Thursday, 16 February 2017

Schama's Trump hysteria drowns out considered criticism of new administration

High-pitched screeching - Simon Schama.
Donald Trump’s first weeks in office have drawn strong reactions from his many critics right across the world.  Prominent entertainers, politicians, journalists and other public figures are among those who have articulated their opposition to the new US president in strident terms, on stage, on television, in print and, most vociferously, online.  

This deluge of political opinion has typically been expressed at a painfully high pitch, but few voices have shrieked more shrilly than that of TV historian, Simon Schama.  Schama is a successful, respected academic, whose training you might expect to impart a veneer of perspective and detachment, but for weeks he has pumped out hundreds (thousands?) of tweets about Trump, with an unmistakable timbre of hysteria.  

He’s compared the new US president to Trump and Mussolini.  In fact he has ransacked thoroughly the annals of 1930s European history, in order to draw parallels with modern US politics.   Theresa May’s official visit to Washington DC to discuss a free trade deal was compared to Neville Chamberlain’s trip to Munich that ended in a tacit agreement permitting Hitler to invade Czechoslovakia.  Schama has taken to calling the British prime minister ‘Theresa Appeaser’, which may be skilled wordplay, but is also an outrageous, wildly inappropriate slur.

This fevered response to Trump is particularly odious, because it comes from a trained historian, but it is only an extreme example of the Pavlovian, content free clamour that accompanied the president’s ascension to power.  Whether or not such primal scream therapy makes liberals feel better, it is dangerous, because it inevitably crowds out more considered criticisms of the new administration.    

Trump’s political pronouncements are certainly frequently unseemly, worrying and even dangerous.  Despite a widespread expectation that he might moderate his rhetoric in office, he issued a flurry of ‘executive orders’ aimed at enacting controversial policies like building a “wall” on the border with Mexico and stopping certain Muslim travellers from entering the US. He’s surrounded himself with unpleasantly nationalist advisers, like Steve Bannon, who founded Breitbart News, a polemical website specialising in populist, right-wing clickbait.  

None of which makes Trump or his staff fascists, Nazis or even white nationalists.

That type of language starts to deflect from more substantive appraisals of his presidency.  However deplorable you believe Trump’s travel ban to be, it isn’t comparable to plotting genocide against an entire race or religion.  Inflated comparisons of that kind only devalue debate around his policy, and it actually lets the president off the hook.  

Neither is it good enough to rail against people who point out that perhaps some of the commentary around Trump is a little bit out of proportion.  The belief that calm, reasoned argument usually leads to more clarity than inflamed name-calling does not imply necessarily hidden sympathies for the new president.

The many protests against Trump that have taken place across the world have admittedly been animated by youthful zest, but they’ve also attracted a wearily familiar cast of complainers.  It’s not necessarily a slight to examine the substance of complaints from young, earnest protesters, the consistency of their arguments or the source of their motivations.

Is it cynical to suggest that, sometimes, invective against Trump is more about asserting the virtue of the complainant than a critical assessment of his arguments?  The protesters, the celebrities and even the academics are telling us something about themselves, their identities and their values, rather than engaging in political debate, which would, in any case be premature.  Trump is someone against whom they can define themselves.  

They’re furious that the new president isn’t “their kind of person”.

I sympathise.  He’s not my kind of person either.  I abhor his crassness, populist soundbites and pugilistic, un-statesmanlike demeanour.  But, none of that entitles me to make wildly overblown claims about his extremity.  I am not a historian.  How much more circumspect should be a professional whose discipline is evaluating the impact of human affairs over decades and centuries.  Schama’s hysterical tone puts the entirety of his work into doubt.         

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Local Labourites should stop sucking up to republican Corbyn

Whether or not you agree with their views, Labour activists in Northern Ireland are an indefatigable bunch.  Since 2003, when the party was obliged to accept local members, a small group of enthusiasts has implored, badgered and reasoned with its leaders, in a doomed attempt to have them stand candidates in elections here.

Their argument, based on the idea that all UK voters should have a say in who forms their national government, is strong, and it receives a polite hearing.  The responses range from enthusiasm - Andy Burnham, promised he’d support candidates in Northern Ireland if he became party leader - to indifference - Ed Miliband repeatedly offered to review the position - to diplomatic opposition.

