Belfast Telegraph

Action is needed at Stormont to stop slow slide to snap election

By Liam Clarke

Financial disaster looms but at yesterday's Executive it could only be discussed under any other business.

There was a paper outlining the grim choices which face the Executive if it is to survive but it wasn't even discussed – Sinn Fein wouldn't agree.

During the AOB discussion tucked into the end of the meeting our politicians did what they are best at – restated their position and agreed nothing.

They are working on June spending predictions which are at least 6% too high.

They are on a trajectory to overspend and to risk intervention from civil servants in both the NIO and the Treasury.

"There is no sense of understanding of where we are," David Ford, the Justice Minister, said.

Alliance, the UUP and DUP are clearly frustrated.

Ministers don't like the sound of the cuts that are coming down the pike towards them, but unless they know how the pain is to be shared out they cannot make spending plans.

Sinn Fein, on the other hand, are determined to play hardball in their opposition to welfare reform and other issues like parading.

The disarray they see within the DUP makes them even less likely to be accommodating.

Yesterday Peter Robinson attacked his internal opponents as "lemmings" who are "puffed up by their own importance".

He vowed to deal with them while refusing to name them. Speculation is now rife about when his leadership will end.

Although he has the support of the vast majority of members, who see him as the best hope they have of making a deal and coming out ahead in the General Election next May, he is becoming a less attractive partner in government for Sinn Fein.

In the 90s Sinn Fein cut David Trimble of the UUP adrift once they concluded he was too weak a leader to do business with.

Republicans held back concessions, like decommissioning, which could have strengthened Trimble's hand and instead let him swing. At this stage they don't have much confidence in Peter Robinson's ability to deliver.

As they see it, he snatched the Maze Long Kesh Peace Centre out from under their noses when it was a done deal.

The DUP have not so far delivered on the promised rotation of the post of speaker from Willie Hay to Mitchel McLaughlin and there are other issues.

Mr Robinson would need to do a lot to retrieve his standing with his main partners in government.

Yet if he softens toward Sinn Fein then he risks giving ammunition to the "puffed up lemmings within his own party."

All this makes it more likely that we are heading into a crisis election, something which Sinn Fein has already suggested.

Sinn Fein may calculate that it would do better than a divided DUP in the contest. They say their policy on welfare reform is popular amongst their grassroots supporters.

The danger is that it would be very hard to revive Stormont.

If the power-sharing institution failed then the dissidents would see an opportunity and our present economic problems could quickly turn into a security crisis.

The need for all-party talks with support from the British, Irish and US governments is clear.

Without it there is little chance of difficult decisions being agreed and things could easily spin out of control.

Belfast Telegraph

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