Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Polls apart at Stormont

With tensions between Sinn Fein and the DUP close to breaking point, we asked three leading commentators for their predictions for the future of the Executive if agreement can't be reached

David Gordon's View Now I know us plain folks don't see all the story." This line from Paul Brady's famous Troubles song The Island comes to mind over the current Stormont stalemate.

What's going on up there is about much more than the devolution of policing and justice powers.

In fact, it appears to have nothing to do with the actual delivery of law and order services to the public.

It's about two parties indulging in power-play and blame-game politics, jockeying for advantage and symbolic victories in their uneasy coalition.

This is a risky game for them both, and not just because it could cause a total stalemate or even collapse of the Executive.

A full breakdown of devolution cannot be ruled out. That could lead to an election or a period of suspension with fresh inter-party negotiations.

Good luck to anyone who suggests that MLAs should again be paid during a suspension.

In the wake of all the expenses scandals, that would create more anger than the actual loss of the Assembly.

It seems unlikely that Sinn Fein is going to get a date for devolution of policing powers before Christmas. Having determinedly talked up this deadline, it cannot let it pass without taking some retaliatory action.

We will know soon enough.

There is now a general risk of Assembly politics being brought into further disrepute.

The public mood about devolution is already not exactly euphoric.

More infighting and showdowns will only add to perceptions of a dysfunctional Executive.

Individual parties may complain that such a verdict is unfair. They can work away on "fashioning narratives" about how it's all the other side's fault.

But many of "us plain folks" are likely to spread the blame around and simply say: "A plague on all your houses."

It remains to be seen whether the Stormont political class will wake up to this fact.

Politicians here have become used to plying their trade well away from the gaze of voters.

There have been negotiations in late-night sessions, sometimes even in secluded stately homes across the water. And historic agreements have been struck, full of "creative ambiguity" that allowed parties to interpret them in very different ways to their supporters.

Against this background, it's maybe not a big surprise that a gulf may have opened up between the political class and the public.

The European Election result here in June was a headline-grabber because of the support the DUP lost to Jim Allister.

However, there was another important story there when the votes were counted.

Turnout had slumped by almost 9% to 42.8%.

That should have served as a warning about disenchantment.

It's only fair to point out that Assembly politicians work long and hard at their job. There are doubtless countless examples of devolution having delivered more responsive government than direct rule at local level.

However, the bigger picture has not been inspiring to date.

Expecting a coalition to work together in a spirit of collective responsibility may seem naive to those in the know.

But it's what many people thought they were getting when devolution returned in 2007.

David Gordon is the Belfast Telegraph’s investigations correspondent and author of The Fall of the House of Paisley (Gill and Macmillan)

Chris Donnelly's View

The showdown at Stormont is necessary as Sinn Fein has exhausted its initial, preferred Stormont strategy of holding fire and tongue in the early post-St Andrews era to provide the DUP with space.

The risks in that strategy were to become apparent very soon: providing the DUP with the opportunity to turn inches of manoeuvring room into miles of such space proved too irresistible.

The options for Sinn Fein aren't without risk.

McGuinness can resign and hope to set the stage for new Assembly elections, though it is unlikely the British Government would rush into setting the date for a new election, instead holding out for the prospect of a process leading to resolution whilst the electoral composition of the Assembly remains relatively uncomplicated.

Another option would be a return of the Executive lock-out strategy of the summer of 2008, though the fact that this tactic ultimately failed to deliver the first time around would be a considerable disincentive to repeat.

But perhaps a third option may prove the most promising for republicans.

Having almost universally been acknowledged as having abided by the spirit of St Andrews and, much to the consternation of the DUP and their supporters, been widely viewed as having already been pushed to the limit by an unbending DUP, Sinn Fein should perhaps be aggressively seeking what Sepp Blatter of FIFA recently characterised as "moral compensation" as the price for continuing to indulge the DUP over the devolution delay. (The FIFA president was, of course, referring to another matter when he coined that phrase.)

What is required from the republican leadership is a clear strategy to force the British and Irish governments to outline the price to be paid for the DUP not playing ball.

The key is to make the DUP realise, as in St Andrews, that the price of not proceeding with the completion of the devolution process is more costly than continuing to play the role of the obstructionist.

Chris Donnelly is a blogger and former Sinn Fein council candidate

Fair Deal's View

If Peter Robinson had a moment to reflect on the recent behaviour of Sinn Fein he could enjoy a wry smile. It has become clear over the period of devolution that Sinn Fein's mastery of politics was a myth. Their 'success' was based on Blair's generosity, not their skills. Furthermore the way the St Andrews Agreement is constructed, unionism holds the cards not republicanism.

This has reduced SF to doing a 'Trimble'. They failed to negotiate what they told their grassroots they had. When this failure became apparent they blamed everyone else to mask their own mistakes.

Whether their threats mean a showdown or not, time will tell, but the basis for a crisis certainly is a sham.

For all the chuckling, little happened on policing and justice under Paisley.

It was under Robinson that there was practical action in keeping with the DUP manifesto commitment to devolve those powers - agreement on a mechanism to appoint a minister, safeguards on the judicial appointments, the identification of an attorney general, a strong financial package secured, the legislation to create a department passed and nominations sought for the ministry.

The core political problem the DUP has in terms of policing and justice is not the TUV's objections, but the public's disillusionment with devolution.

This is strongest among unionists and why Robinson can only spare a moment or two for a smile.

There are three curious things about the present problems.

First that SF has chosen to do a Trimble. It makes them look weak. In electoral terms it is unnecessary as they face no threat.

The second is the refusal to negotiate. The easiest means to get a date for policing and justice is to deal to get it.

SF won't do it and have been actually making it harder - eg backing off the cross-community Ashdown report on parades.

The final curiosity is that fulfilling their threat will only waste time, not change the issues.

Sinn Fein may quit the Executive table, but when they return to the negotiating table the exact same issues will be waiting for them - regardless of the results of an Assembly election.

‘Fair Deal’ is a pro-unionist blogger





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