By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
Did he really say that? After initial disbelief, that was the first question a lot of people asked when they read reports of Mark Durkan’s weekend speech to the British-Irish Association (BIA).
We only have reports of the speech and a statement from Durkan’s office because the BIA proceeds under the Chatham House rule which means that you can report what was said but not who said it unless the speaker gives permission.
It might have been better for Durkan if he had availed of the full protection of the Chatham House rule.
The naivete of his remarks is equalled only by his lack of political nous.
What did he say? That compulsory power sharing between nationalists and unionists could be ended. That in future there would be no need to designate parties ‘nationalist’, ‘unionist’ and ‘other’. That in Durkan’s Shangri-La, decisions could be taken by majority voting as in Westminster or the Dail.
How could this wondrous change come about? There would be a ‘robust’ bill of rights to protect people from decisions damaging to their interests, that’s how.
In the immortal words of John McEnroe: “You cannot be serious.”
Let’s for a moment ignore the fact that after 10 years it has been impossible to agree on a bill of rights here, never mind enact one.
Instead remember that Stalin’s 1936 constitution was praised as one of the most liberal documents of its kind ever drafted but it wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on and didn’t prevent scores of senior Bolsheviks being judicially murdered the following year.
Both the DUP and Sinn Féin have gleefully agreed that Durkan has accepted the unionist position opposing ‘mandatory coalition’.
Upper Bann DUP MP David Simpson said: “At long last [the SDLP] accepts that mandatory coalition and designation voting is not the best form of government for Northern Ireland.”
Pathetically Durkan says: “Ah, but I never said ‘mandatory coalition’.” Sorry, mate, but that’s what it is at Stormont.
There has to be an executive composed of parties controlling the majority of nationalist and unionist votes to achieve parallel consent for decisions. Durkan now says it doesn’t always have to be like this.
In one ill-considered speech, obviously not thought through and just as obviously not the result of any consultation among SDLP MLAs, Durkan has thrown overboard 38 years of SDLP policy and principle.
Basic to the party’s position has always been that there must be power sharing between unionists and nationalists in the north in order to provide parity of status and equality of esteem for both communities.
Now the SDLP leader has rejected that fundamental position and ignored the theoretical underpinning of the Good Friday Agreement, the concept of consociationalism.
Instead of insisting on political power sharing as of right he is prepared to replace that with daily trips to the court by disgruntled nationalists to appeal to some
airy-fairy bill of rights. In short, because he thinks politics cannot work to his liking he would prefer the judges.
How contemptible. How politically inept.
Why is he advocating such nonsense? His nose has been put out of joint by the present Sinn Féin-DUP axis.
Sinn Féin and the DUP are operating the Good Friday Agreement which Durkan helped negotiate, a circumstance he never imagined in 1998.
The SDLP’s nose is pressed to the window of the sweetie shop after years inside, a position he can think of no political means to reverse so he has decided to throw his toys out of the pram.
The consequences of his proposal are quite straightforward. He might imagine that he would be allowed into his voluntary coalition executive. No chance, mate.
A child can see that, without designation and compulsory power sharing, the DUP and UUP would form an administration and run Stormont just like old times. Isn’t that why guys like Simpson oppose power sharing, for God’s sake?
Durkan’s idiotic remarks are born of weakness and frustration if not desperation. He knows he faces another four years of the present arrangement and fears that at the end of it the SDLP will be terminally weakened.
If he seriously believes his daft proposal will help restore the SDLP’s fortunes he must be deluding himself. On the contrary, his hare-brained speech at Oxford will ensure the SDLP will never share power again.