Tag Archives: Stormont

Both @DUPonline and @SinnFeinIreland show how not to negotiate

14 Nov

This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie last week on Nov 7th under the heading: How not to negotiate

martin McG

A joint article from the late Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster from just one year ago… anytime a Shinner or DUP-er tells you a deal is impossible – show them this.

Amid all the analysis and commentary on Brexit, might I suggest you check out the Beerg Brexit Blog written by an old friend of mine, Tom Hayes.

Originally from Dublin, but now based in the North of France, Tom is one of the most experienced and skilled employer relations negotiators in Europe, something reflected in his Brexit Blog.

Whereas most look at the hard politics of Brexit, especially from the British side, and I tend to look at it solely through the prism of how it effects relations on this island, Tom looks at the process as a negotiator.

While you are never in any doubt, reading any of his blog posts, that Tom thinks that Brexit is a massive folly, each week he examines developments and tests them for how the progress, or hamper, a negotiated outcome that would serve the interests of both sides.

Of course, Brussels is not the only place hosting a painstakingly slow and complex negotiation between two intractable sides – closer to home we have the seemingly never-ending negotiation/talks process between the DUP and Sinn Féin, co-chaired by the two governments.

Taking Tom’s analytical approach, it is probably more accurate to describe what has been going on in Belfast as a talks process rather than a negotiation, as neither side – and it is important to stress that the blame attaches to both parties in this, not just one – has signalled any real interest in reaching an outcome.

In one of his early blog posts Tom Hayes identifies the 10 key “rules” for negotiations. I place “rules” in parentheses as they are not so much “rules”, as they are the basic key essential ingredients for a negotiation to get up and running.

In the same way that a leader without followers is just some taking a walk, a negotiation without these key components is just a chat, and a not too friendly one at that.

Rather than boring you to death and risking repetitive strain injury trying to type all ten on an iPad, I will focus on just two or three and consider the extent to which they are absent from the current SF/DUP talks.

The first two are:

Have clear, precise objectives. Know what you want to achieve out of the discussions.

Establish what the Harvard Negotiating Project calls the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). In other words, work out what is the best you can do if the other side person tells you to go and f… sorry, to go and get lost.

Are we seeing any hints of the first of these from either side? While both sides say they want a return of the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly, there is little hard evidence that they do.

As for the second, the best alternatives to a negotiated settlement, well it seems that both sides are satisfied with the current alternative.

Now that the DUP has its confidence and supply agreement with the Tories, not to mention £2 billion for their pet projects, they are not that bothered whether Stormont returns or not. They have power, albeit without the trappings of ministerial offices or chauffeured Skodas.

On the other side, the handful of decision makers at the top of Sinn Féin have also concluded that the status quo is an option as the collapse of the Executive and Assembly has been good for business. It has not only stemmed the decline in their vote that they had experienced in the previous Assembly elections, it has partially reversed it.

So, they weaponise very real and legitimate concerns about the Irish language and parity of esteem to beyond a point where the other side can ever deliver. 

Thus, breaking not one but two rules of negotiations:

Manage stakeholder expectations by not promising to overdeliver.

Manage the expectations of the other party before you begin talking.

Worse still they catalogue and herald all their own failures in government and all the times the DUP out manoeuvred them in Gerry Adams’ Felon’s Club speech last January.

The history of the past twenty years shows us that the default Sinn Féin position in any fraught situation is to throw the balls up in the air.

Where other political organisations try to avoid crises, Sinn Féin thrives on them. That’s great for opposition, but lousy for government. That’s not just my opinion, while the folks around Gerry may feel they are having a good crisis, many local representatives are beginning to think otherwise – and no amount of spiking will stop that Storey.

But still the dance goes on.

The DUP knows that Sinn Féin is its best weapon in squeezing the UUP and increasing its own vote share, while conversely the DUP does more to drive nationalists to the polls to vote Sinn Féin than Sinn Féin itself.

The two big parties know each other all too well and see the current crisis as mutually beneficial, in the short term. Neither side is particularly mindful right now of the medium to long term the damage this stasis is doing to politics or the economy.

