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A lot of patching up to do if Stormont's jilted partners are to renew vows

Can the Executive parties - aided by London, Dublin, Washington and perhaps a revived Independent Monitoring Commission - pull the institutions back from the brink? Only time will tell - and that's running out fast, says Rick Wilford

Published 15/09/2015

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt holds a press conference with fellow party members at Stormont
Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt holds a press conference with fellow party members at Stormont
Members of the PSNI secure the area where the fatal shooting of Kevin McGuigan took place in the Short Strand area of Belfast

The current turn of events has, once again, demonstrated that the default condition of Northern Ireland is political crisis. And, as crises go, this one is of the five-star, gold-plated variety because it doesn't hinge on policy differences, whether over welfare reform, the past, victims or parading, but rather cuts to the quick: an always simmering, but now eruptive, lack of trust between and among the major parties.

Muddling through, as has been the case over so many issues, is now not an option: the condition of the body politic is such that it requires invasive not cosmetic surgery.

That it has come to this is unsurprising given the, at best, business-like and, at worst, toxic relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Experience demonstrates to us all that it is one thing to work with others we don't like, but quite another to try to co-operate with those one doesn't trust.

On the BBC's The View last Thursday, both Arlene Foster's remark about "renegade" and "rogue" nationalist and republican ministers, and Gerry Kelly's admission that he distrusts both the UUP and the DUP, epitomised the scale of the task confronting the parties.

To be clear, it isn't a case of rebuilding, but rather of building trust anew, given the Chief Constable's statement in relation to the status of the IRA and the alleged involvement of some of its members in the murder of Kevin McGuigan. In effect, George Hamilton put himself in the unenviable position of arbiter of the political process.

A key index of the absence of trust is that to date politicians have relied largely upon the various procedural constraints of our institutions, including petitions of concern and cross-community votes in both the Assembly and Executive, to help keep the devolution bicycle up and running, albeit wonkily.

In addition, of course, the constraint of resignation, by either the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister, would, if triggered, force the issue to a head. We're not there yet. In fact, it was instructive that Peter Robinson chose to stand aside rather than resign his post, signalling his reluctance to deliver the coup de grace to the institutions.

Had he resigned, an election would most probably have followed. Indeed, adjournment of the Assembly, its suspension, an election and the harder landing of an indefinite period of direct rule all remain live options, underlining the seriousness of the current crisis. And, while a fresh talks process is scheduled, it is uncertain that the DUP and UUP will see them through, or even turn up on a regular basis.

For the UUP agenda management at the talks, notably the priority leant to the vexed matter of the IRA's current organisational structure and status, appears paramount.

The DUP more than shares the UUP's concerns, but before it participates requires proof positive from the UK Government that measures will be taken to stipulate precisely the status of the IRA and, presumably, that of all other paramilitary organisations.

This proposal, welcomed cautiously by the Secretary of State, appears to mean either the resurrection of the IMC, or the creation of a new - if related - body. In addition, the DUP wants a number of other matters to be addressed including, one might imagine, fuel smuggling, money laundering and other criminal activity undertaken by paramilitaries of all stripes.

Unless and until those conditions are met, it seems that the DUP will not take its seats at the talks table, not least because Peter Robinson is under considerable pressure from those within the party's ranks who have always resented the presence of Sinn Fein in the Executive.

Assuming that all-party talks do get under way, what then might we expect? The first point to make is that the talks will be time-limited.

While the DUP appears ready to operate an indefinite revolving door policy on ministerial nominations and resignations - incidentally leaving the party open to the charge that it is in breach of the ministerial code and pledge of office by failing to fulfil their ministerial duties - the role of acting First Minister has a six-week limit.

At the end of that period, Peter Robinson will either have to reassume the role of First Minister, or resign: he cannot substitute another DUP colleague for Arlene Foster. If he resigns, the likelihood would be an early election, rather than immediate suspension, and the renewal of direct rule.

But how will the electorate respond in such circumstances - or, rather, the declining proportion of them who do turn out? A "plague on all your houses" attitude could well see turnout fall below 50%, further undermining the legitimacy of our political class.

Indeed, many will conclude that the institutions are not worth saving anyway, prepared as they are to settle for the blunt alternative of direct rule.

To return to the possible outcomes of the talks: are there some reasons to be optimistic? At the risk of creating hostages to fortune, within six weeks it is eminently feasible to expect that some agency akin to the IMC will be signalled, tasked to investigate the existing status of the IRA and other paramilitary organisations. This appears a relatively straightforward outcome - if only because it resurrects a previously established and agreed process and agency, rather than inventing new ones.

What else? Can we expect agreement on a new welfare settlement - which has bedevilled the parties for two years or more - within a month-and-a-half?

That seems unlikely, which suggests that the Government may yet repatriate welfare and implement the current proposed reforms, together with their mitigations, notwithstanding the opposition of Sinn Fein, which would be able to state that it opposed this measure and will campaign to restore welfare powers in order to improve social protection in the future.

Relatedly, there is the knotty problem of an agreed and sustainable Budget for Northern Ireland. The Government has already released the funding that enables the civil service exit scheme arrived at in the Stormont House Agreement to proceed and may calculate that some extra funding would be a price worth paying to keep devolution alive - albeit not enough to fill the existing and enormous budgetary hole.

As for the past and victims, while still work in progress, some advances have been made on both, although flags and parading remain neuralgic issues. And while all parties are, to a greater or lesser extent, committed in principle to institutional reform of both the Assembly and the Executive, it will be a while yet, certainly far more than six weeks, before an agreed set of proposals can be implemented. There are, then, some thinkable reasons to be vaguely cheerful. However, it takes little effort to feel cheerless about the immediate future.

I mentioned earlier the necessity of building trust in order that power-sharing can be based on a more stable footing - a task complicated by the absence of the UUP from the Executive for the remainder of the current mandate.

Nurturing trust takes considerable patience and a readiness among all to accept, to paraphrase David Trimble, that those with a past can have a future.

Meanwhile, we are in a decided, gilt-edged crisis, whose hallmarks are high risk, high cost, high uncertainty and high time pressure.

Can our political class, aided and abetted by London, Dublin and Washington, retrieve the situation? Very limited time will tell.

Dr Rick Wilford is professor of politics at the school of politics, international studies and philosophy at Queen's University Belfast

Belfast Telegraph

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