Hear me out – having a government is good, actually

31 Mar 2022 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 31 Mar 2022

It's election season
It's election season

Poll results ahead of the Stormont election show that Stormont could achieve a huge amount – if only politics didn’t get in the way.

 

Election season officially began this week. It may or may not end with a government in place.

Polling day is May 5th and the biggest question mark is not over how well or poorly all the local political parties will perform, but instead whether an Executive will be formed when all the ballots are counted.

On Monday, LucidTalk released the findings from its Spring poll. It looks like Sinn Fein will be the largest party, with 26% of voters saying the Republicans will get their first preference vote. DUP comes next on 19%, Alliance is third on 16%.

That seven percentage points gap between SF and the DUP is both massive and steady, reflect findings from other recent surveys. A result like that would mean Sinn Fein would take the post of First Minister.

While this would be nothing more than a symbolic promotion for that party, given the deputy First Minister is effectively the same role as First Minister, this has caused disquiet among unionist politicians.

However, that’s not the big problem – or apparently not, anyway (some people have a different opinion). The stated main reason why the DUP (and TUV) are reluctant to commit to Stormont is the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Does this reflect their voters’ concerns? In the case of the TUV, yes. For the DUP? Yes, sort of.

Differences

LucidTalk asked survey respondents to look at a list of 19 different policy issues and choose the four that mattered most to them.

Amongst unionist voters, the most popular was supporting the union (cited by 61%), while other big topics include opposing the Protocol (51%), the economy (52%), the health service (51%), the cost of living (49%) and education (31%).

For nationalist voters, 70% of respondents pointed to the cost of living, while other significant concerns include the health service (62%), commitment to the unification of Ireland (51%), the economy (44%), with education and human rights issues in joint fifth place on 30%.

That leaves the “others”, or the “constitutionally neutral”, as LucidTalk has branded them. For that cohort, the cost of living was cited by 67%, followed by the economy (50%), education (44%), the environment and climate change (43%), good community relations (24%) and the health service (23%).

If you take a closer look at what the voters of individual parties care about, you get more of an indication of how important, or not, the Protocol – i.e. the thing that could put the Assembly on its knees – really is.

For TUV voters, it is the dominant issue. For those intending to vote DUP, it is the biggest issue, but for more than half of that cohort it isn’t the single most important concern.

One way to look at this is the pure political reality. The DUP is worried about its collapsing vote share. Its focus is the TUV. That is where most of those runaway voters are likely to have gone (or, rather, where they are threatening to go). It is also the most fertile ground for the DUP to win back voters.

Based on that, it makes sense that Jeffrey Donaldson is taking a hard line on the Protocol while being non-committal about the future of the institutions, at the very least in the aftermath of the election.

Similarities

Being a politician is a weird job. Your role is supposed to be that of public servant. This requires a broad view of the social, economic and cultural needs of the population, and all the different options you have to address those needs.

It means tough choices, it means compromise, it means trying to be imaginative without being unrealistic. None of this is easy. And, then, once every few years you get sacked - unless you win a popularity contest.

Voting can also be framed as a performance review and, altogether, this can mean that the key performance indicator for an elected representative is not how they feel about their day-today work – it is whether they get re-elected.

However, take a closer look at the results for LucidTalk’s polling.

For sure, a lot of people don’t like the Protocol. But people – unionists and nationalists alike – are worried about the cost-of-living crisis. They are worried about the health service. They want the economy to be better.

Could Stormont help? The answer is yes.

Scope’s other article this week looks at a recent report from the think tank Pivotal, and its analysis of how so many of the key issues cited by our voters will be in much better hands with a government in place. This is, simply put, entirely correct. Pivotal’s report is a policy-focused analysis concluding that NI needs a government.

People scoff about Stormont but since it was re-established in January 2020, the Assembly has actually been quite a dynamic place. That reached a fever pitch in recent months, with bill after bill being moved through the house, featuring all sorts of legislation which will improve the lives of local people.

Westminster has no interest in running the day-to-day concerns of Northern Ireland. That would be a retrograde defeat for any London government. The task of fixing NI problems really does fall upon the people and institutions of NI.

They’re more useful than you think they are

Northern Ireland’s politicians are able to work together on a lot of things. This includes the cost of living, the health service, the economy and more.

These non-contentious matters are riven with unaddressed problems. But, amongst MLAs, where there might not be consensus on how to take these things on, there is plenty of room to make deals that will have support from all corners.

The cost-of-living crisis is the result of a confluence of global factors. It is not something that Stormont alone can solve – but it is something that can be mitigated, for instance by providing support to those who need it most.

Similarly, while the health service can be overhauled and turned into something fit for the future, this will take time and resources – and, at the same time, waiting lists are an immediate crisis that need their own short-term mitigation. There is no quick fix, but there is a choice between making sweeping changes for significant long-term benefits, or doing nothing and watching the service collapse utterly.

Northern Ireland’s economy has been in the doldrums for decades. Different parties have different visions for how this could be changed, but the fact is very few of our politicians are ideologically rigid in this area.

There is so much common ground between both the people and politicians from different backgrounds or ethoses, it seems wild to opt for unchallenged decline rather than coordinated action on matters of such importance and impact.

And, even if there are rational political arguments for certain parties about why this should be the case, there is also an enormous amount of political (as well as substantive, public) risk.

If the elections happen, and no Executive is formed, what then? Every time there is a policy, crisis that will put political pressure on those choosing not to enter Stormont.

Between the cost of living, the crumbling health service, and the poor economy and struggling schools’ budgets and everything else, these crises are likely to be frequent. Each time something stumbles or breaks, this will cause political harm to those choosing to remain absent from power sharing. And, if and when the pressure grows so great that they do re-enter the institutions, all the damage caused in the interim will hang from their necks like millstones.

While a lot of voters care an awful lot about the Protocol and badly want it changed, it’s not the only thing they care about. The cost-of-living crisis, in particular, is only getting started.

Control the controllables

The Protocol is a piece of legislation passed in the Commons that cannot be changed in Northern Ireland.

Yes, maybe some “street politics” will give MPs a hurry up, but this is gamble, and one in which any victory could be Pyrrhic. A collapsed Stormont will do far more damage to Northern Ireland than to the Conservative Party.

Plenty of objections can be made about the Protocol, without abandoning everything else. The Tories aren’t that keen on the Brexit they got either, after all.

Politics, and being an elected representative, is about doing several things at once. Joining an Executive does not mean you love the current East-West arrangements. Nor does it mean you cannot lobby for change.

Finally, bear in mind that the Protocol is almost nobody’s idea of a good time.

Right now, the rage against it, and what it means either practically or symbolically, comes from a group of people who largely voted for Brexit.

However, you can take it as read that almost all Remainers didn’t want the Protocol; they didn’t want to leave the EU in the first place. That was 55.8% of all people who voted in the June 2016 referendum in NI. At the same time, unionist voters – who comprised the core Leave vote in NI – are now in significant opposition against the results of their own vote.

So, most people didn’t like the very concept of Brexit. Of those who did, most are disappointed about the Brexit they got. Is that a good reason to let our health service collapse?

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