Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Spotlight fall-out could see voters shun the ballot box

Waiting for answers: many voters are already apathetic towards Stormont
Waiting for answers: many voters are already apathetic towards Stormont

Just when we were entitled to think the Stormont Executive had turned a corner for the better, the ship of state has run aground again and is in need of salvaging.

I was about to write a complimentary column about the workings of Stormont reflecting on how the past few weeks have seen a fresh momentum on the economy and a shared future.

Were there not hopeful signs that Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness had put their noses to the wheel, stopped dilly-dallying on so many contentious issues, and would return in the early autumn with renewed energy to complete unfinished tasks?

As the ministers and MLAs prepared for their summer holidays, could they not point to a road map in the form of the shared future document, prompted by pressure from London, Dublin and Washington and signed off eventually by the First and Deputy First Minister?

Granted it might take a decade but at least that document set out a plan of action to remove the walls of division, to address flags, emblems and parades, to bring more young people together through cooperation in our schools, and above all to create the kind of society Northern Ireland must have if its economy is ever to prosper.

I could also reflect that the marching season to date had not seen the serious street disorder of previous years.

More in the Orange and Green camps appear to recognise the pointlessness of confrontation and the need to show more mutual respect. Some of the sectarian ghosts which have haunted so many Junes and Julys in the past seem to have gone into welcome summer hibernation in 2013.

I sat in the Waterfront Hall last week at a graduation ceremony for the University of Ulster and watched more than 400 young people cross the stage to receive their degrees.

They were the lucky ones, I felt, who might actually enjoy a lifetime of relative peace in this society unlike their parents and grandparents who applauded them with pride.

Yes, the scent of a new optimism seemed to pervade the Ulster air this July and then suddenly in the time it took to broadcast the BBC's Spotlight special last Wednesday the wheels came off yet again.

Just as Stormont was starting to get things right, even get things done, an unholy story of alleged political bullying, administrative corruption – you name it – has begun to unravel before our eyes.

As a consequence, instead of packing their holiday bags, the folks are back on the hill this very day mulling over the rights and wrongs of what another Executive minister did or did not do with regard to his dealings with a public body.

The legal letters are flying between Stormont and the BBC, so much so that it would be a brave man who would try to take sides or make judgments at this stage.

Suffice to say that whoever wins or loses out, the image of Stormont is already suffering and it really cannot afford another tarnishing in full view of so many of the electorate who are apathetic already towards devolution.

The minister's future is on the line, perhaps, even that of his party and its leader Peter Robinson who is backing him.

Far more important, the credibility of Stormont itself must be rescued from this latest mess.

We may have to wait long after today's debate to be told all the answers as to what has been going on behind closed doors in the minister's office and at the Housing Executive.

But told the public must be. Devolution is about putting power back in the hands of local politicians. People must be reassured such power is being exercised properly.

This is a test of transparency which has been sadly absent from too much of Stormont's workings.

The danger is that power can be easily abused especially in a small tightly-knit society like Northern Ireland where it is virtually impossible to walk down a street without meeting someone we know.

The two main parties have a long history of authoritarian politics.

The more they are used to getting their own way, the more likely they may be to confuse legitimate oversight of, say, the management of a public body with undue interference in its operation.

Where the truth rests with regard to the BBC Spotlight investigation only time and the thoroughness of an inquiry will tell. The future of more than Nelson McCausland depends on finding all the answers.

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