Belfast Telegraph

Scottish referendum: Scots said no but now it's time for us to start saying yes... to reform at Stormont

Stagnant Stormont needs a reboot, insists Better Together strategist

By Victoria O'Hara

The political system in Northern Ireland urgently needs to be "rebooted" if it is to become an efficient model of government, according to a lead adviser to the Scottish No campaign.

Quintin Oliver, who worked on the Better Together campaign and also led the Yes campaign in the 1998 Referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, said the current political gridlock can be tackled in the wake of the Scottish vote.

The comments by the Belfast-based referendums specialist were made after Prime Minister David Cameron said that work must be done in Northern Ireland to "ensure the devolved institutions function effectively".

"That was his code to say: 'Look, you've reached the buffers, you are not using the powers'," Mr Oliver said.

After the No vote by Scotland on independence, Mr Cameron launched a UK-wide constitutional shake-up – with Northern Ireland set to get extra powers within months.

Mr Oliver described this step – hailed as one of the most significant developments in British politics in a generation – as an opportunity to "leap out from the deadlock" in Northern Ireland.

While change is needed, he said the sensitive issues that "haunt" the past must be addressed.

His comments come after calls were made for greater "political maturity" to be adopted by politicians in the province, as demonstrated throughout the Scottish campaign.

Scottish voters decisively rejected independence.

The No side won with 2,001,926 votes over 1,617,989 for Yes.

Mr Oliver, however, said a main difference between the two countries is Scotland's political landscape is not coloured by the same violent past.

"If you are looking at comparisons, during the referendum here in 1998 there were voters assassinated and multiple murders during the campaign," he said.

"It is the deadlock of a fierce and nasty conflict where people used violence to kill each other. That is still haunting us."

Mr Oliver said there was a "wholly different context" to both political environments.

"In Scotland there was passionate, fierce and robust debate and a few eggs thrown, so the context was wholly different."

He said "huge progress" had been made in terms of peace-building, but now things had halted.

"We have had 15 years of relative political stability to the point of gridlock. We reached the end of that 15-year period and now we need rebooted. We have ground to a halt.

"Interestingly, I think the Scottish referendum will help that."

The Westminster parties had promised to hand more powers to the Scottish Parliament in the event of a No vote.

"For us, this is a chance to leap out from the deadlock that we've reached if we can approach that positively whilst underpinning the very important institutions of the Good Friday Agreement," Mr Oliver said.

Politicians, including the SDLP's Alban Maginness, said Northern Ireland can learn a lot from the Scottish campaign.

"The manner in which the debate was conducted was cool-headed.

"It was a good example of how you could democratically and peacefully address an issue of fundamental importance such as sovereignty without people taking to the barricades," Mr Maginness said.

Meanwhile, Professor Graham Walker, director of research in politics and international studies at Queen's University, Belfast, agreed there was a lot of frustration about how Stormont had or had not worked.

He said: "The thorny issues that the Haass talks were not able to resolve, I think they will have to be confronted and something done about those in order to try and draw a line about the past.

"So it's very easy to say we have to move on, we can really only move on when we get some kind of outcome that satisfies people across the divide about these very sensitive issues on the past."

Background

Scotland opted to stay in the United Kingdom after voters rejected independence. The No side won with 2,001,926 votes (55%) to 1,617,989 votes (45%) for the Yes campaign. David Cameron has promised draft legislation by the end of January on handing more powers over tax, spending and welfare to Scotland, which would come into effect after the May 2015 general election. He has also acknowledged that the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland must have a bigger say over their affairs, too.

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