Belfast Telegraph

Yes, it's politics but not as we know it with DUP and Sinn Fein who used to tear strips off each other

It seems strange that two parties who used to tear strips off each other now have no criticism to level even on serious matters, like the RIH controversy or Brian Stack murder

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Voters in Northern Ireland right now must be feeling like Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz, gazing round at the strange new political landscape that suddenly surrounds them and saying: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.”

Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams is in the fight of his life over his handling of questions about another murder, this time the 1983 shooting in Dublin of prison officer Brian Stack — but the DUP is curiously tight lipped about the whole affair.

Arlene Foster faces serious questions about her handling of a controversial heating scheme which could end up costing taxpayers £400m, and which some say might even threaten her position as First Minister — but Sinn Fein apparently has nothing to say on this matter either.

What happened to the days when the two main parties wasted no opportunity to tear strips out of one another, leaping on every blunder in an effort to undermine the other?

 Now they seem to have come to a sort of unwritten “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” compact whereby they turn the blindest of blind eyes to one another’s failings.

Voters are like the children of bickering parents realising that mummy and daddy are no longer quarrelling. Is it because they’ve kissed and made up, or are they just so tired of the in-fighting that they no longer care what the other says and does?

Arguably, we shouldn’t complain if the DUP and SF have decided to swallow past and even current distastes and work in tandem.

This was where devolution was supposed to lead, right? Two historical rivals working together for what they consider the common good?

But what if they’re working together for their own interests rather than for ours? What then?

One of the problems of politics in Northern Ireland is that everything is judged in comparison with what went before, and what went before was civil conflict on such a terrible scale and at such a great cost that going back to it doesn’t bear thinking about.

Even compared to the recent past, with frequent suspension of Stormont and re-imposition of direct rule, the current cessation of hostilities might feel like a blessed relief.

Devolution has been one false dawn after another, and we can’t expect a limitless supply of fresh chances to get this right.

We live in an uncertain world. Brexit and Donald Trump’s election proved that none of the old certainties about politics can be relied upon any longer. We can’t always be depending on outsiders, either in Westminster or Washington, to solve our problems. Northern Ireland has to be ready to stand on its own two feet, however shakily.

But at what point are we allowed to move beyond a simplistic analysis which says “well, at least this is better than the Troubles” to one that admits: “Isn’t the present situation just a teensy bit odd, if not downright unnatural?”

The current rapprochement might be a nice holiday from perpetual rancour, but normal politics cannot be deferred for ever, otherwise we might as well give up engaging with the political system altogether and just accept that there will be effective one party rule for decades to come.

Whether that party calls itself by two names, and on paper has divergent long-term aims, makes no difference.

If it looks like one party government, and quacks like one party government, then that’s what it is, with all the perils that such a system of unchallenged rule entails.

That includes a tendency to mistake the ruling elite’s interests as being interchangeable with those of the country, and an increasingly stagnant air of mediocrity and corruption. The signs are there that this is exactly what’s happening in Stormont. SF poses as the champion of the little people against the establishment, but, first on Charter NI’s loyalist underbelly and now on Arlene Foster’s handling of problems with the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, they’ve reverted to type, hiding behind the faithful old slogan: ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’.

The First Minister insists that she did nothing wrong during her brief stint as Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister.

She was alerted to possible abuses of the scheme by a whistleblower and said that she passed on those concerns to officials.

Her line is that whatever happened to the complaint subsequently is none of her responsibility.

It’s a defensible position, though it suggests a rather narrow, legalistic definition view of one’s duties as a public representative; but there’s no doubt that SF would be demanding more complete answers if it was not sharing a bed with the DUP.

The result of their silence is that Foster may well be able to hunker down and sit this one out, as appears to be her intention, which will make the First Minister less accountable than former Secretaries of State, who rarely got a free pass from other parties in this way.

What are republican and nationalist voters meant to make of the party for whom they overwhelmingly vote basically shutting its eyes to the mistakes (or possibly worse) of Democratic Unionist ministers?

The same, presumably, as DUP voters feel when they see their MLAs, who’ve long posed as the guardians of law and order, helpfully averting their gaze as Gerry Adams flounders in another political sewer of his own making.

SF has to juggle conflicting demands. Being in government in one jurisdiction, and in opposition in another, doesn’t make for an easy life. Pinning down Arlene Foster may be low on the current list of priorities.

The DUP, likewise, might prefer to ignore the crisis in SF south of the border in the hope that any contamination does not spread north.   

But let’s not pretend this is a normalisation of politics. It’s not. It’s abnormalisation. Democrats should be able to stand a little criticism from within and without, otherwise they become autocrats, however well meaning.

Working class nationalist voters in West Belfast have been quickest to recognise those dangers, by electing Gerry O’Carroll of People Before Profit top of the poll at the last Assembly elections.

It was a shot across the bows of the new SF/DUP establishment, but there was a message there for the opposition too — namely, that if there is going to be any semblance of normal politics in Northern Ireland, then the responsibility largely lies with them to bring it about.

The Executive will protect and serve itself. It might think it’s doing so for all the right reasons, but the opposition is there to keep the executive honest.

The Ulster Unionists, SDLP, Alliance and others cannot be deterred by accusations that they’re not being “helpful”. It’s not the role of the opposition to be helpful.

It’s their job to hold those in power to account and to demand that they do the right thing. At the very least, that they explain themselves, not hide behind mutually beneficial silence.

This is the opposition’s moment. If they cannot even rise to this challenge, we really are in trouble.

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