Swashbuckling Sir Reg finally delivers a shot across the bows
No matter how much positive spin is placed on the transfer of policing and justice powers to Stormont, concerns remain. Will what has not worked in the past be any better in the future?
This column has constantly criticised the ineffectiveness of the current Stormont Executive. Therefore, it would be totally hypocritical not to commend the Ulster Unionist Party in its stand last week and the increasingly outspoken attitude of the SDLP about the Executive's failure to govern.
Perhaps, as a result of 17 rebel unionist MLAs, real democracy in Northern Ireland is just a tad closer. No politician could continue to be abused and ignored as have the UUP and SDLP ministers during the lifetime of the current Executive even though they are supposed to be part of a team.
The most striking example is the constant ridicule of Michael McGimpsey in his position as Health Minister. However, the other two non-DUP/Sinn Fein ministers, Margaret Ritchie and Sir Reg Empey, are also treated derisorily from time to time.
Enough is enough. It is not before time that both the UUP and SDLP flexed their muscles. In so doing, they have afforded us all a better choice at the Westminster election in a few weeks' time.
We are not privy as to what was actually said or what frighteners were put on the Ulster Unionist leader by George W Bush, Hillary Clinton, Shaun Woodward, Gordon Brown and even David Cameron, but I'm glad Reg Empey had the courage of his convictions to stand up to them.
Every one of them should know by now he and Margaret Ritchie - as well as most objective observers - have reminded us time and again about the Stormont Executive's considerable failings. Someone needed to take a principled stand against the abuse of power-sharing. We spent a generation waiting for the moment when the DUP would wise up and the republican movement would stop its violence. Unfortunately, few of us envisaged these two organisations, which had done so much to deny us a shared future over 30 years, would become the joint chief stewards of Stormont.
Having thankfully discarded their berets and masks and won international renown for their new-found generosity of spirit and belated camaraderie, what have the DUP and Sinn Fein done since? Treated the two parties who made it all possible like political pariahs and stymied agreement on virtually any matter of substance for Northern Ireland.
Ask why Northern Ireland does not have a decent national sports stadium, but does have a magnificent vacant lot where the Maze prison once stood.
Ask why one of the most fundamental requirements of any society - the education of our children - is a shambles.
Ask why in the middle of the worst recession in most of our living memories, the First and Deputy First Minister did not have an Executive meeting for five-and-a-half months.
Ask why the London and Dublin governments spent two long weeks at Hillsborough attempting not only to sort out the policing and justice issue, but belatedly to address the mess in which the Executive found itself.
Against that background, the Ulster Unionist action in voting against the policing and justice proposals was a legitimate healthy protest.
It was not destructive to the point of collapsing the Executive. On the contrary, it was merely a means of firing a shot across the bows of our pirate ship of state.
Regrettably, the SDLP did not follow the UUP's lead. If the two parties had acted in unison they would have sent out a powerful message to the community at large and to Washington, London and Dublin. Nevertheless, that message was expressed succinctly in Margaret Ritchie's own words during the policing and justice debate when she said: "There is little integrity in this process and it will ultimately unravel."
No doubt London is relieved. Almost 38 years to the day since Brian Faulkner's unionist government fell and relinquished control of policing and justice, the DUP/Sinn Fein axis at Stormont has regained these powers. However, it remains to be seen what fist David Ford makes of being Policing and Justice Minister. He will need all our good wishes.
It would do Mr Ford no harm at all to have his cards marked by Messrs McGimpsey, Empey and Ritchie, on the lack of team spirit and conviviality they have encountered to date and what he might expect in the months ahead when he joins the Executive.
We must all hope that the Hillsborough deal, followed by the transfer of policing and justice, will spell a new, more progressive future for the Executive and Assembly. On the evidence to date, neither the Democratic Unionists nor Sinn Fein has redeemed themselves and they have little reason to be self-congratulatory.
The opportunity exists in the Westminster election for the community at large to express its judgment. There is now clear daylight between the frustrations expressed by the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP and the dominant forces of the DUP and Sinn Fein.
If radio phone-ins and newspaper letters columns reflect public opinion, then there appears to be a huge reservoir of annoyance and apathy over political life as we have come to know it at Stormont.
The forthcoming Westminster poll could prove to be a referendum on public confidence in the Stormont Executive. We should relish the prospect.