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29 January 2009 Edition

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The Mitchel McLaughlin Column

Voters hold the ultimate veto

The DUP will often claim to have secured a veto in ongoing negotiations with other parties in the North. In general, unionists have yet to recognise that the power to exercise a veto can be a potent weapon if used judiciously and in a manner that provides a positive and beneficial outcome. The negative use of a veto purely as a means of frustrating political progress will ultimately result in rejection by the electorate.  Ask David Trimble!  Those within the DUP who continuously raise the political temperature by threatening a veto if things are not always to their liking should stop and examine just exactly where their actions could lead.  What would result if other parties adopted the same attitude and determined to block all proposals brought forward by the DUP?  The only possible outcome would be political gridlock as Sinn Féin has demonstrated in the stand-off over the transfer of Policing and Justice.  Time will tell if the DUP leadership have understood that clear message.
Of course the SDLP, a shadow of the force they used to be, whinge constantly and attempt to blame Sinn Féin for conceding vetoes to others.  But then the SDLP, even with the unstinting patronage of the British and Irish governments and large sections of the media, never even got close to the present all-party power-sharing arrangements that currently exist in the Six Counties primarily because of Sinn Féin's strong leadership.
All political parties should be mindful that the electorate has the ultimate veto. The electorate vote in the expectation of progress and strong, mature leadership.  The Ulster Unionist and SDLP parties in the previous Assembly paid the price for vacillation and procrastination. They lost the confidence of the electorate and whilst the unionist and nationalist constituencies will usually aspire to radically different political outcomes, they nevertheless opted for the stronger leadership profiles of Sinn Féin and the DUP.
Sinn Féin continues to demonstrate a strong and decisive leadership as well as displaying a disciplined patience despite the bellicose rhetoric of the DUP. But if the DUP leadership do not begin to show the political character required to confront those unionists interested only in confrontational politics, they will be perceived as a party of factions and suffer the same inevitable decline as the Ulster Unionist Party.  The unionist electorate will split and defect as they continue to search for the holy grail of a ‘strong leadership’. History will repeat itself and unionism will once more be the loser with further fragmentation of its constituency.
The electorate in the North is more mature and progressive than some politicians realise.  The voters expect the democratic process to deliver change and that the greater number of people will benefit rather than protecting the interests of powerful minorities or maintaining an unequal status quo.  The people want to see issues such as education, health and the economy addressed pragmatically and effectively.
The key lesson that elements of the DUP need to learn is that they are not in a majority-rule government and, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews review, they never will.  At least not until the issue of partition is resolved.
Sinn Féin is in the Executive to serve the interests of voters and to ensure continued progress towards our goal of a united Ireland.  We are definitely not there to implement a DUP manifesto.  The nature of the Executive is that it must deliver for all of society, not just a section of it. DUP efforts to govern by veto will only alienate voters and result in the ultimate veto of the ballot box.

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