Belfast Telegraph

Winds of change that swirl around Stormont

By Liam Clarke

The preciousness of the full democratic process, which allows one government to be removed and replaced with another, is easily grasped when we compare it to the alternative.

In Libya, a dictator bombards his people from the air and threatens another Vietnam rather than see power slip from his hands and that of his circle.

It is easy to forget that, when Muammar Gaddafi first stepped onto the world stage 40 years ago, he was greeted as a liberator by most Libyans.

Power corrupts when it is held too long and governments become stale when they feel too secure in power.

In the United States, a president is limited to two consecutive terms to keep the wellsprings of democracy clear.

Even in democracies, allegations of sleaze and incompetence become clamorous towards the end of the second term.

Governments which last longer often face a meltdown of their vote and a wave of public disgust, as happened recently in both London and Dublin.

It was particularly impressive in Dublin, where two parties who had their origins in civil war exchanged the offices of state without a suggestion of violence, or the defeated party making any objection in principle to being excluded.

Jim Allister of the TUV made this point very powerfully, but you don't need to be an enemy of power-sharing to see that he had a point. It is a point that could allow his party to grow if it goes unaddressed.

Look at the events in recent weeks at Stormont as the parties move into election mode knowing that, whatever happens, they will all be in power afterwards.

The air is thick with insults traded between the governing parties, the smaller parties feel no pressure to make hard choices and have become, as Martin McGuinness recently told me, an internal opposition.

The big parties don't trust the smaller rivals they overtook only a few years back. Worse, it gums up decision-making and creates a slow, cumbersome from of government.

It is as if Fianna Fail, still smarting from its defeat, were still in the Irish coalition as of right, or Gordon Brown was sharing the Cabinet table with David Cameron in the interests of inclusion.

It is easy to understand how this system arose; we needed it to secure a settlement after years of violence and it has given us four years of stable government that would have seemed unimaginable a few years ago.

That doesn't mean it should just go on and on, like the Gaddafi regime that turned from liberator to oppressor and ended up hated by its people.

If the big tasks of the last Assembly were to provide stability and show a common front against terrorism, the challenge for the next one is to reform itself without losing that stability.

We need a system where both communities can be represented, but no individual party is completely confident of remaining in power.

Then we can avoid the sort of shambles we saw in the Budget debates.

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