What Scotland can learn from Northern Ireland's odd couple
THEY may go down as the weirdest duo since Mick Fleetwood and Samantha Fox presented the Brits. At the time of writing, with talks continuing late into the night, it is still unclear whether Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness will finally agree a deal to become, respectively, First and Deputy Minister of Northern Ireland. But that we should even be talking in such terms is remarkable
As recently as 2005, when the IRA was still threatening a return to armed conflict, such an alliance would have seemed absurd. Yet in the few short months since then, a remarkable change has taken place in the Province. The British Armed Forces have all but left, Belfast has returned to normality and the ancient bitter hostilities between Ulster's political foes have begun to mellow. The 80-year old Paisley has come in from the cold, now exchanging religious text books with Tony Blair; and in a historic move in January, Sinn Fein agreed, with a nine-to-one majority, to support the newly-formed Police Service of Northern Ireland, the successor to the hated RUC.
The ideological extremes vacated by the two parties have become a political wasteland. In a sign of change, the number of seats won in this month's elections by hard-line Loyalists who accuse Paisley of selling out won the same number of seats as the newly formed Alliance party which represents the Province's burgeoning Chinese community: one. The usual caveats have to be borne in mind: Paisley and McGuinness still share an intense hatred for everything that the other stands for but now, having become the two largest parties in this month's elections, a coalition is possible.
Any comparison between Scotland and Northern Ireland must be embarked upon with caution. We have different histories and antecedents, despite the many ties that bind us. But in practical terms there are plenty of lessons our own politicians, now preparing for their own elections, can learn from Northern Ireland's miracle.
The first is that if Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness can talk about holding a coalition, it does rather beg the question as to why opponents in Scotland who, after all, have not actually been trying to kill one another for the last 30 years, can't. The still-unreconstructed SNP has, in its rule book, a ban on any alliance with the hated Conservatives, who still can't be forgiven for Ravenscraig, Thatcher and the poll tax. The Scots Tories themselves, under the pious leadership of Annabel Goldie, refuse to contemplate coalition with anyone, on the grounds that it is somehow too distasteful. The biggest taboo of all is any suggestion that Scotland's two leading parties, Labour and the SNP, should ever contemplate a union, despite the fact that on social policies there is barely the width of a Rizla between them. The consequence of this tribalism is that we are left in the Groundhog Day scenario where the Liberal Democrats - the only party who will work with anyone - have the field all to themselves, and the virtual guarantee of a seat in government. It is hardly democratic.
The second lesson from Northern Ireland is that Scotland's Unionist parties need to change. Over the past few weeks, Unionist politicians from Ulster have been happily sallying forth to 11 Downing Street, demanding that the UK government stump up the cash to pay for reconstruction in the Province.
Paisley has taken time out from his rants against the damaging moral consequences of sex on TV to accuse Gordon Brown of failing to find the cash to pay for Ulster's new roads and water system. All of this perfectly justified bargaining has been done in public, and done honestly.
In Scotland, this open and fair combat is unimaginable as, unlike in Northern Ireland, we have a Labour party in power in both Edinburgh and London - and the two power bases cannot be seen to be squabbling. As a result, in place of Ulster's vigorous debate we have had a dreary cold war where, for most of the last eight years, spiteful turf skirmishes between the party's Scottish and English wings have been conducted under the table, slowly eating away at the political process. Jack McConnell has been trapped in a Catch 22: rail against UK Labour and he is accused of splitting the party; back them and he is a London lackey. It is a dysfunctional relationship and it cannot last.
The lesson from Ulster therefore, is that Labour (and the Tories) in Scotland need to think seriously about seceding from their UK parties to create their own clear identity. It would be good for Scotland, giving a Labour First Minister a freer hand to demand harder bargains from Westminster. Paradoxically, it would strengthen the Union as well.
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