Belfast Telegraph

RHI scandal: Don't kid yourself that an election would be about repairing dysfunctional government

By Alex Kane

It all seemed so lovely a few months ago. The DUP and Sinn Fein had won handsome victories at the Assembly election, taken joint control of the Fresh Start Agreement, cut a deal with Claire Sugden, shuffled the UUP, SDLP and Alliance onto the Opposition benches and presented themselves as a united, consensual government for Northern Ireland.

The optics were good and the body language was very relaxed - with lots of footage of their ministers chatting and laughing with each other.

They even hired David Gordon (the editor of the Nolan Show) to help them co-ordinate and orchestrate this "new approach" to politics.

Why, just a few weeks ago Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness agreed their first joint platform piece for this newspaper. It was upbeat and relentlessly positive: accusing Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood of "gimmicks and grandstanding" while they were getting on with "good government".

Today the DUP and Sinn Fein are barely talking to each other. Foster is reminding it of its IRA roots, while it is warning of tipping points and grave consequences if she doesn't stand aside to facilitate an inquiry into the RHI fiasco.

The non-aggression pact - which they had led us to believe was the centrepiece of their new relationship - has been shredded and scattered to the four winds.

Senior Sinn Fein figures are briefing that the "integrity" of the institutions is under threat, that Foster is arrogant, and that the "very essence" of the Good Friday Agreement is being undermined.

The DUP, with the sort of subtlety that would have warmed the heart of a young Dr Paisley, is telling Sinn Fein to get stuffed - albeit not in those exact words.

So, it's beginning to look as if an early election is now unavoidable.

Both parties have boxed themselves into opposite corners, making it increasingly difficult to boil up the sort of fudge mountain that usually allows them to climb to and cross the latest hurdle.

But if there is an election (and I still have doubts) it's a pretty sure bet that it will be one of the most brutal, unpleasant showdowns we've seen here for 20 years - because at stake will be the existence of devolution itself.

I've argued for years that there is unlikely to come a time when the DUP and Sinn Fein will like, let alone respect, each other. And the response from senior figures in both parties has been that it's not necessary for them to like or respect each other: "It's a mandatory coalition, after all, and we will always disagree on key issues."

But the problem with not liking or respecting each other, particularly at an individual level, is that it then becomes impossible to create anything resembling trust.

So they don't even trust each other to run what, for want of a better term, can be described as the 'non-constitutional' departments like Health and Education, or Infrastructure and Agriculture.

And that's why we have ended up with dysfunctional government; when, quite literally, the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing.

Sinn Fein and the DUP do not want to govern together.

In fairness, the UUP and Sinn Fein don't want to govern together, either.

But the rules of the political/institutional process have forced them into this very bizarre form of cohabitation.

They tried to make it work between 2007 and 2016, but that decade was punctuated with serial crises; emergency summits; American interlocutors; bailouts from the UK Chancellor; agreements that came and went; periods when the Executive didn't meet for months on end; Peter Robinson standing aside on more than one occasion, and the farcical spectacle of DUP ministers resigning on what seemed to be a daily basis.

Both Robinson and McGuinness were forced to concede that the political institutions weren't fit for purpose.

And that's why the post-election period from last May to November now looks like a Camelot era: because we dared to believe that the bad old days really were behind us and that Foster and McGuinness would, finally, get to grips with the liking and respecting parts of working together.

But, if anything, where we are today is a much worse place than we have ever been before - because today we have reached the point at which we cannot avoid the conclusion that stable government is not possible here.

Even if we have an election, what will it be about?

Don't even begin to kid yourselves that it will be about repairing the dysfunction at the heart of government, or holding anyone to account for RHI, let alone holding them to account for the mess that is our health service, or education system, or infrastructure, or lack of progress on social integration, paramilitary influence, unresolved legacy matters, or language and cultural stuff. It will be about none of that. It will - and we all know it will - be about unionism vs republicanism; SF vs DUP; SF vs SDLP; DUP vs other bits of unionism, and so on and so on.

How can it be about anything else when that's the choice still offered by our conflict-rooted party political options (OK, Alliance, Greens and People Before Profit have their own roots, but they won't be growing in an early election)?

We know what the result of the election will be - even if the DUP takes a bit of a hit.

It will still be a dysfunctional Executive filled with people who don't want to govern together.

It will, almost certainly, see the DUP and SF returned to the same Fisrt Minister and Deputy First Minister roles, with the possibility of the UUP and SDLP opting for the Executive if they get the numbers.

So, either a dysfunctional DUP/SF/Sugden Executive, or a dysfunctional DUP/SF/SDLP/UUP/Alliance Executive. The parties know this, so they will bitch and bite with each other all the way to the ballot box.

An election will resolve nothing. In my opinion it would actually make matters very much worse (and yes, such a thing is conceivable).

It is no longer possible for the parties to even put up the pretence that things can get better.

The DUP and SF cannot rebuild from the wreckage of their imploded relationship, and that will be the case even without an election.

If the UUP eclipsed the DUP - which seems highly unlikely - I see no evidence that Nesbitt could build a better relationship with SF. And if SF made it to the First Minister's post, I'm not even sure that either a UUP or DUP leader would take the role of deputy.

Yes, this is a grim analysis and conclusion; but I don't see anything to be cheerful about.

To be really blunt. If there is an argument for keeping the present structures in place, I would like to hear it.

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