Why should they? The voters in Northern Ireland have been happy over the last few elections to reward them both.

Nationalists fed up with the intransigence and petty bigotry of the DUP have turned out to vote Sinn Féin while Unionists frustrated by the antics of Sinn Féin and fearful that Sinn Féin may become the biggest party abandoned their own moderate views and backed Arlene Foster’s DUP in even greater numbers.

The result is an impasse, but it is a time limited one.

Northern Ireland politics greatest success, and I use the word success here incorrectly, has been in insulating itself against the harsher realities of the outside world or even the consequences of its own inactions.

It is not that life in the Six Counties is some nirvana, it clearly isn’t, but it has developed a strange comfort in its own divisions, bizarre certainties and insularity.

It continues its tribal battles as if nothing anywhere else matters.

For years, the rest of the real world paid attention to what happened there, but somehow never intruded or impacted apart from sending peace envoys.

Brexit is about to change all that. Some harsh economic realities are about to hit those old certainties hard and the North’s politics will not be shielded from them.

In the meantime, the DUP and Sinn Féin talk aimlessly while the British prepare for the introduction of some form of Direct Rule from Westminster.

Hard to believe that is just short of a year since those two parties were jointly tellingeveryone ‘Our two parties are now in an Executive facing in the same direction… We are in this for the long haul.’

Not much of a haul.

Our neophyte Taoiseach fades in the (BBC NI) Spotlight…

14 Nov

This column: Leo in the Spotlight appeared on Broadsheet.ie on October 24th 

SpotlightThough it has appeared to slip by without much political comment, the Taoiseach’s BBC TV interview last Tuesday (16th Oct) showed that he is not quite the master of the medium that his friends would have us believe.

He was being interviewed as part of a BBC Northern Ireland Spotlight programme profiling our neophyte Taoiseach. It looked at his life and his rise to high office, with a focus on how he has approached the North and Brexit over the four months since becoming Taoiseach.

It was a fairly standard profile format. A 40-minute programme featuring a one on one sit-down interview, interspersed with archive clips and packages on specific issues.

Though it was no fawning hagiography, neither was it the most demanding or probing of interviews. The interview section took up less than 50% of the show, with questions on current political issues only taking up about 40 – 50% of that portion: about 8 – 10 minutes.

But for a good portion of those 10 minutes the Taoiseach struggled. But, worse than that he also demonstrated a blissful ignorance of a key element of relations both on and between these two islands.

His first stumble was on the issue of Brexit, specifically on the right of people in Northern Ireland having the right to exercise their EU citizenship.

The interviewer asked him if Ireland would be prepared to pick up the tab where someone from Northern Ireland holding Irish citizenship – and by extension EU citizenship – had an operation in another EU state. As the UK would by then be outside the EU, would the bill for the procedure be paid by the Irish government, he enquired?

A technical, not to mention hypothetical, question which seemed more designed to highlight the interviewer’s research skills, than to elicit information that might help the punter gain a better understanding of the issue.

It was the kind of question for which The West Wing (TV series) mantra: “never accept the premise of the question” could have been coined.

But the Taoiseach – a former health and social protection minister – did accept it followed by the uncomfortable sight of seeing him struggle to grasp the underlining concept and, then, eventually work his way through to an answer.

Similarly, when asked about his views on Sinn Féin, the Taoiseach essentially spoke of it as just another political party. Not exactly the line he has been pushing in his recent Dáil spats with Gerry and Mary Lou. If Micheál Martin were asked that question the word ‘cult’ would feature prominently in his reply.

Though it was cringe-making, even for a non-fan like me, if the Leo interview had ended there, then it would have been a passable performance. But it didn’t.

Asked, at the very end of the programme, if Brexit had made a United Ireland more or less likely, the Taoiseach not only went off piste, he went clear off the mountain range.

