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Alliance will have sold its soul and given in to political blackmail by accepting the Justice post

Giving Sinn Fein powers over our judicial system is clearly a bridge too far for Arlene Foster, but David Ford's party would be seriously damaged if it took on the role again, argues Seamus Close

Published 18/05/2016

Justice Minister David Ford
Justice Minister David Ford

Arlene Foster's comment that the DUP would not support Sinn Fein getting the Justice Minister's position in the event of a refusal by the Alliance Party was very telling. It told us that the DUP and Sinn Fein still don't really trust each other in spite of the fact that they have sat in the Executive together for many years as the major parties.

The DUP doesn't trust Sinn Fein with the Department of Justice.

Now, it is OK for it to be in charge of Education and, presumably, Health, or any other department. It could even, presumably, control the purse-strings. But Justice is somehow a step too far.

The words of Foster also demonstrated that the DUP is relying on Alliance for cover and that it would blame Alliance for any failure.

Arlene's comment was effectively turning up the heat on Alliance prior to their meeting tomorrow evening. This is undisguised political blackmail.

For the Alliance Party to succumb to this blatant pressure would be a huge mistake and a fundamental error of judgment, where the electorate would see it as patsies of the DUP and, presumably, Sinn Fein.

Now, Alliance had two ministers under the last mandate, one more than it was entitled to under the D'Hont system, the Justice Ministry being subject to special rules which require cross-community support. I think it is fair to say that both David Ford and Stephen Farry performed reasonably well in their respective roles as Minister for Justice and Minister for Employment and Learning. Yet, in common with junior coalition partners in other governments, eg: the Liberal Democrats in the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition at Westminster or Labour in the Fine Gael/Labour coalition in the South, the electorate invariably punished the junior partners for the failure, or perceived failure, of the respective administrations.

There are no prizes for being part of a government that doesn't appeal to the electorate, and while the Conservative Party is back in power with an increased majority and Fine Gael has struggled back into power with the help of independents, both the Liberal Democrats and Labour have been seriously - some might suggest mortally - damaged.

Alliance suffered a similar fate in the Assembly election earlier this month.

Its total vote fell below 50,000, down on its 2011 performance, and it fell by more than 11,000 votes on its Westminster election result just last year.

Its percentage share of the vote compared with last May's Westminster election fell from 8.6% to just over 7%.

The party cannot afford risking a similar haemorrhage over the next few years.

Its 50,000 votes and eight seats in the Assembly ensured that it was not qualified for an Executive seat under D'Hont procedures. The electorate told the party in no uncertain terms "we don't want you in the Executive".

To ignore this message from the electorate, to ignore the voice of the people, would be a huge mistake that would carry a very heavy price.

If Alliance was to take Justice, the electorate would see it as being in the pocket of the DUP and Sinn Fein, getting a position to which it was not entitled to and therefore subject to the charge that he who pays the piper calls the tune.

While the recipient of this grace and favour appointment might well perform well, acceptance would bestow personal trappings of power at the expense of the party's wider image in the eyes of the electorate. Then there is the whole question of principle.

We, the electorate, expect our politicians to display at least a modicum of this virtue.

All of them are referred to as Honourable Members.

Yet in the last mandate we had Executive members voting against the very budget, yet staying put in the Executive.

I believe the electorate saw this as not only crazy, but unprincipled, and it poses the question: would they do the same again?

If you cannot support the budget, which is central to any Executive/government's future, you should not be there.

Likewise, the Alliance Party Executive members did not support and/or endorse the Fresh Start document of November 2015.

This document is described as the Stormont Agreement.

It seems a fundamental part of the architecture for this new mandate and commits the Executive to a series of actions.

If a party doesn't support this plan it shouldn't, likewise, be in the Executive.

I believe it is time that the Assembly, but more importantly the Executive, demonstrated some political maturity and started to earn the respect of the electorate rather than being seen as dysfunctional and a waste of money.

It is time for the people to reconnect with our political structures, rather than dismissing them as irrelevant.

This is 2016, the Assembly is 18 years old, or young.

That is an age when people are seen to have grown up and can therefore accept more responsibility.

If the Executive and Assembly cannot perform on behalf of the electorate without distorting democracy and requiring a party with less than 50,000 votes to prop it up, then there is something seriously wrong.

For the Alliance Party to reduce itself to this fig leaf would be an insult to the party's founding fathers.

Seamus Close is a former deputy leader of the Alliance Party and is now a political commentator

Belfast Telegraph

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