There have been two developments in the politics of Northern Ireland, both in their way reducing political diversity in the province.
First off the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition has decided to disband. The Women's Coalition was yet another Northern Irish party that sought primarily to be a vehicle to represent a single group in society but at least they found a different way to cut up society. It was one of the most pro Good Friday Agreement parties, but ultimately floundered. And I'm not sure many feminists would have agreed with the NIWC's position on a number of issues - they declined to support liberalisation of the province's abortion laws for instance.
One party that has supported freedom for women in the province is the Progressive Unionist Party, the political wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Yesterday came the news that their leader and sole member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, David Ervine, is to take join the Ulster Unionist Assembly group, whilst remaining leader of the PUP.
This has provoked furious reaction, as shown on both Slugger O'Toole as well was the Young Unionists website in both this and this thread. Whilst a lot of the criticism can be dismissed as the usual venom from both Nationalists and the DUP, there are some serious points in all this.
The fact remains that the UVF is still a terrorist organisation and Unionists are often accused of double standards for loyalist and republican terrorist groups and their political representatives. The UVF seem unlikely to recommision their weapons so the UUP's repeated objections to Sinn Féin sitting in government become even harder to explain.
On the other hand many are comparing this to the Hume-Adams talks that led to Sinn Féin coming ever more fully into the political process. Whilst Ervine has already been a party to the Good Friday Agreement and later a regular member of the Assembly, and to some appears to be one of the most reasonable Unionists, there is still a real need to re-engage with loyalists and bring them in. As one email to me succinctly put it, the province isn't a middle class utopia.
One point of which much is being made is the fact that Ervine's move alters the numbers game in the Assembly. Seats on the Northern Ireland Executive, if it is reformed, are allocated by the D'Hondt method. Without running through the calculations in detail, the changes in party affiliations by members of the Assembly have altered the various parties' entitlement to seats as follows:
*The 2003 Assembly Election elected 30 DUP, 27 UUP, 24 Sinn Féin, 18 SDLP, 6 Alliance, 1 PUP, 1 UKUP and 1 Independent (Kieran Deeny, campaigning solely in the issue of hospital provision in Omagh). This would give the DUP and UUP three seats apiece, and Sinn Féin and the SDLP two each. When there is a tie for allocating seats, the tie is broken by dividing the party's total number of first preferences in the last election by the number of seats they have already received plus one.
*The defections of Jeffrey Donaldson, Norah Beare and Arlene Foster from the UUP to the DUP altered the numbers balance so that the DUP gained one potential Executive seat from the UUP.
*However the suspension and later resignation from the DUP of Paul Berry after the stories about him seeking gay sex meant that the DUP total slipped to 32, costing them the 10th Executive place. The UUP and Sinn Féin tied for it on the numbers in the Assembly but Sinn Féin got more first preferences in the Assembly Elections so they would take a third seat.
*The adherence of Ervine to the UUP now means that they, not Sinn Féin, take the 10th seat. Also as parties pick the ministries in order, the UUP could now stop Sinn Féin from taking a sensitive post like Education.
I'm honestly not sure what I think of the whole event. But I wonder what the reaction would have been if the UUP had gained the Executive seat by being joined by Paul Berry instead?
Let's also not forget the DUP hands are not clean. Not only did they form Ulster Resistance but they also joined with loyalists to bring down the Sunningdale Agreement assembly and executive in the 1970s. Ironically the current Assembly is to be reconvened on the thirty-second anniversary of that action.
One other thing that has been brought to my attention is this statement by the Northern Ireland Labour Forum, to all extents and purposes the Northern Ireland branch of the Labour Party in the Republic of Ireland (although it doesn't fight elections in the North). It's calling for Northern Ireland to be a joint part of both a United Kingdom and a United Ireland, and "seeking a formal structural relationship with the British Labour Party, in the spirit of the proposal..." Whether Blair's Labour Party will reciprocate and be a party for the entire country remains to be seen, though with Fianna Fáil possibly also organising in the province and the Conservatives sensing an upturn, things could get very interesting.
Ironically the party that has the most to fear from a strong Labour force is the Progressive Unionist Party. They have long claimed to be a party in the mould of the old Northern Ireland Labour Party. Could we see another smaller party fade away?