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All or nothing? Parties – and voters – must accept compromise

As Sinn Féin and DUP lurch towards a deal, there will be the usual hoo-ha about sell-outs and betrayals, but broken promises are sometimes needed for good government

Sinn Féin’s Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill and Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams: ready to do a deal, but not met with enthusiasm by Arlene Foster and the DUP. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

We are living through a strange era when the ability of politicians to do what they have done since time immemorial – cut deals – is sometimes cast as their worst sin.

Purity, it seems, can now be the most valuable currency, and a willingness to dilute policies and principles for the common weal a thing of shame.

After tensions over the past year increased disagreements and thus far crippled the ability of Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to restore the Stormont Executive, it can only be hoped that the politicians involved remember what their stock-in-trade actually is. The voting public must remember what it is politicians do, too.

It is pettifogging elevated to the imagined status of Cold War parleys and summitry on the future of Europe if the Northern Ireland talks have come down to whether Irish language measures should stand alone, or be housed within a broader framework of culture legislation encompassing Ulster-Scots issues.

Over the past week, Sinn Féin was, according to those with knowledge of the talks, ready to deal but was not met with equal enthusiasm from Arlene Foster and the DUP, which is understood to be looking for commitments that the Executive and Assembly cannot be easily collapsed.

Respect

Both sides will say their voters want respect: republicans and nationalists from a high-handed unionism that has yet to realise demographics are closing the population gap between the two communities, and unionists for the changes they have seen during the peace process, coloured by a suspicion that consistent arguments about “rights issues” are really about undermining their British identity.

But it is too easy, as Leo Varadkar recently taunted Sinn Féin in the Dáil, to tell politicians to make the compromise and own it. That is just half the battle.

Politicians must be confident they will be given the space to compromise by those who voted for them. This is not borne of a Burkean, parliamentarian-knows-best style arrogance, but an acknowledgment of everyday pragmatism.

Voters, too, must accept that they will not get everything that has been promised them in systems where coalitions and compromises are needed.

The vitriol meted out on social media, where howls of betrayal and sell-out are common, is not representative of sensible voters and should not colour the tone of political debate, as it can now. Traditional media also has its part to play and should refrain from consistent pressure for red lines and deal-breakers months and years before elections, never mind during negotiations.

It would be refreshing for the political system as a whole to treat policies proposed by political parties as priorities rather than cast-iron promises: an indication of what they want to do in office rather than written-in-blood vows.

Pledge

Yet such a wish is naive. A politician will always make a promise or a pledge in the heat of an election, though they should not be foolish enough to make rash and unachievable ones, the kind that undermines faith in politics.

The fear of the consequences of broken political promises is pervasive in our politics since Labour’s fall from grace after it made desperate commitments during the final stages of the 2011 general election campaign, as it sought to get into office and prevent an overall Fine Gael majority.

The strength of the backlash was caused due to the recklessness of the promises, most vividly the now-famous Tesco adverts warning against Fine Gael cuts to come and Ruairí Quinn’s pre-election commitment not to increase college fees.

Labour’s “broken promise” bruise was repeatedly punched during its term in government, and the party has yet to recover. Of course, it could never keep all its priorities in a coalition where Fine Gael was the dominant partner, which begs the question as to why so many promises were made at all.

Despite this week’s setback in Stormont, those involved believe a deal will be done in the coming weeks, but there must be a ready market in the electorate for what Sinn Féin and the DUP will eventually have to sell

A judicious choice of promises or priorities would not have left it so exposed, and would have provided more room for manoeuvre. This applies as much to government formation as it does specific policies.

Just as voters have the right to choose whatever outcome they want – be it a Dáil that does not suggest an obvious governing coalition – politicians need room to manoeuvre within these fractured political systems.

Leeway

Micheál Martin hinted at such a prospect recently when he said the electorate must be given some leeway to determine what government they wanted, while also ruling out a future coalition between his party and either Sinn Féin or Fine Gael.

Those who seek to govern will always have to compromise, and those who do not – unless their policies are allowed absolute domination – will always decry whatever deals are made.

The electorate is free to choose which type of politician it wants, but if it chooses the former, it should do so in the knowledge that compromises will be made.

Despite this week’s setback in Stormont, those involved believe a deal will be done in the coming weeks, but there must be a ready market in the electorate for what Sinn Féin and the DUP will eventually have to sell.

Political systems that produce coalition governments will always involve transactional give-and-take; a piece of this manifesto here blended with another policy document there.

Unless we want to return to an era of single-party majority governments, politics will always be a leap of faith on the part of its practitioners and consumers: the politicians to make compromise, and voters to accept them.

It will also involve an acceptance of the uncomfortable truth that broken promises are – sometimes – necessary for good government.