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Tackling Stormont jams one at a time could clear road ahead

It's easy for naysayers to sit back and predict the collapse of the Assembly; it's harder to suggest practical steps to buttress the institutions, says Alex Kane

Published 07/08/2015

Loyalist flag protest at Belfast City Hall
Loyalist flag protest at Belfast City Hall
Members of the Orange Order, bandsmen and supporters
US diplomats Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan chaired a series of round-table talks which failed to find agreement on a package of Northern Ireland’s most contentious issues
Shankill bomb site

The late Tommy Trinder - a huge comedy star from the 1940s to the 1970s - told a story of being stuck at the head of a traffic jam just outside a village. The driver of a car further down the road, who couldn't see the cause of the jam, beeped his horn continuously for 10 minutes. Trinder finally got out, walked down to the car and knocked on the driver's window: "I tell you what. I'll sit in the car and beep your horn every 10 seconds and you can go down there and move the bloody great tree that's fallen across the road."

Given the nature of local politics and the fact that it always seems to be stuck in one jam after another, commentators tend to find themselves beeping their horn and complaining about the lack of progress. Of course, we can usually see the shape and size of the tree and where exactly it has fallen. But that's not enough. Maybe we need to give some suggestions about moving it?

So here, albeit in no particular order, are some suggestions for shifting the tree and putting the political process on either a motorway or, at the very least, on a major road.

The first thing the parties need to do is break away from the negotiation nonsense that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed". It sounds fine, even sensible, in theory, but as I have noted before it has been twisted into the debilitating reality that if one thing is subsequently disputed or disagreed, then the whole agreement, or process, is dragged to a standstill.

We saw it with Haass and we're seeing it again with the Stormont House Agreement. Nothing is disagreed until everything is disagreed.

Better, I would argue, to nail one or two small things down at a time, bank the success, deliver the one or two things that have been agreed and then allow the public to see that success in action.

The next thing to do - and it's tied into the first - is to acknowledge that it is going to be impossible to resolve problems like flags, identity, culture, tradition, parades, the past, truth and reconciliation processes and legacy issues with some sort of "super" collective agreement or package.

The difficulty is that too many bodies, commissions, committees and inquiries need to be established at the same time, which leads to overlapping, delays linked to that overlapping and the sort of interdependency which makes it very difficult to focus on key problems individually.

So, why not reboot the Civic Forum and task it with examining each of the "big ticket" problems one at a time? At the end of six months it would deliver a report - with accompanying recommendations - to the Executive, which, in turn, would facilitate examination by the relevant Assembly committees, followed by debate in the Assembly chamber.

At the end of each six months, the Forum - with new expert members and chairman - would move on to the next "big ticket" problem.

In other words, over the lifetime of the next Assembly (2016-2021), the Executive/Assembly would be able to promote a resolution process, which maybe, just maybe, would make it easier to actually reach the agreement that has eluded them for so long.

Next, I would detach the institutional reform section of Stormont House and insist that the changes on Opposition, MLA numbers, departmental overhaul and the conduct, discharge and efficiency of Executive/Assembly business (all of which were pretty sensible) be in place by March 2016 and ready to run immediately after the election. None of this is as difficult as it sounds and wouldn't, in fact, take long, or all that much work, to deliver.

The other thing I would do is ask the parties to spend a few weeks between September and February working on the next Programme for Government. They know they need agreement, so it would make sense to agree in advance on some key issues - health, education, employment, economics for instance - and list in all of their manifestos what they would prioritise when the next Executive is formed. What have they got to lose by doing this?

I think the electorate (especially those who have been reluctant to vote recently) would like to see some evidence of a new willingness and determination to make the next Assembly the one that begins to make the differences they have been hoping for since 1998.

Another suggestion - and this time it's for those of you who say that you don't want to vote for any of the "lame, tired, same-old, same-old parties" - get off your collective backsides and start offering new alternatives and choices. The longer you leave it, the longer you continue to opt out, the more difficult it will be to inspire yourselves and others.

It won't be easy. Knocking doors and trying to persuade a hugely sceptical, disengaged electorate that you are offering something new that could make a difference to them is always going to be a hard sell. But it needs to be done.

Even if the Assembly can be rescued - and it can be if the parties are serious - new voices, vehicles and thinking will still be required.

But with maybe just one or two possible exceptions (and even then it's a stretch), there isn't really anyone in the present crop of MLAs whom I see as the catalyst for electoral or ideological change. But I refuse to believe that there aren't tens of thousands of people across Northern Ireland who want something different to think about and vote for.

And I also refuse to believe that there aren't men and women of talent, ambition and vision who could rise to the challenge of leadership. The DUP, SDLP and Alliance all emerged in 1970-71 to address the challenges of their conflict generation. So, where are the new parties for this, hopefully, post-conflict generation?

And one final suggestion: I'd like to see a very public, collective and unambiguous commitment from the five Executive parties about the process and institutions. Do they want them to survive? Can they work together to ensure their survival?

The greatest damage being done to politics here is being done by the very parties which claim that they want to deliver coherent, stable government: yet the biggest "bloody great tree" across the road has been felled by the Executive itself.

So, yes, I'll keep on beeping my horn until the Executive gives some indication that it is prepared to move the tree. But when it gives us that indication, it may find itself surprised by how many people are willing to come along and lend a hand and shoulder in the shifting process.

Belfast Telegraph

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