However, Jeremy Corbyn is surely the least likely Labour leader in modern history to back the LPNI’s cause.  He is a veteran supporter of Irish unity and an unabashed friend of Sinn Fein.  

Far from supporting ‘equal citizenship’ for voters here, he believes that the British state is an occupying force in Northern Ireland and he holds, at best, ambiguous attitudes to republicans’ murderous campaign, designed to force an unwilling majority into a united Ireland.  

Yet local Labour activists continue to appeal to Corbyn’s better instincts, launching a fresh campaign using the Twitter hashtag #righttostand, and demanding to “fight austerity” at the forthcoming Assembly election.  You’ve got to admire their optimism, but, at the same time, it’s extraordinary to witness many Northern Irish Labourites sheeplike devotion to a leader who, by their own definition, deprives them of basic democratic rights.

Despite his disdain for Northern Ireland’s existence, Corbyn seems to be remarkably popular among current grassroots members here.  Labour activists claimed to have a membership of around 200 back in 2014 - under Ed Miliband - and, now, they bandy about figures in excess of 3,000.  

In a meeting prior to last year’s leadership challenge, over 70% of the Northern Ireland party reportedly expressed support for Corbyn and only 8% backed his opponent, Owen Smith.  Meanwhile, LPNI office holders were among signatories to a letter that pleaded to set up a branch of hard-left, Corbynite pressure group, Momentum.  Tellingly, that permission was denied.

Longer term Labour activists in Northern Ireland may not be fully paid up members of the Jeremy cult, but the party here is happy to promote his policies.  Kathryn Johnston, a senior figure who stood in last year’s election as an unofficial Labour candidate, without the party’s permission, expressed “absolute delight” at Corbyn’s successful defence of his leadership.  

Other veterans have been more guarded, but UK-minded Labourites in Northern Ireland are accustomed to performing contortions of logic, thanks to the British left’s infatuation with Irish nationalism.  The official reason that Labour doesn’t stand candidates here is its “fraternal” links to the SDLP.

The idea that Northern Ireland, with its bloated public sector and addiction to spending taxpayers’ money, needs to “fight austerity” is absurd.  However, we do need politics rooted in ideas about issues and economics, rather than sectarianism and division.  

Corbyn is degrading and destroying Labour, but it is still the official opposition at Westminster, and people in Northern Ireland should have a right to endorse or reject its policies, just like voters elsewhere in the UK.

To date, the Conservatives, during their brief alliance with the UUP, were the only major national party to contest elections seriously in Northern Ireland.  Local activists are still allowed to stand candidates, with occasional, variable assistance from Tory campaign headquarters.      

It suits the Conservative Party, with its pro-union credentials, to have its name on ballot papers in Northern Ireland, even if its efforts are, truthfully, rather half-hearted.  With its enduring sympathies for Irish nationalism and republicanism, particularly on the left of the party, Labour is a different matter.

Some of its Northern Ireland activists took the brave decision to defy their leaders at last year’s election and stand, without official backing, as the Labour Representation Committee.  That approach at least got Labour linked candidates on the ballot paper and it is likely to be more fruitful than sucking up to an IRA apologist like Jeremy Corbyn.

This article was published first in today's Belfast News Letter.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Stop indulging Stormont parties' failures

This article appeared originally in the News Letter, 12 January 2016.

The Renewable Heat Incentive is the superficial reason that there will almost certainly be an early election in Northern Ireland, less than a year after the last poll.  The deeper cause is a broken political system that entrenches sectarian headcounts and encourages parties to provoke endless mini crises, when they don’t get their way.  

Politics at Stormont is stuck in a repeating loop, where periods of inactive stability are followed by tantrums, emergency talks and ambiguous, meaningless ‘agreements’ that promise things will be sorted out properly later.  So far, this pattern has allowed the power-sharing institutions to lurch on unsteadily, but, until it is broken, people here have few prospects of competent government, a thriving economy or a harmonious society.

In a normal political system, an election would allow the public to hold its political leaders to account and, potentially, vote a new set into office.  In Northern Ireland, the St Andrews’ Agreement ensures that the biggest question at the ballot box is always whether a unionist or nationalist becomes First Minister, rather than issues of policy or competence.  

After this election, the prospects that an Executive will be formed quickly - even a divided, ineffective Executive - are remote.  Sinn Fein has vowed not to nominate ministers, until negotiations take place on a grim shopping list of demands that it previously promised its voters, but failed to deliver.  

