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Clear the decks as the good ship Stormont heads for the shallows

By Ed Curran

We are rapidly reaching another watershed in the peace process not helped by the prospect of a general election. As the ballot boxes loom in 2010, Stormont's main parties retreat into their shells.

The Executive is a stricken ship tossing about in dangerous waters with little or no sense of direction because there is no wind in the sails and the engine keeps spluttering. Every now and then it runs aground on a sandbank, but somehow is refloated. It is heading towards another sandbank presently and neither the captain nor his first mate appears capable of steering it clear.

What next? It must be doubtful if collective agreement can be achieved amongst the motley crew. There are so many deadlocked issues building up.

For example, the education minister has spent two years rebuffing her critics on the post 11-Plus debacle. No deadlock betters illustrates the powerlessness of the Stormont Executive if one side or the other refuses to give way or back down.

On the unionist benches there is a deep wariness of transferring policing and justice powers, which is what nationalists want. The reform of local government is also paralysed even though it was intended to save hundreds of millions of pounds over the next 20 years.

Now we are told the switch from five education and library boards to a single Education and Skills Authority will not take place as planned on January 1, 2010. Northern Ireland faces more confusion and chaos and more savings deferred.

As if that were not enough, the two main parties have flown incredibly in the face of public opinion outraged by double and triple-jobbing MLAs. They have given themselves until a distant 2015 to 'phase out' this unacceptable arrangement thus enabling some if not all of them to see out their political careers in the extravagant style to which they have become accustomed.

What a message this sends to a community deeply disenchanted with the political process after the Westminster expenses scandal of 2009 and the failure of the Stormont Executive to get its act together in a meaningful decisive way.

We are left to conclude that not only is indecision final at Stormont, but that the principal parties don't give a monkey's for what the public think.

Northern Ireland is held up as a global experiment in building peace between conflicting communities. I see Martin McGuinness was in the Middle East with Lord Alderdice advising on an Iraqi peace process. This is laudable, but we need to be careful that while sorting out other people's problems, we do not wake up some morning soon to finour own are not solved at all. We are entering a worrying period where politicians on all sides are prepared to sacrifice compromise for survival.

The Democratic Unionist Party is between a rock and a hard place. It sends out confusing messages. Progress is being made. The institutions at Stormont are working better than they were six years ago. We are going forward, but to where and in what timespan?

What have the DUP and Sinn Fein agreed upon which is of any substance? The conclusion must be that partnership government within the Stormont Executive is an illusion. The fact that Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness share the same quarters should be a positive, but is it?

My suspicion is that another period of stand-off or suspension might suit the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein. The former faces the very real threat of Jim Allister's marauding pirates holding its future fortunes to ransom. The latter has to contend with dissident republicans. Portraying a tough uncompromising poles apart image on election day in 2010 may suit the DUP and Sinn Fein.

In reality we know now that just as the Good Friday Agreement did not deliver the goods, so the St Andrews agreement does not do either. It may be that the only answer is another crisis, another summit between London, Dublin and Belfast leaders to end the increasing Stormont stalemate, and to construct yet another milestone agreement.

It is becoming increasingly evident that the Executive doesn't work in its current parlous state. The First Minister acknowledged that in his recent speeches and the DUP is now looking to change the system to a weighted majority, a suggestion which will not be entertained by Sinn Fein.

Stormont has the hallmarks of a political charade. The DUP and Sinn Fein cannot agree on their own initiative. More likely another horse-trading deal may be needed with the British and Irish governments acting as catalysts behind the closed doors of a mansion somewhere in the English or Scottish countryside.

The Ulster Unionists and SDLP appear as reluctant partners in the Executive. They continue to be part of it if only because they were founders of power-sharing and they do not wish to see it collapse.

However, they are spurned at every corner. Their ministers are constantly criticised. They are not embraced in any coalition of minds. Their respective leaders are left in the dark when negotiations take place in London or Dublin.

The body language in the Stormont Assembly is all wrong. Anyone who watches the BBC's Stormont Live coverage, or who visits the chamber, can see the divisions with his or her own eyes.

The very fact that the First and deputy First Minister sit opposite one another, as if one were in the government and the other in opposition, says it all. So also does the sight of other Executive ministers sitting amongst their own political flock and speaking from different corners of the Stormont chamber.

If the Executive is to have a future, then it must resolve its mounting differences. Regrettably there is no sign that this can be achieved. We are left to conclude that barring a political miracle in the season of peace and goodwill, the good ship Stormont will be well and truly run aground in the New Year.


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