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Compulsory coalition ties Stormont parties into vicious circle of competition disguised as cooperation

By Liam Clarke

Published 15/09/2015

It did seem a bit like "business as usual" at Stormont yesterday, despite the crisis.

It is strange how that phrase, familiar during the Troubles as a cry of quiet defiance by bomb-damaged retailers, has now become almost a badge of shame.

Not that "business as usual" is any great shakes.

MLAs sat down for a plenary session, made speeches, drew their pay and agreed very little.

That shouldn't have been a surprise as the topic was "the future of the Northern Ireland political institutions" - something which looks pretty bleak at the moment.

Like rabbits caught in the headlights, the honourable members sit even as the lorry approaches.

Mike Nesbitt recalled that Peter Robinson summarised the last Assembly term by saying that survival was the achievement.

Mr Robinson had insisted that this time it "had to be about more than survival; it has to be about delivery".

The First Minister, like many DUP MLAs, was there to answer as Mr Nesbitt quoted official statistics against him.

"Hospital waiting lists are longer than they have been for 15 years, £37.5m out of an £80m social investment fund is unspent and £12m set aside for childcare is also largely unspent," he said.

"After eight years of DUP/Sinn Fein government, it is clear we are not delivering positive outcomes to people."

Nobody can really argue with that and nobody tried too hard. The DUP has itself admitted the Assembly is dysfunctional and Sinn Fein don't believe unionists want to be in government with them at all.

Some members won't speak in the corridors or the lifts.

This can be mainly blamed on the two big parties who, whatever their difficulties and embarassments, jointly hold the power to change things and make them happen.

It doesn't matter if other parties oppose them - if they get their act together they are jointly unstoppable.

This can't be said of any other combination of parties and that sort of power carries responsibilities which aren't being fulfilled.

However, the smaller Stormont parties aren't team players either.

The SDLP has made it very difficult for Sinn Fein to make agreement on a number of issues, including On The Runs.

The UUP has also lifted lumps out of the DUP whenever possible, putting it under pressure by resigning ministries before it.

A few years back the DUP ditched the Maze peace and reconciliation centre, poisoning its relations with Sinn Fein with which it had made a deal, largely as a result of pressure mobilised by the UUP and TUV.

None of this is really out of the ordinary.

The smaller parties know that if you go along as junior partner in a coalition and make it smooth for your partners you get no thanks from either the other parties or the electorate.

In a compulsory coalition like this one there is not even the choice of going into opposition.

If these talks are to take us to the next stage, and preserve devolution, they have got to tackle that question.

The present system ties parties into a vicious circle of competition under the guise of cooperation.

It is a recipe for getting nothing done and keeping putting off the really difficult decisions.

That can't last.

Claire Sugden, the independent unionist who put the issue forward, warned of the dangers ahead.

"This house of cards is falling, and good will come of that only if the jokers at the top come crashing down too and do not get up again," she said.

"I am concerned because we have much to lose, not just in the message that Northern Ireland has failed but with the prospect of being governed by people who do not know us."

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