These include action on so-called “legacy” inquests, designed to focus investigations into Northern Ireland’s violent past on the comparatively small number of deaths caused by soldiers and policeman, rather than the vast majority of unsolved crimes perpetrated by IRA terrorists.  Few things could damage Northern Ireland’s society more profoundly than indulging republicans’ perverse view of the Troubles, which legitimises a ruthless campaign of political murder and demonises those who tried to prevent chaos and civil war.      

The dynamics of this crisis are drearily familiar from St Andrews in 2007,  the Hillsborough talks on policing and justice in 2010, the Stormont House Agreement in 2014 and 2015’s Fresh Start Agreement.  This loop has to be broken now, or the same thing will happen again, sooner or later, and again after that, rinse and repeat.

It is not impossible to reform the Stormont system successfully.  The independent MLA, John McCallister, suggested that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, who wield exactly the same powers anyway, should both be known simply as “First Ministers”.  Formally recognising their “co-equal” status could draw much of the sectarian poison from election campaigns and enable smaller parties to challenge the DUP and Sinn Fein.

McCallister’s proposal was rejected, because it threatened the status quo, but he did pilot through the Assembly legislation that led to an official opposition at Stormont, albeit one that is weak and voluntary.  The UUP and the SDLP declined to join the Executive, after the last election, and they are now supposed to hold the Executive to account.  Unfortunately their performance during the RHI crisis was underwhelming.

The two parties called for Arlene Foster’s resignation and attacked her vehemently in press releases, but failed to master the detail of RHI or uncover relevant new facts about the scheme’s operation.  Journalists did far more to investigate the scandal, while, at the Assembly, Jim Allister analysed its legal ramifications more effectively.
The scandal was a symptom of a system of devolved government that focuses on winkling the maximum amount of cash from the Treasury in London, then arguing about how it is divided between the two main perceived communities.  RHI means that the public have rarely been so cynical, apathetic and disdainful about local politics.

If our politicians have any shame or humility left, maybe their current appalling reputation provides a slim window of opportunity to finally implement a workable system in Northern Ireland.

After the election, the Government could refuse to facilitate ‘hot-house’ talks unless serious institutional reforms are discussed seriously.   For too long, Westminster has indulged the fiction that power-sharing in Northern Ireland is successful and stable.  

That means, at a minimum, joint first ministers, rather than a first and deputy first minister, and beefed up powers for the opposition, so that there is a genuine alternative to the Executive.  It may also means finally holding the parties to their promises on integrating society, rather than simply talking about it.  The alternative is to continue the succession of crises, controversies and waste.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Council should ignore absurd World Cup motion

The Green and White Army has been dragged unwillingly into city council politics in Belfast once again.  SDLP councillor, Declan Boyle, proposed a motion calling for the Northern Ireland football team to boycott World Cup 2018, due to take place in Russia, in protest at that country’s participation in the war in Syria.

Mr Boyle attracted fewer than one thousand votes in the last local election, but he’s used his mandate to urge a national football association to intervene in one of the thorniest geopolitical issues in the world today.  The absurd grandiosity of his motion aside, it shows a flimsy grasp of the complexity of a vicious civil war in Syria.

Russia’s military support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime is controversial and its methods brutal, but it exposed the ineffectiveness of western countries’ tactics and acted decisively to defeat Islamists in Palmyra and Aleppo.  Meanwhile, the US and European countries have pursued a confused policy, including backing tacitly groups linked to Al-Qaeda, when they have been attacked by government forces.  To put it mildly, the situation is complicated and it isn’t the Irish FA’s job to weigh the merits of civil war in the Middle East, or to contribute to demonising Russia.  

From the moment that Russia was awarded the World Cup, politicians have tried to meddle in the home countries participation and the media has focussed on bribery, hooliganism and Vladimir Putin.  The coverage has been biased and it draws upon the West’s political rivalry with Moscow and England’s hurt at not hosting the finals.  Actually, there will never be a better time to visit the world’s biggest, most fascinating country.

2018 could be one of the best World Cups ever and Northern Ireland fans will have a ball, should our team qualify.     

The dictum “keep politics out of sport” isn’t influential at Belfast City Council.  Whether donning Linfield scarves in the council chamber, or proposing to invite multiple national teams to City Hall receptions, local councillors love to court controversy by debating issues related to sport, particularly football, in the council chamber.  They should concentrate on matters that fall within their powers, and on delivering better services for their constituents.  

