathy on the part of the electorate.
I was astonished at the decision to rotate the SDLP’s Minister every 18 months. It is a recipé for permanent government by the Civil Service, with Ministers replaced as soon as they get used to being a Minister and maybe start doing something practical. Whoever ends up taking over Alasdair’s late watch in the Department of Social Development in January 2015 will have about three months to prove themselves before an Assembly election happens – i.e., they will achieve nothing. Is the factionalism in the SDLP Assembly group really so bad that they can’t just let Alex get on with his job? Especially when it’s a difficult job given the differences between the NI and UK government approaches to welfare and the emptiness of the public purse. But in any case, even if he’s right, I doubt the electorate care too much which strategy Alasdair uses to avoid being the third SDLP leader in a row overthrown in a palace coup.
Stormont insider process issues are irrelevant to most people, indeed actively frustrating when no crisis seems likely to emerge. Why not speak more about the issues that actually matter? It is generally acknowledged that the system of transfer to post-primary schools is in complete chaos, and that Catriona Ruane holds principal responsibility for that. It is amazing Alasdair didn’t bring this subject up.
Similarly, I was astounded to see no mention of the economy by Alasdair. People are very, very, afraid of their economic future at present, with good reason. It’s once more generally acknowledged, I believe, that Sinn Féin has a serious perception gap when it comes to their ability to manage the economy. Tens of thousands of voters have lost their job, been forced to take a pay cut, or have been put on warning that a pay cut or redundancy is likely in the near future; many of them are habitual Sinn Féin voters.
Perhaps, in reality, the SDLP’s economic policy is a bit weak – they’d hardly be unique in NI politics in that! – but one hardly needs a Nobel Prize winning economist to draft a few lines for a party leader to repeat to a journalist. Elections are a long way away and the detail can wait for a year or so. If I were Alasdair, I would be using every opportunity I could to remind people that the SDLP are the sort of mainstream social democrats you’d like to see run your economy (if you’re the average NI nationalist), whereas the Shinners have all this weird Marxist baggage and could be scary to overseas investors.
It’s the only issue I see Sinn Féin being vulnerable to the SDLP on. Otherwise, while there are parts of the country that will always be strongholds of the South Down and Londonderry party, Sinn Féin will remain the dominant force in Northern Nationalist politics until well after Alasdair collects his Stormont pension.