Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Can Stormont closed shop lead us to future we crave?

What a stitch-up: Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’s cross-party dealings have left David Ford angry and out in the cold
What a stitch-up: Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’s cross-party dealings have left David Ford angry and out in the cold

It is becoming more evident by the day that the Stormont coalition of five parties is really a stitch-up between the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein. The decision-making process over the Girdwood site in north Belfast illustrates the manner in which the Executive works.

Months, then years, can pass without any decision emerging - from Girdwood to the Maze prison; from the 11-plus to the reform of local councils; from the last Programme for Government, which delivered so little, to the current one, much of which remains stuck in some pipeline linking the DUP offices to Sinn Fein.

In the 1960s, deals were done between the Ulster Unionist Party and the then Nationalist Party as to where houses should be built and how segregated education could be supported and developed. The DUP has not the unbridled power of the old Unionist Party and, unlike the Nationalists, Sinn Fein is now on an equal footing.

With no one having the upper hand, the Stormont Executive works at its own bewildering pace. The fact that it has taken six years to reach any decision on what to do with the former Girdwood military base seems of little consequence.

Nothing is agreed until the DUP and Sinn Fein agree and the signs are that the horse-trading between the two parties is intensifying, while the views of other parties are increasingly by-passed.

The two main parties are doing their own thing. Having caucus meetings. Admittedly, spending a lot of time agreeing to disagree, eventually passing matters up the line to the Office of First and deputy First Minister for final approval between the DUP leader, Peter Robinson, and his Sinn Fein counterpart at Stormont, Martin McGuinness.

This process must lead, inevitably, to tensions with other parties in the Executive, if not their eventual withdrawal from the coalition.

The latest evidence was revealed in the past week, when the Alliance leader, David Ford, said his party was pulling out of community relations talks because its views had been ignored. Mr Ford said: "We have lost our faith in the integrity and value of this process."

"All boycotter Ford and the 'We won't build a consensus' party' have done is to demonstrate immaturity and an inability to work with anybody but themselves," was the First Minister's riposte to one of his Executive's most prominent members.

The question many may well ask is why the likes of David Ford take such political insults on the chin and continue to stay in an Executive which appears to have hidden power-bases well beyond his reach?

Alliance is not alone. The Ulster Unionists and SDLP - like Alliance - baulk at any suggestion of stepping away. Having a relatively powerless token minister in the Executive is seen by all of these parties as better than having no responsibility at all.

The mark of the Stormont Executive has been its ability to take longer than could be imagined to arrive at decisions on many important issues.

No agreed legislation means little, or nothing, to debate in the Assembly chamber. MLAs have been hard-pressed to stretch out debates in plenary sessions in recent months. For much of the time, the Stormont Assembly looks more like a talking- shop.

We are told that legislation is coming down the pipeline. On the evidence to date, it is a slow drip and far from satisfactory.

Stormont's greatest achievement has been in the preservation of peace in Northern Ireland, but the point has come where more is required.

That means we are likely to see a welter of legislation in the next year or two, in contrast to the failure of the Executive to govern effectively and decisively to date.

The Executive and Assembly has got until the next election, in 2015, to prove that devolution really delivers and is not simply a costly, bureaucratic, over-manned replacement for direct rule.

The two main parties are incentivised to barter behind closed doors in an effort to unblock the pipeline of future legislation.

Maybe that is the only way forward for Northern Ireland - the politics of 'I'll scratch your back if you agree to scratch mine'. Where it leaves the other three parties in the Executive is anybody's guess.

At best, the deals between the DUP and Sinn Fein amount to political pragmatism in a divided society. At worst, they ensure our divisions will never go away.

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