Belfast Telegraph

Stop soft-shoeing and demand a full reshuffle

The SDLP's attitude to the Justice portfolio is illogical. The party deserves the 11th Executive seat and must be prepared to fight to get it, says Malachi O'Doherty

There is a serious flaw in the SDLP's response to the process devised for the appointment of a Justice Minister: they don't agree with it, but they want to go along with it.

The party reasons, simply, that the next ministerial position - the 11th seat at the Executive table - is its own. That is correct.

If the de Hondt process was being run from the top, with a Justice Ministry included, the SDLP would get one more department than it currently has.. There is no possibility, however, that that 11th seat would be Justice.

Justice would be snapped up earlier by one of the larger parties.

But the SDLP has a legitimate complaint that the deal between Sinn Fein and the DUP not to run de Hondt and not to take the Justice Ministry deprives them of an Executive seat.

It is a gerrymander and it is discrimination against the community which votes for the SDLP.

What the SDLP might reasonably be demanding now is that the de Hondt process be run again when the Justice Ministry is ready.

It is perfectly normal for a government to reshuffle when a new minstry is created.

Why not a reshuffle in Stormont?

But that would force the two big parties to face the reality of the problem that created this mess in the first place: that neither can trust the other with the Justice Ministry.

That is why they have opted to let someone else take it and their preference, we understand, is that it should be someone from the Alliance Party.

The Alliance Party, sensibly, is amenable to taking Justice if it can exact a price for its collusion in this gerrymander.

And it should be a high price, too.

It will include the advancing of the Shared Future policy, to reduce sectarianism in Northern Ireland. Fine.

But the SDLP has a real grievance here. It is being deprived of a seat at the Executive table and has a right to demand that seat and to oppose this plan to give Justice to Alliance.

It is also, however, faced with the difficulty that, if it brings down that plan, it will also bring down the Executive.

If it forces the running of de Hondt, and a scramble for Justice between Sinn Fein and the DUP, it may create an Executive that won't sit.

But that will lay bare the simple fact that Sinn Fein and the DUP don't trust each other and, as they acknowledge themselves, are not ready to take on the full responsibilities that naturally fall to them as the senior parties in the Executive.

Sometimes it's good to have these things out in the open.

The SDLP, if it responds rationally in opposition to the gerrymander, risks crashing all of devolution, by exposing its vulnerability.

And presumably it has reasoned that it doesn't want to do that, denying the logic of its own position as emphatically as the two big parties have denied themselves the policing and justice portfolio.

They are all, in their own separate ways, saying, 'Lord, I am not worthy . . .'. But, heroic as such self-effacing behaviour may feel to the leaders of the SDLP, the alternative they have chosen looks ridiculous to everyone else.

They cannot reasonably demand the Justice Ministry, because they would not have got it had de Hondt been run.

They should change tack now and demand the re-running of de Hondt and they should be prepared to assert a legal challenge in their demand for it.

It is an outrage that the SDLP is denied an Executive seat as a price to be paid for a patch over the mistrust between the DUP and Sinn Fein and they should not accede to it in any way.

The SDLP was born out of the demand for civil rights and they should remember that.

And if the running of de Hondt according to the procedures agreed in the Good Friday Agreement produces a crisis, well, let them sort that out afterwards.

If the DUP and Sinn Fein decline to nominate for the Justice Ministry and it falls to the Ulster Unionists, then well and good.

The Agreement will have been defended, and that is what counts most.

Or, at least, it is what should count most to the SDLP who devised it.

Currently, the SDLP is both playing along with the DUP-Sinn Fein plan and whingeing about it as well, by nominating a candidate for the Justice ministry.

The alternative takes courage of a type they may no longer have: it is to insist on the running of de Hondt, or to declare the two big parties who refuse that to be in breach of the Good Friday Agreement.

The SDLP should then refuse to sit at the Executive table with them; to go into Opposition.

They'd be good at that.

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