Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Now we've got a new twin-track Assembly

On the face of it not much was changed by the election. The DUP gained two seats, Sinn Fein one and the same five parties are back in government as before.

Yet it is an election which has changed everything and the political system must be adapted to accommodate the new realities it has produced.

It has been characterised by voter apathy and it has seen the re-emergence of a two track political system. On the inside track are what Martin McGuinness fondly called the "progressive parties" of the DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance who are all growing.

On the outer track, almost an internal opposition, are the UUP and SDLP. Both parties are smarting after a long-term erosion of their vote but retain a considerable branch structure. They feel Sinn Fein and the DUP have stolen their clothes but if that is the case their clothes seem to fit pretty well. In any other parliament they would be carrying out their post mortems and defining a new direction for themselves on the opposition benches.

Some in their ranks are tempted to do this even now, but there is no provision in Stormont for a resourced opposition with a defined constitutional role.

So in the end they will probably take their ministries because there is no real alternative on offer.

Hobson's choice is no basis for government and they will make difficult, volatile junior partners for the all-conquering Sinn Fein and DUP machines who want to get on with things. The big parties hold 67 of the 108 seats between them, 75 counting their Alliance allies.

This is a massive majority for any government and bringing the defeated parties into the mix makes it too big and unwieldy to manage by agreement.

The three growing parties have the muscle to steamroller the others, but that will erode the sense of collective responsibility any executive needs when setting priorities and making hard economic choices.

In the last assembly SDLP and UUP ministers responded by refusing to support the budget and played lengthy games of chicken on spending issues. It was natural that they should do so, a logical choice in the circumstances.

It is a choice which they are likely to repeat over the next four years if their ministers' budgets are squeezed by plans pushed through by Sinn Fein and the DUP.

A government by parties with the support of 106 out of 108 MLAs, with the defeated yoked to the victorious as junior partners, is just not sustainable.

Over the life of this Assembly the two big parties, who fought the election practically as a coalition, must move on reforming the institutions to leave room for an official opposition. The DUP have a policy to do so. Sinn Fein are wary and say the institutions can only evolve with their support.

This is something they need to resolve quickly or the administration will inevitably lack the cohesion to tackle the economic crisis. Voter apathy is already a growing problem. The answer is to give them an opportunity to actually change the government, not just adjust its balance, in future elections.

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