A progressive agenda

Homage to the ‘Fearless Girl’ of Wall Street.

In the second of our series on the Northern Ireland Assembly elections of 2017 Stephen Baker asks if it is possible to combine progressive forces across party and denominational lines.

Mike Nesbitt’s ill-fated attempt to inspire cross-party, cross community cooperation was laudable, but it broke on the back of the conservativism of many in his party. It begs the question: would the efforts of progressives to find forms of cross-party cooperation fare any better? Maybe.

One of the great hopes of the peace process and political agreement was that it would create the space for what are euphemistically known as ‘bread and butter’ politics. But more than this, many yearned for a settlement that would open the door to the sort of progressive politics that could speak to questions of gender, sexuality, race, class and the environment – the issues that get side-lined and ignored when the public debate is dominated by communal and constitutional issues.

Almost 20 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, progressives can say that they have brought something fresh to the political conversation in Northern Ireland but they can’t claim to have changed it. And now there is a grave danger that unionism, wounded by the loss of its majority, and a simultaneously emboldened nationalism, will subordinate all other political issues to their respective constitutional causes.

Nevertheless, there are plenty in the North of Ireland who, whatever their constitutional preferences, consider themselves progressives. They may for historical (and often biographical reasons) find themselves spread across a variety of political parties – parties that are not all uniformly progressive, or progressive at all. Yet if those individuals are committed to human rights, social justice, equality and environmental sustainability, then maybe the Assembly provides a space where on occasions national and party allegiance can take second place to advancing progressive causes.

A progressive agenda could include the determination to see marriage equality, the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, repeal of anti-trade union legislation, updating the laws protecting racial and ethnic minorities and legislation around environmental protection – to build, as Maurice indicated in the previous post, the sort of place both they and others are happy to live in.

Is it conceivable that enlightened MLAs, in all parties, nationalist, unionist and other, could commit themselves to support and fight for these causes within their own constituencies, the Assembly and wider civic society?

The passage of Steven Agnew’s Children’s Services Co-operation Bill into legislation in 2015 perhaps offers a model of how a private members bill can progress through the Assembly and into law. Legislation around gender, sexuality, trade unions and the environment is going to be more controversial. But the principle of slowly building support, researching and refining the legislation is the same.

That is not to say that a progressive agenda wouldn’t face challenges. For instance, at election time cross-party cooperation will be strain by electoral competition. Also, internal party discipline may prohibit the wholehearted participation of individuals in such an agenda. And we should never underestimate the determination of conservative colleagues to scupper the best efforts, and indeed careers, of others not attuned to their own reactionary beliefs.

Some representatives may be more progressive on some issues than others – happy to promote marriage equality but drawing a line at reform of abortion legislation, for instance.

Relations between the workers’ movement and those with environmental concerns is not straightforward or without tensions. But it is worth bearing in mind that progressive politics is dependent upon solidarity – all for one and one for all!

Our capacity to advance our own concerns may be dependent upon our willingness to find common ground with others and move beyond our own ‘single issue’. And in the end, compromise may mean that we don’t all get what we want, but progressive solidarity may mean we get just enough of what we need to take the Northern Ireland forward and make it a better place to live in.


Stephen Baker

12 March 2017