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

If you blame Russia for nearly everything you're a xenophobic bigot.

There’s an entire sub-genre of political commentary devoted to pointing out the intolerances and hypocrisies of self-described ‘liberals’.  So it’s not a new observation that some of the people who take most pride in being ‘broad-minded’ actually harbour the deepest, most implacable prejudices.  In fact it’s been a vintage year for liberal illiberalism, fuelled by anger at the outcome of the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s victory in the US election.

Some commentators attribute those election results to a rise in xenophobic or racist attitudes.  In other words, they allege that voters are currently more inclined to feel negatively toward entire groups of people, based on nationality or perceived background.  A worrying development, most would agree.  Except that some groups of people, indeed some nationalities, are subjected to sweeping generalisations by the same commentators, sometimes in the same articles.

These types of inconsistencies have probably always existed, but it seems they are getting worse.  They were once commonly directed at Israelis and even, to an extent, Northern Irish protestants but, just at the moment, the people it’s most ok for liberals to smear are Russians.  It’s a witch-hunt led by the Democratic Party in the US, but it extends to the UK and parts of western Europe too.

The Democrats and their supporters want the world to believe that Hillary Clinton was beaten by Donald Trump only because Russians interfered in the election.  Russians hacked her campaign team’s emails and Russians spread ‘fake news’ that tilted US public opinion in Trump’s favour.  Right-thinking, liberal people are ‘hawkish’ and tough on Russia, while those who want better relationships with Russians are Vladimir Putin’s ‘puppets’ and ‘apologists’.

In the UK, a Labour MP, Ben Bradshaw, claimed that it is “highly probable” that Russia interfered in the EU referendum.  He offered no evidence, but the supposed perfidy of Russians certainly did feature in the campaign.  The ‘remain’ side alleged that Britain would be ill-equipped to deal with a “newly belligerent Russia”, outside the EU, and Boris Johnson was dubbed an ‘apologist’ after suggesting that Brussels’ foreign policy may have contributed to the conflict in the Ukraine.  

Attention can be diverted from any political result one doesn’t like, or any insinuation of wrongdoing, by howling about Russian ‘cyber warfare’ and ‘fake news’.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s Brexit, Trump, an Italian referendum or British Olympians penchant for taking ‘anti-asthmatic’ steroids just before they compete.      

While hacking does take place and some of it originates in Russia, the evidence linking it to the Russian state is flimsy.  As for ‘fake news’, its definition has expanded to encompass, not only flagrantly invented stories, but also any editorial line or news outlet one doesn’t like.  The Washington Post recently published a story alleging that ‘fake news’ had affected the US election, based on ‘research’ supplied by a group, PropOrNot, that equates ‘non-mainstream’ views with Russian propaganda.  The paper later appended an editor’s note to the article, explaining that it didn’t “vouch for the validity” of PropOrNot’s findings and acknowledging that its methods were flawed.  

The New Yorker did a very effective job of examining “the propaganda about Russian propaganda”.  The definition of “fake news”, it found, was broad enough to include “not only Russian state-controlled media organisations, such as Russia Today, but nearly every news outlet in the world”.  

The allegation could be levelled at many of the more outlandish stories about Russia in western media, for instance Russian football hooligans waging “hybrid warfare” on their state’s behalf or The Times’ description of Russian language programmes at British universities as a “secret propaganda assault” by the Kremlin.

The idea that Russia has been unfairly demonised is not the preserve of hard-core Putinists either.  Mikhail Gorbachev, a former statesman who is profoundly respected in the west, has spoken about western “provocation” and believes that negative western press coverage has enhanced the President’s popularity at home.  In particular, he believes that analysis of Russian foreign policy objectives has been unfair.

The conflict in the Ukraine, where a violent putsch took place, unsupported by the majority in the state’s eastern and central provinces, has been portrayed as unalloyed aggression by Russia.  There has been an obstinate insistence on viewing the war simplistically, ignoring Moscow’s perspective and the perspective of a large proportion of the Ukraine's population.   Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s support for President Assad in Syria has prompted the west to take the part of rebels, many of whom are Islamists, linked to Al Qaeda among other terrorist groups.    

