Why an election now will just make a bad situation even worse
Power-sharing institutions need major, not cosmetic, surgery, writes Rick Wilford
It now seems all but inevitable that a fresh Assembly election will be held, probably in early March. The seven-day notice required to nominate a successor to Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister expires at 5pm on January 16, and Sinn Fein has made it clear that no such nomination will be made.
That said, should Arlene Foster step aside before next Monday and a full-scale public inquiry be established by Secretary of State James Brokenshire (or, less likely, by Justice Minister Claire Sugden), inter-party talks could begin and the election could be postponed, perhaps indefinitely.
However, Sinn Fein appear committed to a further round of negotiations in the wake of the early election. There is certainly insufficient time before January 16 to address, let alone resolve, the agenda of issues set out by Martin McGuinness in his resignation letter. So, protracted talks loom large and these will structure the election narrative and its aftermath.
Not least, of course, is the resolution of the RHI debacle. It seems to me that it is in the interest of Sinn Fein and the Opposition parties, whether official or unofficial, to try and maintain their focus on RHI; that is, to render the election as a quasi-referendum on that matter, more properly the DUP's role in establishing and implementing the scheme - not least because it throws into severe doubt the DUP's and Arlene Foster's reputation for fiscal prudence.
While they support that objective, the UUP and SDLP will also seek to deploy RHI as a means of demonstrating Sinn Fein's weakness in managing their relationship with the DUP, as will the minor parties.
The wider and longer Sinn Fein's wish-list becomes, the more susceptible the party will be to allegations by the DUP that it is seeking not just to defenestrate Arlene Foster, who they present as the doughty woman embodying unionism, but also to foist a republican agenda on an unwilling and larger chunk of the electorate.
In short, one can already hear the sounds of sectarian trenches being dug in anticipation of the poll.
Of course, this may well have been avoided had Mrs Foster heeded the advice, not a demand, from her co-equal, Martin McGuinness, to stand aside while an inquiry into RHI was put in place almost a month ago.
Its interim report may have exonerated the outgoing First Minister of any responsibility for the ill-starred and woefully designed RHI scheme, allowing her to return to office after a short period.
That she would have been held accountable for the debacle is obvious, but being freed from the charge of being responsible for it would have enabled her to resume her role with her integrity intact. Had she been found responsible, as she yet may, for the flawed design and its implementation, her career would have come to a juddering, ignominious halt. Now, however, the outcome of any inquiry is pending, which means a long shadow will be cast over the election.
We are facing an election slap-bang in the midst of political uncertainty, a situation akin to the election of November 2003, when we returned MLAs to a virtual Assembly.
It took a further three-and-a-half years to restore devolution - which had been suspended for the fourth time in October 2002 - following the St Andrew's Agreement of late 2006.
But it's even worse than that. We are now facing not just a political, but a legitimacy crisis. Suddenly, the attention of both Sinn Fein and the DUP, in particular, seems to have been turned toward the reform of our devolved institutions, itself a long-running ambition of many. In that context, it's worth reminding ourselves that, to date, the institutions have been reformed - and not just at the margins.
We have had the introduction of an official Opposition, albeit inadequately resourced, the improvised procedure for appointing the Justice Minister, the process whereby the First and Deputy First Ministers are conferred in office (post-St Andrew's akin to a joint coronation, rather than the cross-community vote in the Assembly, as originally required by the 1998 Agreement), the introduction of topical questions in the chamber, provision for joint committee inquiries, the reconfiguration and reduction of departments and the hollowing-out of many of the functions originally discharged by OFMDFM and its transformation into a leaner Executive Office.
What such changes demonstrate is that the original architecture of 1998 was set in aspic, not stone, and there is little, other than inter-party agreement, to hinder further reform.
And, yet, anything that challenges the inclusivity principle that lies at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement will meet considerable resistance from most of the parties here and from the Irish and UK Governments. The coalition we have, whether comprising two, three, four or five parties, is not in the strict sense mandatory, but genuinely voluntary.
As both the UUP and SDLP have demonstrated, participation in the Executive is an option, but that option will not be exercised by either Sinn Fein or the DUP, as far as I can foresee. In effect, what is required is the political equivalent of a civil partnership between the two major parties.
Here, Sinn Fein seems to have a point, given the party's assertion that it is treated with disrespect by the DUP in general and Arlene Foster in particular, whose diet doesn't seem to include humble pie.
The point is, I think, that no matter how artfully and elegantly the devolved institutions are designed and reformed, what matters as much, if not more, is the spirit that animates the MLAs who inhabit them. Are they genuinely co-operative and consensual, or confrontational and obstructive? That spirit cannot be legislated for, but rather springs from a commitment to the principles that lie at the core of the Good Friday Agreement.
In turn, it means that party leaders, especially at the top, must demonstrate that they value equality, tolerance, diversity, transparency and mutual respect. Without the internalisation of those values, a carefully crafted architecture is insufficient unto the day.
In the interim, what can we expect? An election (even a second) looks unavoidable, as do lengthy inter-party talks. To fill the space voided by a failure to establish an Executive in the wake of the election(s) and the subsequent negotiations, direct rule from London would be the only viable alternative, even though the Government is understandably reluctant to take that step - not least because it would require fresh legislation at Westminster to suspend devolution and put in place a direct rule regime.
Will it be direct rule as we have known it, or the greener form threatened, or promised, depending on one's own view, by Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern in 2006? What there won't be is joint sovereignty by London and Dublin. The constitutional nightmare it would create, let alone the political ramifications that would be engendered, render it no more than a piece of wishful thinking.
If a more orthodox form of direct rule is restored, led from London with a consultative role for Dublin, expect an expanded team of NIO ministers, legislation determined by the House of Commons and scrutiny of the entire Northern Ireland administration, expenditure and policy, undertaken by the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee - a role it will find too heavy to bear effectively. In short, Northern Ireland will be shunted into the margins of the Westminster system.
We are looking at a period of considerable uncertainty that an election, by itself, is unlikely to resolve. Indeed, it could aggravate it. Meantime, we will encounter significant opportunity costs: neither an agreed budget, nor programme for government and, crucially, no agreed Brexit strategy for Northern Ireland.
The seats at whatever table our politicians might otherwise occupy to participate in Brexit discussions will be vacated and we will have to rely on Mr Brokenshire. Could he, in those circumstances, prove to be Northern Ireland's voice (itself divided) at Westminster and Whitehall, or the UK Government's voice in Belfast?
Direct rule is an impoverished response to our current crisis, but it may be necessary in the short-term. Inter-party talks are essential, but it seems unwise to convene them alongside what is likely to be a fraught election campaign. They need either to begin before an election, or in its aftermath.
If the former path is taken and they succeed, an election may be avoidable. If, however, they follow a brutal campaign, don't hold your breath for a quick fix.
Our political system requires invasive - not cosmetic - surgery and attitudinal change, not least by the DUP.
Dr Rick Wilford is professor of politics at the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen's University, Belfast