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Despite 'Brysongate' it's business as usual for Arlene and Martin

Fallout from Daithi McKay revelations could be test of UUP and SDLP ability to work together in Opposition, says Rick Wilford

Published 23/08/2016

Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster
Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster

At best, the nature and tone of the wider DUP-Sinn Fein relationship can be likened to a decidedly uncivil partnership, notwithstanding the apparent cordiality between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness which, in retrospect, looks ever more like an aberration from the norm of mistrust and suspicion between the two parties. In the wake of the McKay-Bryson-O'Hara revelations, the dial is now firmly reset to the default position of mutual antipathy.

Is this merely another hiccup in the perennially fraught association between them? Or does the current controversy contain within it the potential to destabilise their relationship and with it the robustness of our devolved institutions?

To pose the latter question is to answer it: the DUP/Sinn Fein diarchy will survive, because both need our regime of self-government to be sustained - albeit for differing motives. So, it looks much more like a hiccup, a glitch in an imperfect set of working arrangements.

To date, two heads have rolled: those of Daithi McKay and Thomas O'Hara, while Jamie Bryson appears to have emerged largely unscathed - even invigorated - as he pursues his quest for a public inquiry into the simmering Nama affair.

However, the chorus from other parties for the Finance Minister, Sinn Fein's Mairtin O Muilleoir - a former member of the finance committee during the ongoing scrutiny of the Nama allegations - to step aside while the Assembly's commissioner for standards conducts his investigation into an alleged breach of standards by McKay, indicates that this episode has legs and may yet claim a further casualty.

We'll see. But, for one, I very much doubt it - not least in the light of O Mueilloir's blunt rejection that he had any knowledge of the exchanges between McKay, O'Hara and Bryson.

The standards commissioner, Douglas Bain, will - quite properly - take some time over his investigation; there will be no rush to judgment on his part.

While that gets under way, there are other avenues that will be explored by politicians and officials, including a review of the principles governing the relationship between the Assembly's committees and those witnesses they invite to supply both written and oral information and evidence to them.

That exercise is likely to embrace a number of committees, including that on standards and privileges, and, perhaps, the Assembly and Executive reform committee.

In addition, the chairpersons' liaison group, comprising the chairs of all of the Assembly's committees, is likely to be drawn into the process to add its weight to the widespread requirement that committee chairs, like Caesar's wife, are above reproach in their dealings with those who appear before them.

We can, then, expect a flurry of Assembly activity that focuses upon the integrity of its procedures and the conduct of committees, in particular.

MLAs are painfully aware of the low regard in which the general public views politicians and will strive to ensure that the damage caused by 'Brysongate' is managed in ways that minimise a further decline in public confidence in our political class.

The stakes, then, are high and this will have a pronounced effect on the finance committee as it reflects on the McKay affair and continues its probe into Nama. It, too, will be the subject of intense scrutiny as that investigation proceeds.

There is, then, a variety of levels at which the current imbroglio will play out. First, inter-party relations within the finance committee. These now are at a premium. Apart from anything else, the tone and temper of DUP-Sinn Fein exchanges between their respective members of the committee will be pored over as a barometer of the wider condition of their relationship.

Additionally, the committee will provide an opportunity for the official Opposition parties, the UUP and SDLP, to subject the two major parties to intense scrutiny and seek to exploit any apparent strain between them - aided, no doubt, by the committee's minor parties.

Secondly, the committee will be a microcosm of the wider state of relations between the governing duo on the one hand and, especially, the UUP and SDLP on the other.

Though in my view inadequately resourced, the formal Opposition needs to consider carefully whether they combine to develop a strategic approach in prosecuting their roles, or, rather, adopt a more modest posture by agreeing a series of shifting tactical coalitions issue by issue, policy by policy, as a means of embarrassing the joint Executive.

The McKay/Bryson revelations offer an early test of the resolve of the UUP and SDLP to co-operate in order to begin to develop an effective and efficient Opposition.

With the new Assembly term just a fortnight or so away, we won't have to wait long to assess whether they opt primarily for a tactical, or strategic, approach to their new-found formal status.

Of course, the tactical and strategic options are not mutually exclusive, but, rather, complement one another. Nevertheless, a detectable bias towards the latter would provide an important signal of the willingness of both Opposition parties to offer a cohesive and collective stance vis-a-vis Sinn Fein and the DUP, which could be to their mutual electoral advantage and, in the shorter run, re-animate the character and quality of Assembly proceedings.

Thirdly, the apparent incentive towards UUP-SDLP co-operation does, at the same time, lend some urgency to the need for the DUP and Sinn Fein to cleave more closely together in an albeit loveless political co-habitation.

It seems highly unlikely, indeed utterly remote, that the current controversy will lead to the demise of the diarchy: McKay's swift resignation as an MLA, coupled with the suspension of O'Hara and the, to date, measured response of the DUP leadership - Sammy Wilson aside - to the matter, indicates that it will be business more or less as usual for Arlene Foster and Martin McGuiness.

If anything, the First and deputy First Ministers may be even more strongly motivated to unveil a new agreed policy on one or more of the neuralgic issues that bedevil Northern Ireland, not least the past.

The final level that will play out is the wider condition of popular opinion towards our institutions in general and politicians in particular.

A mix of scepticism and cynicism is the dominant public mood and the ongoing controversy will do little - if anything - to temper it.

Yet, the manner in which it is managed and resolved does have relevance for the level of political confidence in our MLAs and the structures they inhabit.

They can ill-afford to mishandle this matter, else another brick will be added to the existing and high wall of public disaffection.

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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