He started out fine. He opened his response with the obligatory reaffirmation of the Irish government’s commitment to the Good Friday Agreement but then, before our eyes, the Taoiseach morphed into Leo Varadkar, precocious wunderkind and attempted a single-handed redefinition of consent effectively junking a central tenet of the Good Friday Agreement, saying:

“…I wouldn’t like us to get to the point whereby we are changing the constitutional position here in Northern Ireland on a 50% plus one basis”.

“One of the best things about the Good Friday Agreement is that it did get very strong cross-Border support, that’s why there was a 70 per cent vote for it. I don’t think that there would be a 70 per cent vote for a united Ireland in the morning, for example, or anything remotely to that. And I really think we should focus on making the agreement that we have work.”

Worse still, he did it all unaided. There were no interruptions or interjections from the interviewer. No one else brought up 50% plus one, the Taoiseach did it all by himself, out of his own mouth.

Was this Leo making a major policy change on the principle of consent on the hoof or was this him failing to grasp a core policy position that has been around since the mid-1990s?

Regrettably I fear it was both.

This was the Taoiseach making up a policy on an issue he seemed fundamentally unable to grasp.

I say this as his address to the Derry Chamber of Commerce, a few days before the programme was aired, echoed the same approach, though without the reference to a 70% threshold.

What this Taoiseach fails to grasp, in contrast to his predecessors, including his most immediate one, is that consent is at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement. It applies equally and in parallel to both communities, as Seamus Mallon said at the 1998 British Labour party conference:

“Equality, parity of esteem and parallel consent are written into the Agreement – they are core of the new dispensation which we can and will implement.”

Simply put, you cannot say to one community in the North that the bar for their aspirations is to be set higher than for the other, whether that is 2, 5, 10 or 20% higher. That is the approach that prevailed in the North for decades.

The Taoiseach also fails to understand that the Good Friday Agreement, whose text appears on the website of his department, is not just a political document setting out some vague hopes and dreams, it is a sovereign agreement between two governments. It is a legal agreement that sets out the legal precepts underpinning the peace process and not something he can amend on a whim.

If his intention is to convince Unionism that he is their friend, then he will fail as they will see his comments as either patronising or undeliverable – or, both.

If his aim is to score political points off Gerry Adams’ fatuous calls for a border poll, then he will also fail. Not because there will be a Border Poll – there won’t – but because he is answering to Adams’ dog whistle.

The answer is not to raise the figure up from 50%+1 for one community, but to remind all those who demand a Border poll that with 50%+1 comes a great responsibility, a responsibility to make that situation work for more than just those who favour it.

Bizarrely, this is the point where Varadkar and Adams’ joint playing with numbers on consent risks unpicking the concept that made the agreement possible.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps what we saw on BBC Spotlight last week was not a Taoiseach making up policy on the hoof, but one who is so convinced by his own hype and spin that he went on to a TV programme ill-prepared and decided to just “wing it”.

Either way, the outcome is that he exposed his own lack of knowledge for no gain. He talked big, achieved nothing and managing to piss off all sides while doing it – just another average day for this government.

The perks of abstinence…?

16 Jul

This Broadsheet column first appeared online on June 12th 2017. In it, I explore the ramifications of the 2017 Westminster election result on politics in Northern Ireland, and suggest – borrowing heavily from an Irish Times article by Denis Bradley – that politics on the nationalist/republican side may be set for a major change over the coming year… www.broadsheet.ie/the-perks-of-abstinence/

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BBC NI

 

The results page from the BBC NI website – www.bbc.com/results/northern_ireland

 

While the outcome of the Westminster election was far from conclusive in England and Wales, the same cannot be said for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Only for the resurgence of the Scottish Tories under Ruth Davidson, Theresa May would be moving furniture rather than clinging to office by her fingertips. While the same Scottish result has, sadly, delayed the prospect of an Indy2 referendum, as the SNP Westminster representation collapsed from 56 seats to just 35 thanks to a 13% drop in support.

While in Northern Ireland the two parties that were at the heart of the post Good Friday Agreement Executive the: the SDLP and the UUP have been wiped out in terms of Westminster representation with the spoils being shared out between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

The Westminster line-up going into last Thursdays election was DUP 8, SF 4, SDLP 3, UUP 1 and Ind 1. The line-up coming out of it looks far starker: DUP 10, Sinn Féin 7 and Ind Unionist 1.

