Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Why power to the people is just creating problems

As the Assembly fails to make decisions, its hand is being forced by street violence, says Alex Kane

Over the last year there has been a shift in local politics: a very profound shift, in fact, yet a shift that no-one seems to have noticed. It's a shift away from the institutional centre – the Assembly and Executive – to the streets, grassroots and an assortment of unelected organisations.

It started last August when the Belfast elements of the DUP, UUP, PUP, Orange Order and Bands' Forum sent an open letter of complaint about the Parades Commission and suggested that its decisions were endangering the peace process. For the next three months riot followed riot as commission rulings were ignored. Then, in December, the DUP and UUP issued a joint letter of complaint about Alliance's position on the Union flag at City Hall: and that, too, was followed by months of protests and riots.

A few weeks ago representatives of the political parties, PSNI and parading organisations went to Cardiff for the weekend and thought they had reached agreement on the handling of marches over the summer. The deal turned to confetti the following weekend. The leaders of the five Executive parties, unable to produce a deal acceptable to others, have been forced to ask Richard Haass to drop in and try and sort out the mess.

As a result of a recent assault on Mairtin O Muilleoir in north Belfast, Sinn Fein has tabled a motion for debate at Monday's council affirming "the right of the Lord Mayor to attend events and carry out civic duties in any parts of the city". But the DUP, increasingly edgy about on-the-ground support, has said it will table an amendment – which will be supported by other unionists.

A fortnight ago the DUP backed away from support for a peace centre at the Maze. Peter Robinson blamed the behaviour of Sinn Fein for the decision; but the truth is the DUP was facing a strong, orchestrated anti-Maze campaign from within unionism/loyalism and the prospect of a petition with a 'very substantial' number of signatures.

The common factor since last August has been the involvement of people and groups which don't have a foothold in the Assembly; who openly despise Sinn Fein; who believe that the peace process has yielded no dividends for them; and-worryingly for the DUP and UUP in particular – who don't trust mainstream unionism to represent them.

Another factor, again undermining key institutions, is the confirmation of the impression across all elements of political/business/civic society that the Assembly and Executive are incapable of reaching agreement on key issues. Departments continue to be run as party silos, the latest shared future strategy seems to have crash landed and there's still no resolution to the post-primary transfer process. In other words, it just looks like the Assembly and Executive are now so paralysed that the DUP and Sinn Fein can't make progress on anything: a paralysis which now seems to be exploited by unionist/loyalist/ republican elements on the streets.

And add into the mix the Review of Public Administration which will, according to Simon Hamilton, "bestow upon local government unprecedented powers. Powers like planning, regeneration, local economic and tourism and community planning, all exercised by bigger councils with larger rates bases and enhanced borrowing powers".

So, an Assembly which seems incapable of making decisions on parades, flags, symbols, sharing, the past, the future and welfare reform is handing over a raft of powers to 11 new councils? Since those councils will almost certainly reflect the existing party strengths at Stormont isn't it likely that the paralysis there will simply be duplicated at local level as well? And if the present levels of discontent continue, then isn't it also likely that it will actually become easier to create problems rather than resolve them?

An opportunity for the Assembly to examine itself and how it performs has, yet again, been missed. The carve-up at Stormont is now joined by 11 new carve-ups. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that, rather than improve how we are governed, we are in danger of devolving bad government and wonky mechanisms to 11 mini-Stormonts.

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