The Stormont love-in is over, so who backs who?
Ructions and rows in the Assembly have exposed confusion over ministerial roles, and the thorny question of party-politics within the Executive is yet to be resolved, says DC Shiels
Since the new Executive and Assembly took power several months ago, Northern Ireland and Northern Irish politics have almost disappeared from the news agenda in Britain and in the rest of the world. This is as it should be. The new Assembly has done little of any major significance, and even the two mini- crises that have been dominating the headlines here over the past few weeks have failed to generate much interest elsewhere.
The first was the controversy surrounding the Causeway Visitor Centre. When it emerged that the frontrunner in the battle for this lucrative contract was a DUP supporter (Mr Sweeney), many political commentators geared themselves up for a juicy showdown. They were soon disappointed when there was no apparent wrong-doing. Similarly, when Peter Robinson engaged in a very public spat with his ministerial colleague, Margaret Ritchie, the chattering classes looked forward to a major confrontation between the parties, or at least thought they would see the new Assembly's first resignation. Instead, we got an undignified round of name-calling.
It seems that the Northern Irish politico, then, will have to make do without a Dublin-style tribunal or one of the media-induced resignations which were so typical of the Blair era in London.
However, those who believe that the two incidents were nothing more than a couple of storms- in-a-teacup are far mistaken. In each case, the actions of the relevant ministers revealed widespread confusion about their precise roles and responsibilities.
Unfortunately, the system established by the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement, requires of its Ministers a level of political talent and skill with which few of our own politicians are equipped. They must balance their responsibilities as party politicians with a degree of loyalty and responsibility towards the Executive as a whole.
When defending herself against any impropriety in relation to her decision about the Causeway Centre, Mrs Foster claimed that she had not been aware of Mr Sweeney's connections with the DUP. This was something which she repeated in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph last week: "I have not had any meetings with Dr Paisley or Ian jnr and I was not aware they were supporting Seymour Sweeney in his application."
In this way, Mrs Foster distanced herself from her own party. It was as though she presumed that the goings-on within the DUP have no bearing upon how she performs as a minister and that she was absolved from taking any responsibility for the activities of her own party.
That assumption cannot be right. Government ministers, in most countries are, by their very nature, partisan: they have fought elections on a party ticket and enter into government on that basis. Ministers in Northern Ireland are no different. They are not expected to conduct the business of government as neutral arbiters, loftily removed from party divisions. Indeed, the whole point of the current system is to ensure that all the major parties are represented within the Executive. But the special arrangements here means that ministers do have a particular duty to ensure that they do not abuse their position for party advantage. Mrs Foster sits as a DUP minister, and must make it her business to ensure that her decisions cannot be tainted in any way.
Perhaps Mrs Foster's defence of her position might have been more acceptable had it been clear that she was bound by collective responsibility towards a united and coherent Executive. But the illusion of such an executive was soon shattered when Peter Robinson launched his bitter attack on Executive colleague Margaret Ritchie.
Few people would deny that the DUP came out of this affair badly. Most seemed to agree with Mrs Ritchie's decision and, indeed, the DUP did not actually oppose it. (Sinn Fein, it seemed, did not want to upset the DUP and fudged the issue.)
Yet, while Mr Robinson showed himself to be abrasive, Margaret Ritchie's response to the DUP was not entirely satisfactory. She may or may not be right about the legality of her position (although she did not seem very sure), but she is surely wrong to insist that the decision was hers alone.
Her claim that she was being bullied by Mr Robinson gave the impression that her biggest concern was not giving in to the DUP. While this revealed an admirable tenacity, it also revealed the absurdity of the enforced nature of the governing coalition. If she cannot co-operate with the DUP on a relatively minor decision, how does she hope to continue her position for several years to come?
Ministers might be expected to be partisan, but on this occasion Mrs Ritchie was almost too partisan. She cannot hope to sway the decisions of the DUP by adopting a combative approach, in the way that she might had she entered into a voluntary coalition with the DUP. In such coalitions, after all, smaller parties have the whip hand over the larger parties: if the junior partner is unhappy, it can threaten to pull out of the partnership and bring about a premature end to the life of the Government. Mrs Ritchie does not have this luxury. The DUP know that if she resigned from the Government, the SDLP would in all likelihood appoint another minister to replace her.
There is, however, reason for the SDLP to take heart from the latest episode. Mrs Ritchie did strike a chord with public opinion. She also gained the support of the UUP, whose leader, Sir Reg Empey, realised (albeit rather belatedly) that his party was also threatened by the actions of the DUP and Sinn Fein. Acting together, the two smaller parties could present their larger rivals with a much more formidable challenge. If they threatened to leave the Executive together, there could be an irresistible case for changing the present d'Hondt arrangements. As it is, the SDLP MLAs are left in the invidious position of rallying to the support of 'their' minister, while finding it increasingly difficult to support the rest of the Executive. This is not how it was all meant to be.