Russia’s conduct in neither of these countries is blameless, but it is rational, conforms to a coherent view of world affairs and advances its own interests.  None of this nuance is reported or debated in western newspapers, other than the odd isolated column, and Russians’ fiercest critics are nearly always self-styled ‘liberals’.  The indecent urge to confront or even to fight Russia is aired constantly.

There are words for demonising an entire nation of people on the basis of cliches and generalisations.  They are prejudice and xenophobia.  The Russian state’s actions, like any other state, are sometimes unscrupulous and questionable.  It’s foreign policy is sometimes at odds with the UK and it’s system of government is not the same as ours.  To blame it for everything though, which is the current trend, is irrational and bigoted.

Monday, 12 December 2016

SF want unionists to forget that Northern Ireland issue is about sovereignty, not identity.

For some years now, Sinn Fein’s representatives have been spouting platitudes about accommodating unionists in an “agreed Ireland”.  The party’s latest bout of navel-gazing is prompted (it claims) by the aftermath of of the EU referendum. Brexit, Sinn Fein says, “changes everything”, including the assumption that unionists will necessarily oppose “Irish unity”.

In its new document, Towards a United Ireland, the party proposes a series of ideas to recognise the “unique identity of Northern unionists and the British cultural identity”.  

Alex Kane does a good job of debunking the view that unionism, or Northern Ireland as an entity, can survive Irish unity.  I agree with him.  Unfortunately, though, the notion that the political divide in Northern Ireland centres on identity rather than sovereignty is deeply ingrained, and not just among nationalists.

Over the past few decades, Sinn Fein has changed the way it talks about unionists, either because its ideologues genuinely think differently or just because its propaganda has become slicker.  

The brutal slogan ‘Brits out’ was first given a polish so that, in theory, it omitted Ulster unionists, who were merely under the misapprehension that they were British, whereas they were actually Irish.  Then the Shinners recognised, in theory at least, that there is something that sets unionists apart from the rest of the “Irish nation”.  Gerry Adams, for instance, made the sanctimonious admission that “we (republicans) need to look at what they (unionists) mean by their sense of Britishness”.  

This document seems to suggest that Sinn Fein thinks “they” mean, holding a British passport, having a “relationship” with the royal family, feeling an affinity for “loyal institutions” and, it is even implied, learning in separate schools.  All of this amounts to the “recognition of a unique identity”, that could find constitutional form in Sinn Fein’s fantasy ‘United Ireland’ through the survival of a Stormont Assembly, whose powers would be devolved from Dublin rather than Westminster.

It hasn’t occurred to republicans, or they dare not contemplate, that Northern Irish unionists’ Britishness comes from a rational, defensible and deeply felt political allegiance to the United Kingdom.  This allegiance cannot be accommodated in a united Ireland, because its substance is Northern Ireland’s inclusion in the UK and the sovereignty of the parliament at Westminster.  Take that away and you are left with the baubles of a national identity outside a nation state.  

It’s understandable that Sinn Fein and other nationalists think this way, or, at least, present their arguments this way  The Belfast Agreement defined a political struggle over sovereignty in terms of identity.  

Sinn Fein sold the deal to republicans on the basis that it transferred power from London to the island of Ireland and secured recognition for Irish nationality.   Only now are the hard edges of sovereignty in Northern Ireland reemerging, as Brexit shows that Westminster’s authority was not diluted at all by the Good Friday Agreement.      

Unfortunately, unionists have often defined their politics in terms of identity as well.  Certain politicians popularised the idea that the Belfast Agreement represented a defeat for unionism, on that basis.  Unionist parties were often happy to stay at the margins of UK politics, using national debates to air parochial concerns and extract more money from Westminster.  The goal of putting Northern Ireland at the centre of UK politics and UK society was marginal, at best.

In fact, ideas not unlike Sinn Fein’s proposals have even been discussed at the fringes of loyalism, and perhaps beyond.  The notion that Northern Ireland as a political entity could or should endure outside the UK is not uncommon.              

After almost 100 years of its existence, a distinct Northern Irish identity does exist, and it has political expression through the devolved Assembly at Stormont.  That doesn’t mean that it can survive autonomously.  Politically Northern Ireland is defined by its place in the United Kingdom.

The idea of becoming a devolved region of a 32 county Irish state, with the same old parties retaining their stranglehold on power, is horrifying.  No amount of Orange parades, Prod schools or symbols of royalty could make it any more palatable.  We would be better taking our chances in a unitary Republic, where something like a mature political culture has developed.  

