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Note to Stormont's MLAs... Greece is not Europe's only basket case

The latest stunts and high-wire nonsense can't conceal Greek-style tragedy being play out at the Assembly, writes Alex Kane

By Alex Kane

On Tuesday, the Assembly's last day before the lengthy summer recess, I spent some time talking with a very senior MLA about what was happening in Greece. He was scathing, arguing that the Greek Government should be shown the door rather than bailed out: "Someone has to prove to these smaller EU nations that they can't just do what they want and get away with it."

Since the image of an enormous kettle and pot had sprung to my mind, I asked him about how he thought the Executive was viewed by the outside world. He didn't even pause for breath: "We're totally different. Northern Ireland is totally different. Westminster needs to remember that we're still on a long, long road to recovery. Anyway, Greece is an international laughing-stock - we're not." Hmm.

That conversation took place a few hours before he trundled into the voting lobby and supported a join-the-dots budget built around a £600m black hole and with no agreement on welfare reform.

As Finance Minister Arlene Foster noted: "Without welfare reform there is no Stormont House Agreement and therefore there is not the flexibility available to us which we require to move forward."

So there you had it, the collapse of an inter-party agreement, the inability to agree on a real budget with real money and the certainty of further crisis when the holidays end. But, hey, thank goodness we're not a laughing-stock basket case like Greece.

The UUP and SDLP voted against the budget. Fair enough. Yet even though there were very strong and rational arguments for the decision they took, they obviously didn't think they were strong enough, or rational enough, to justify the decision to remove themselves from the Executive.

So they remain in office, all the while complaining that they are sidelined while their budgets are slashed. It's an absurd position to find themselves in, particularly since they are there by choice.

Their ability to criticise the fanciful, fantastical aspects of the budget is undermined by their presence in the Executive. What's the point in complaining about a three-ring circus if you, yourselves, are the interval clowns?

Later that evening the Assembly discussed a motion of censure against Sammy Wilson for describing Jim Allister as a "thug". Wilson was in gung-ho mood, refusing to apologise for anything, because he didn't believe he had done anything that required an apology.

He was helped by the fact that the DUP had deployed a petition of concern to protect him: which meant that it didn't matter if a majority of Members backed the motion. And if you know that you're protected against the will of the majority, then there'll never be an incentive for you to sample a piece of humble pie, offer an apology, or seek a compromise.

The petition of concern was never intended to be used in this way. Indeed, it was never intended to be used in most of the ways it has been deployed over the past year.

It is being abused by political parties for their own ends: not to protect the interests of one community from the other, but instead to protect a party's personal electoral agenda.

An equal marriage debate is not a Protestant/Catholic, unionist/nationalist issue and it should not have been the subject of a petition of concern. Sammy Wilson's jibes at Jim Allister were not about Protestant/Catholic, unionist/nationalist sensibilities and the censure debate should not have been the subject of a petition of concern.

A petition of concern is intended to stop a unionist majority forcing something upon a nationalist minority, or vice versa. It was not intended to be abused - and there really is no other word for it - in the way it has been, particularly over this past year. Tuesday summed up the ongoing problems of the Assem bly: constant fudge on the big ticket issues, trying to be Government and Opposition as and when it suits you and deploying the petition of concern to undermine rather than shore up the democratic process.

There was no sense of the Assembly having had a good year, making a difference to people's lives and preparing to forge ahead with consensual legislation and shared agendas.

Yesterday morning, on the Cregagh Road, a man stopped me and said: "That place on the Hill is a bloody disgrace. There's wiser dummies standing in the windows of clothes' shops. Most of them are even too stupid to realise the level of contempt ordinary people have for them." As is so often the case, the man on the street was bang on in his assessment.

In early September we will come back to yet another crisis. The script is written and the steps prepared. The peace process has been replaced by a crisis process: 1) talk up collapse; 2) leak "catastrophic consequences" memo; 3) a few weeks of choreographed panic; 4) two or three days of inter-party talks; 5) last gasp deal (fantasy budget in this case), and then 6) back to square one and repeat the process.

So, in September, we'll be back to 1). Robinson and McGuinness (left) will pen gloomy analysis pieces for the Belfast Telegraph, their spokesmen will sound dire warnings of imminent collapse and headless party chickens will stumble around the Assembly's Great Hall gathering up expense forms and battered clichés.

The irony is that this "crisis process" suits the parties. From their perspective, it is much better than a peace/political process, in which they would be expected to do something more than the run-of-the-mill stuff that could be done by a direct rule ministerial team.

But they've got it into their heads that a constant diet of manufactured crisis - the political equivalent of reality TV - suits their purposes better.

So much attention is focused on their latest stunts and high-wire nonsense (albeit with huge safety nets below) that most people aren't paying attention to the Greek-like tragedy going on all around them.

One thing that has struck me very forcibly in the past year, though, is that it's not just the institutional structures which are causing problems: even though I remain of the opinion that reforming those structures would be fairly easy.

No, the real problem at the heart of our system is the unwillingness - or maybe it's just the plain inability - of the parties to accept that they have a collective responsibility to create and deliver a common agenda.

On Tuesday, the Assembly rose for its 17th summer recess. Even by its usual standards, it was a bizarre day of acrimony and mixed messages.

The MLAs could do a lot worse than spend the next few weeks seeking out the opinions of the men and women on the streets of Northern Ireland and discovering what the majority of them actually think. Then maybe, just maybe, it will dawn on them what the Assembly and Executive are for.

Liam Clarke is away

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