Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Opposition could lift the malaise at sterile Stormont

Justice Minister David Ford

Another week brings yet another rift in the Stormont Executive. This time the issue is whether the Justice Minister, David Ford, can change the terms of selection of a new chief constable. Mr Ford says he can. Other ministers deny him any such right to act unilaterally.

As the years pass, Stormont trundles on at its own pace. The prize of peace has preserved its existence, but time is not on its side, if 43% of the electorate choose not to vote, like in 2011.

Even the deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness acknowledges that many people are not enamoured. He said last week: "The lot of politicians among the general public is not great. I find that embarrassing."

The First Minister, Peter Robinson, has blamed Stormont's poor image on unduly negative media reporting and comment. In the absence of any official Opposition leaders, or parties, the media has taken on the role of watchdog for an Assembly and Executive which needs a lot of watching.

The real issue is that an administration with no questioning Opposition is no way to run a country. The greatest danger to power-sharing may not come from republican dissidents, or loyalist flag-wavers, or even the failure to agree on Haass's proposals.

The five-party mandatory coalition gives an illusion of agreement to the rest of the world, while behaving dysfunctionally at home, where it matters most.

To have 105 MLAs out of 108 committed to the five parties in the Executive is a recipe for disaster – and disaster it would most certainly be for Northern Ireland if the Stormont experiment in devolution faded into obscurity.

The only fall-back if Stormont were to fail is a form of unspecified and ill-defined direct rule between the British and Irish governments. At least all the parties agree that such an arrangement is unacceptable, but the challenge remains as to how devolution can be improved.

The answer must be to recognise that five into one does not go and that the time has come to establish a properly constituted, scrutinising Opposition.

Clearly, this can only be achieved on a cross-community basis by parties which do not have a majority voice in the Executive – the UUP, SDLP and Alliance.

Ministers from all three – the latest being David Ford – have been put in their minority place by the DUP/Sinn Fein axis of Robinson and McGuinness.

Little wonder, therefore, if many in the electorate are asking themselves: why bother to vote at all, if all the parties are going to end up in the same Executive pot.

They may view the likes of Danny Kennedy, Mark H Durkan, Stephen Farry and David Ford – the Executive's four minority ministers – as helping to prop up a lame-duck administration.

While minority ministers may complain about their treatment, they continue to acquiesce, as no doubt Mr Ford will do in the same manner as other Ulster Unionist and SDLP ministers have done. None appears to have the political courage to say enough is enough.

Not before time, the Ulster Unionists, through their former leader, Lord Empey, are seeking legislation to create a proper Opposition at Stormont.

They and the other parties need to do much more.

They need to convince a doubting electorate that there is sufficient difference between the DUP and the Ulster Unionists on one hand and the SDLP and Sinn Fein on the other to make voting worthwhile.

When people come to vote in 2016, they need a clear and unambiguous message from the UUP and SDLP with the support of Alliance that the days of five-party coalitions are over.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are presiding over a power-sharing carve-up. The ministers in the Executive from the three minority parties perform as political pawns.

They appear more interested in holding on to whatever trappings of authority they can muster than developing a properly accountable form of devolution.

Democracy is ill-served. Differences of opinion are not countenanced. The scrutiny and accountability which would exist in a normal democratic state are missing.

Sadly, all the parties show little sign of recognising the deficiencies of Stormont and putting things right. As a result, public apathy is festering.

There needs to be more of a cross-community willingness among the parties to create a united Opposition. Lord Empey's attempt at reform is a step in the right direction.

But the divided nature of Northern Ireland is such that no single party can achieve what is required on its own.

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