Ed Curran: Stormont is paralysed, with both sides now further apart than ever
It's been a bad week for Ireland, north and south.
Up here in Northern Ireland, more people are starting to question whether power sharing at Stormont can work. Down there in the Republic, the government's days look numbered as the people wake up to the full horror of the economy. And in London, Gordon Brown looks to have no future at all as he stumbles towards an election in 2010.
These are worrying times for democracy and politics. Confidence is ebbing away that the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly are worth the expensive candle lit so strongly two years ago and now flickering weakly in the wind.
We can talk up the peace process for all we wish. The reality is starkly evident. Politics is not working at Stormont and something has to give.
I was conscious of that last week when I was a contributor to the BBC's Stephen Nolan show, broadcast from Stormont. This should have been an opportunity to showcase the positive side of the Executive and the Assembly.
Sadly, the programme provided nothing other than evidence of the continued failings and mind-sets of the principal players. They spent their time squabbling and insulting one another at the microphone. They were incapable of digging themselves out of the deep holes in which so many of them remain buried.
It takes an interviewer like Nolan to merely scratch the surface of their minds to cause an argument. I despaired as I listened because it simply reinforced my worst fears for the future of devolution. The Executive at Stormont is a coalition of incompatibility.
It is in a state of paralysis. Worse still, although people seem to have forgotten, that is precisely |what many voters in Northern Ireland supported at the last |Assembly election.
Why did they vote for the |Democratic Unionists in such numbers? Why did so many nationalists forsake the SDLP for Sinn Fein? Answer: Because they wanted to ensure that their side of the sectarian equation dug in its heels and did not give way readily to the other.
Should we be surprised that agreement cannot be reached? Surprised that insults continue to be hurled? Surprised that the First and Deputy First Minister cannot even enter and leave a meeting with the Prime Minister in Downing Street together?
No, we shouldn't in the least because Northern Ireland is having visited upon it what the people who voted for the DUP and Sinn Fein wanted to happen.
If you were to listen to the phone-in comments on such programmes as Nolan's, the constant gripe is that the Stormont Executive should get its act together. Everyone seems frustrated with the lack of agreement.
People say the Executive should put up or shut up.
Who are these voices? Regrettably many of them belong to that growing band of disaffected people who don't or won't darken the door of a polling station. They may express their frustration and annoyance but they have only themselves to blame for the paralysed state of Stormont.
Power sharing in Northern Ireland was envisaged originally as enabling mainstream middle-ground unionists and nationalists to work together for the common good. That is not the case today.
The prime motivation of the DUP and Sinn Fein is to defend, protect and promote the respective cultures of unionism and nationalism. This is not a recipe for a meeting of minds but a division of minds. The credit crunch embraces everyone. It discriminates against no one section of society. We are all in this together yet our political representatives are locked in their constitutional and cultural cell-blocks.
Can you imagine a coalition government made up of Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill? When I think of the DUP and Sinn Fein dealing with our economy, the level of incompatibility between them is far worse.
So, what am I saying — that Stormont cannot work and therefore we should return to direct rule? Possibly but surely none of us want such a retreat?
However, we cannot escape the fact that Stormont is failing abysmally in its current form |because the main parties are |neutering one another whenever they wish. We have to find a better way of governing.
The parties themselves have to get off their hobby horses and forget their hang-ups. The First Minister Peter Robinson's idea of a weighted majority is worth considering, if only because the alternative is a stalemate which is going nowhere. He is also right in proposing a cut-back in Executive ministers and departments.
The continued deadlock on so many issues is merely serving to discredit the whole political process. Sooner or later, a Mark III Stormont partnership is required, not to give any one section of the community its head over |the other, but simply to get |something done.
In Dublin, in London and in Belfast, the task is to escape from the economic mess of 2009. Wherever we live we face higher taxes and huge cuts in public spending and services.
These issues will impact enormously on Britain, the Republic and most certainly Northern Ireland, where we are so dependent upon the public purse.
As it is currently constituted, Stormont is not up to this challenge. It is not working and it will not work unless and until there is major reform of its structures. We are simply deluding ourselves if we think otherwise.