The who-does-what election
ULSTER PHELIM O'NEILL
Phelim O'Neill was Unionist Member for North Antrim in the Northern Ireland Parliament which his first cousin, Captain Terence O'Neill, dissolved earlier this week. From 1952 to 1959 he sat as an Ulster Unionist MP at Westminster. Last year he was expelled from the Orange Order after refusing a summons to explain to his Orange Lodge his reasons for having attended a Roman Catholic service during a civic week.
The peace of death which usually broods over the Strangers and Press Galleries of the Northern Ireland Parliament has been rudely shattered in recent months. The commentators drawn from, so many lands by the political and sectarian turmoil evoke our sympathy as they endeavour to interpret events to their public, events which many of us here but dimly com- prehend. Basically the reason for so much mis- understanding is because it is thought that the underlying causes are infinitely complex whereas in fact they are the essence of simplicity itself.
Northern Ireland is one of the most simple and unsophisticated places on earth, in many ways almost untouched by the passage of time. We all adore, Unionists and Nationalists alike, living in the past. We abominate change, par- ticularly political change. Now we find ourselves in an epoch when even the most sophisticated areas find the pace of change difficult to ride. On top of this, for more than fifteen years after the war we indulged in an orgy of political escapism. The theme was, 'And as things have been always they remain'; with the result that in order to make good these wasted years we now have to move even faster. It is too much for us.
Take for example the impact of the modern British welfare state. This has undoubtedly stimulated even more interest in the perpetua- tion of the species, with consequent political, social and economic problems. Politically, it is rapidly producing the erosion of Unionist majorities—particularly when allied to increas- ing industrial activity, which has curtailed emigration. Among the Nationalist population it is causing a rethink of traditional attitudes. These are changes which neither party, hitherto equally dedicated to living in the past, cares to face up to.
The basic political fact is that we have en- dured or enjoyed (you can take your choice) nearly fifty years of one-party government and it is worth while examining some of the con- sequences.
Politics as a career has, up to now, been about as secure a profession as being an incumbent in the Church of England, the risk of losing one's seat being about on a par with the risk of being unfrocked. This has been as true of Nationalist as of Unionist seats, both, regret- tably, still broadly speaking elected on a religious ticket. Elections in the constituencies have mostly been foregone conclusions and in many constituencies there has been no contact for decades, which has engendered apathy. It might be thought that fifty years of absolute power might lead from time to time to some feeling of magnanimity towards the opposition. In fact the reverse is true and arrogance has triumphed inevitably leading to a sense of frustration among opposition members.
Stormont is a small parliament; this charac- teristic must inevitably make the critical examination of modern complex legislation difficult. Bills almost invariably pass through the house with a minimum of scrutiny. Fifty years of single party rule must inevitably pro- duce some degree of indolence. Perhaps more important from a parliamentary point of view is one consequence of having a government to whom it has never occurred that a time might come when they might have to sit on the other side of the house in opposition. This removes, in a parliamentary sense, all inhibitions against setting precedents when in office which could be used against you when in opposition. Advocates of devolution for Scotland and Wales, where the same single party system as in Northern Ireland might well rule, might apply their minds to finding remedies for some of these situations.
On the whole the more intelligent and sen- sitive members of the community, both govern- ment and opposition supporters, do not hold their legislature in very high esteem. There is a degree of cynicism about politics in general. The more progressive element, almost the entire business community and the young, have opted out of politics. A great many of Captain O'Neill's most fervent admirers have never been near a Unionist meeting. The majority of them would still be aghast if it was seriously suggested that it was high time they did so now.
Conversely, the Unionist constituency asso- ciations in many of the country areas and in the industrial districts of towns often tend to be completely dominated by the Orange Order, another organisation completely dedicated to living in the past. Among them there would be a number of Mr Paisley's supporters. The most reactionary and extreme Unionists and the most fanatical advocates of Protestant domination, apart from a handful of clerical crackpots, are mainly drawn from what might be regarded as the underprivileged: in some ways curious bedfellows for a party that has the reputation of being very conservative. These latter would all be ardent devotees of Mr Paisley and a number would be regular attenders at their Unionist association meetings. The communist domination of some trade union branches is the simple analogy.
But there is another aspect of one-party rule which deserves consideration because it has a major bearing on the present situation. Politics is a struggle for power. Where you have a two- party system it at least has the chance of being a reasonably healthy struggle but where the ruling party has been in office for almost fifty years and is satisfied that this state of bliss is likely to continue the struggle becomes a purely internal one—a struggle among the politically ambitious for the top job, and also a struggle between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots.' Further- more, hell has no fury like a cabinet minister scorned. The present situation is at least as much a matter of personalities and the power struggle as of policies.
The Unionist parliamentary party was to have met this week to try and resolve another leadership crisis. All backbenchers and all members of the government would have been entitled to attend and all with an equal vote (except the PM). It would certainly cause some raising of the eyebrows in the 1922 Committee if ministers and parliamentary secretaries, who inevitably have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, were allowed to attend, let alone register a vote. It is a system that could lead to abuse. But in a small parliament it is by no means impossible to defend.
If the Westminster system had applied at Stormont this week on the counting of heads Captain O'Neill would have been out. If his opponents had then formed an administration and the new backbenchers had then requested a meeting for a vote of confidence in his suc- cessor, even allowing for a normal quota of turncoats, his successor would have been out by a considerably larger majority. Perhaps the Stormont system does achieve the right result in the shortest time and without the necessity of inflating the size of the Privy Council. But it is manifestly clear that there are problems in small parliaments, particularly where the single party system rules, on which those in favour of subordinate parliaments in Scotland and Wales should at least reflect.
There is only one future for all the people of Northern Ireland and that is to remain as they are. This can only be achieved for suc- ceeding generations if the Unionist party quickly conducts itself in such a way that at the secret ballot an increasing number of its erstwhile opponents support it or at best abstain. The greatest enemies of true Unionism today are Unionist extremists. But there are ominous signs that an irreconcilable split in the party is developing on a wider front than Paisley versus O'Neill. We find it hard to conduct our affairs with dignity.
So battle is to be joined: the who-does-what election is on. Parliament has been dissolved in the most abrupt manner possible by royal proclamation. The Public Order Bill, an essen- tial measure which was to have been rushed through all its stages this week, has been further postponed. Even a fortnight's delay would have enabled the new register to be used. Tempers have been lost on both sides and the two wings of the party give every indication of setting upon each other with unexampled savagery and ferocity. And yet the whole party is completely united in its objectives (even Mr Paisley and Captain O'Neill could agree on this without argument). It is only on the methods of achieving this objective that divisions exist.
Will anything be solved? In the country the strident voice of Mr Paisley and his followers is unlikely to be stilled. In the house there is every indication that the status quo ante will be resumed. At the time of writing it would appear that one Belfast constituency has switched its support from pro- to anti-O'Neill following the retirement of the sitting member. No doubt there will be one or two swings the other way. The election will certainly do noth- ing to heal the wound.
One must earnestly hope that there will be no major incident of a magnitude worthy of being commemorated by a ballad. Should this be so, and if the tune is good, it will be sung with equal fervour by all political and religious per- suasions on both sides of the Border in count- less pubs after closing time for as many cen- turies as Guinness continues to be brewed.