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Our principled lemmings vote to go over cliff


Alex Attwood

Alex Attwood

Alex Attwood

Bryan Appleyard, the feature writer, once faced calls for his dismissal from the Sunday Times after a report on George Best's funeral in which he described Stormont as an example of fascist architecture.

I wouldn't go that far, but it certainly is an imposing building and has that Central European look to it. It nearly had a dome like the US Capitol, but that was scaled back after the Wall Street crash.

There was no sign of scaling back as the institution hovered on the brink of bankruptcy on Tuesday. Instead, the Assembly was at its Ruritanian best as well-paid MLAs rose to speak about their principles and then stand on those same principles. There was no real debate, just a playing out of positions.

If you don't know, Ruritania was an imaginary country invented by Anthony Hope for his novel The Prisoner Of Zenda. In some ways it is a lot like Northern Ireland - hidebound by tradition, surrounded by more powerful neighbours and riven by ethnic tension. It is full of flummery and people standing on principle.

Ruritania was an absolute monarchy, but our 108 MLAs looked like the logical next step. They lined up like Ruritanian nobles to make impassioned speeches and denounce each other. Some of them were pretty good in isolation, but taken together it was a complete waste of time and effort.

Alex Attwood spoke well and wittily for the SDLP. Unfortunately, he took an hour and 14 minutes doing it - although he knew the result was a foregone conclusion. He knew that as his party had submitted its petition of concern and had no intention of withdrawing it. That was decided at a meeting of SDLP MLAs the previous Friday.

Other speakers were the same, many made effective points, but against a backdrop of futility and hopelessness. It sounded like lemmings debating whether to go over the cliff or go back the way they had come.

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In the end they headed for the cliff with calls for Britain to come in and prevent any mishaps.

It is hard to see how this situation is going to be retrieved. One modest proposal, though, would be to abandon the petition of concern - a device by which 30 MLAs can call for a cross-community vote.

Most MLAs - a majority of 19 votes - backed welfare reform. Without the petition, the SDLP and Sinn Fein could have voted against it, preserving their principled position and it would still have passed.

These petitions were introduced to stop one religious or political community riding roughshod over the other, they were not meant as a general blocking mechanism - something they wouldn't allow even in Ruritania.

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