And if Northern Ireland did leave the United Kingdom, be under no illusion, Ulster unionism would be no more.  There might remain Ulster protestants, people with a British cultural identity and even British citizens, but they would not be unionists.  Without the United Kingdom, or at least the prospect of reviving the United Kingdom, unionism does not exist.

It’s simple and axiomatic, but it clearly bears repeating, Northern Irish unionism is the political belief that Northern Ireland should be part of the United Kingdom.  While it is affected by issues of identity, culture and symbolism, it is not defined by them.  Let’s by all means have a discussion about the border, but don’t pretend that unionism can be accommodated in a United Ireland, or that the essence of the issue is anything other than where sovereignty lies in Northern Ireland.  


Friday, 28 October 2016

Competence, not electoral flirtation, the way forward for UUP & SDLP

Is there a party more promiscuous, politically, than the Ulster Unionists?  For ten years, at least, the UUP has tried to meet “the one”, to help it secure electoral success and greater influence. 
Back in 2006, Ulster Unionists persuaded former PUP MLA, David Ervine, to join their Assembly group, in an attempt to gain an extra Executive minister, though the arrangement was thwarted eventually by Stormont’s rules.  Then they fought two elections with the Conservatives, under the clumsy title, Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force.   

At the last Westminster election, Ulster Unionists struck electoral deals with both the DUP and independent unionist, Sylvia Hermon.  In Fermanagh South Tyrone, both main unionist parties campaigned for Tom Elliott, while the UUP stood aside in North Belfast, East Belfast and North Down, to give rival candidates a free run. 

Now they’re at it again.  

At the Ulster Unionists’ annual conference last Saturday, Mike Nesbitt cavorted on stage with Colum Eastwood, announcing the party’s latest dalliance - the SDLP - its partner in Stormont’s official opposition.  “Vote (for) Colum and me and you get a whole new middle ground politics”, the UUP leader promised the public. 

This budding relationship may not yet be “exclusive”.  In a pre-conference interview with the News Letter, Nesbitt refused to rule out another pact with the DUP, aimed at maximising “the number of pro-Union MPs from Northern Ireland. 

Sam McBride wrote about the risk of confusing voters with multiple alliances, and noted that, to date, electors have been reluctant to transfer between unionist and nationalist candidates, or vice versa.  There are other profound difficulties with marrying the parties’ philosophies, as well as their views on everyday issues at the Assembly.  

The most obvious difference - on whether our constitutional future should lie with the UK or the Republic of Ireland - could have been surmounted more easily prior to the ‘Brexit’ referendum.  After all, Eastwood pledged that, under his leadership, the SDLP will try to “make Northern Ireland work”, despite its long-term goal of a united Ireland. 

However, the British public’s decision to leave the EU has revived nationalist hopes of loosening links with Great Britain and binding us more closely to the Republic of Ireland.  The SDLP has promoted the idea of a “special status” for Northern Ireland that preserves elements of EU membership and dilutes ‘Brexit’, as it is likely to be implemented in the rest of the United Kingdom.   

The UUP campaigned for ‘remain’, but it cannot reconcile its unionist principles with the idea that a nationwide vote is not binding in certain parts of the UK.  Likewise, the party can’t justify taking part in Enda Kenny’s forum about the future of the island after Brexit, while it’s styled a ‘national conversation’ that purports to tackle policy for Northern Ireland. 

Then there are a myriad of issues around the economy and welfare, where the UUP should, in theory, be more realistic than its partner.           

That isn’t to say that working closely with the SDLP is a bad idea, if it’s done properly. 

Together, the two parties form the Assembly’s ‘official opposition’ and they are the main alternative to the power-sharing Executive, made up of the DUP and Sinn Fein.  Their task is to scrutinise ministers’ decisions effectively and build a reputation for competence, that persuades voters they could do a better job. 

Sadly, that seems very difficult currently.  Neither the UUP nor the SDLP has presented a coherent critique of Stormont’s failings, never mind a decent plan to do things differently.  Their appeal to voters relies mainly on the perception that they are less obnoxious than rival parties with broadly similar outlooks. 

Mike Nesbitt has to persuade voters that the UUP and the SDLP comprise a credible opposition to the Executive, before anyone will believe that Northern Ireland politics has anything so grandiose as a "whole new middle ground".