In crude political terms the balance has not shifted, however. There were 11 broadly unionist MPs and 7 broadly nationalist ones in the last House of Commons. This time around there will be: 11 broadly unionist MPs and 7 broadly nationalist ones, only that none of the 7 will attend.

Much has been made of Sinn Féin’s abstentionism over the past few days with most parties in the South using it as a stick to beat them with. I think the parties here have got it wrong on this one.

I would have happily voted for any of the SDLP candidates and I am deeply saddened not to see Mark Durkan, Margaret Ritchie or Dr Alasdair McDonnell in the House of Commons ensuring that the voice of nationalist and republican Ireland is heard. That said, the reality is that nationalist and republican voters still opted for candidates they knew would not take their seats.

Why voters in the North decided to vote for candidates who are happy to take the wage and the perks without doing the job is the issue that our political leaders should be addressing. The issue was excellently summed up by Denis Bradley in his analysis piece in last Saturday’s Irish Times:

“Since the Good Friday Agreement, Irish nationalism, across the whole island, has allowed itself to be reduced to a critiquing and an opposing of Sinn Féin instead of better understanding and explaining to itself and to others the desirability and the possibility of Irish unity.”   

Bradley then went further and made the case for not just slagging off Sinn Féin hollow and ultimately directionless narrative saying:

“There will always remain Irish nationalists who are unconvinced that Sinn Fein are the best proponents and providers of Irish unity but they continue to await a message and a messenger that is better.”

I believe this group is in the majority, North and South. As I have said here very many times, Brexit has completely changed the nature and scope of the debate in the North. One of the fundamental principles of the Good Friday Agreement is consent. Consent means, in the context of the Good Friday Agreement, that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland will not change without the consent of the majority of the people there.

There was a vote on Brexit in the North and 56% of people there, across communities, said no to Brexit. Yet it was still pushed through Westminster – despite the impassioned pleas of people like Durkan, Ritchie and McDonnell – and will proceed, we presume, in some shape or other. The EU citizenship of the people of Northern Ireland is not only being ignored, it is being annulled by the government at Westminster – small wonder that nationalists and republicans are angry.

Yes, it would be far better for this island North and South if Sinn Féin took their seats in this finely balanced parliament and used their numbers to raise the many legitimate and real concerns of Irish people on a hard Brexit and a hard border, but that is the type of analysis and criticism you apply to a political party, not Sinn Féin.

There are so many other areas on which to challenge Sinn Féin, top of that list is the perpetual sloganizing and game-playing that it engages in which helps it squeeze out an extra percentage point or two here and there but which also pushes the prospect of reunification further over the horizon. As Cllr Mannix Flynn said in his podcast with the Irish Independent: “The Sinn Féin promise of liberation is nuts.”

Over the past few days we have seen successive SF talking heads on TV Radio and Social Media telling us what a brilliant election they have just had and how their mandate is even further strengthened.

In the most simplistic terms, they are right. Sinn Féin did have a good Westminster election, but the shift in votes needed under the archaic first-past-the-post system to deliver that result was not huge. They took two seats off the SDLP and took one off the UUP, but when you look at the movement of voters, it was not a seismic change.

While SF saw its vote share since the most recent assembly election increase by 1.5% and the SDLP saw its vote decrease by a mere 0.2%, the biggest swing was to the DUP which saw its vote surge by a stunning 7.9% to 36%.

That DUP swing was decisive, not just in terms of the North, but also in terms of its clout in Westminster. So, the DUP now has the ear, if not the more tender regions, of a weakened UK Prime Minister, while Sinn Féin has 7 MPs with no clout, no Executive, no Assembly and an NI MEP who will be redundant in less than two years.

The other thing that Sinn Féin may have achieved is to have opened up a political space that it cannot occupy, but which could be filled and expanded by a new, or even an old, pro-European, business friendly, republican political party. Things in the North may be about to get a whole lot more interesting.

ENDS