New UUP leader must face up to cosy club at Stormont
Published 27/03/2012 | 08:00
The people of Northern Ireland should learn a hard lesson from the findings of the Mahon Tribunal in the Republic. Left to themselves, with too much power and too little scrutiny, politicians can be devious and corrupt.
Such behaviour can occur at any level - from billionaire Russian oligarchs to the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
Or possibly in time, if we leave them too much to their own devices, some of the Folks on the Hill at Stormont.
We know now that Ahern and others in positions of political power and public duty down south were not what they seemed. They were liars and crooks, taking money under false pretences and, at the same time, preaching probity to people north and south.
We should not ignore the possibility that, somewhere in the future of the Stormont five-party coalition, the same disgraceful syndrome could be nurtured. Power has a tendency to corrupt - especially if it is left unchallenged and unscrutinised.
Which brings me to the leadership contest in the Ulster Unionist Party. To be, or not to be? That is the choice facing the Ulster Unionists: to be something, or to be nothing at all.
Now is the hour when this fading party has an opportunity to lift itself from the slough of despond by striking out in a new direction and protecting democratic values which are under threat.
It should be in the interests of the maturing peace process that we break free from the comfortable club that the Stormont Executive has become.
As we approach the 14th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, there is a crying need for more responsible, constructive scrutiny of Stormont.
What passes for democracy in Northern Ireland is dangerously flawed. Five parties in government supported by 105 MLAs out of 108 is no way to run a state in the Western world.
Executive ministers who can't be sacked by other than their own parties - no matter how badly they perform - is not democracy.
Nor is the performance to date of Stormont a glowing example of an efficient administration. Hardly 10% of the last Programme for Government (PfG) was implemented, but they were all in it together, so no one really rocked any boats.
No Opposition meant no embarrassing questions; no one was held to proper account.
We are entitled to be worried, because the two principal parties in power - the DUP and Sinn Fein - are founded on unquestioning, authoritarian discipline.
The other three parties - Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance - live in their shadow. An army of Press officers and highly-paid advisers ensures the right message reaches our ears.
This is the challenge the new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party must address. The contest for the leadership has opened a healthy and timely debate about the future of politics here.
Imagine a political party which could capitalise on the failings of the Stormont Executive; which could engage with the 40% of the electorate who no longer bother to vote and which could reverse the sense of apathy and frustration of so many people. Imagine a political party which could galvanise critical public opinion. A party which could really speak out about the mishandling of public funds and services and which could stand up and be counted against the idea that MLAs should get a £5,000 salary rise in the current economic climate.
There is really no halfway house left for the UUP. It either fades out of existence as a lesser spotted version of the Democratic Unionist lapwing, or it builds a springtime nest in 2012 and creates a new breed of its own.
The next UUP leader needs to offer a radical alternative to the Democratic Unionists. The party's best hope of survival is to be the much-needed strident voice of Opposition at Stormont, but more is required.
By words and deeds, the new leader needs to show that unionism can embrace and respect the Irish, as well as British, cultural identity in this province.
The preservation of the Union is why the Ulster Unionist Party came into being.
To ensure that, the new leader needs to build better relations with all the major political parties in Britain and the Republic and he needs to remind people here why Northern Ireland is better off being part of a United Kingdom, rather than a United Ireland. In short, the new leader needs to raise the party's game, start throwing around whatever weight it has left and indulge in some political headbutting.
The conditions could not be better.
Now all the Ulster Unionists need is someone capable of rising to that challenge.