Belfast Telegraph

SDLP, Alliance and UUP should show some courage and leave the Executive

Ministers can't just vote against the Budget while remaining in Government

It's hardly news that the five parties in the Executive disagree. It happens with our coalition in Belfast, and it happens with the coalitions in London and Dublin. 

But, there is an important difference. One of the responsibilities placed on any party in a governing coalition is to support government policy - especially when it is regarding the fundamental issues.

So, for example, disagreement over opening hours for pubs is something that a coalition can live with. Open disagreement about the Budget, however, is radically different. This goes to the very heart of what a government does - spending the money of taxpayers. 

Three of the five parties in the Northern Ireland Executive have come out against the Executive's Budget. In any other political system, these parties would automatically know what is required of them - to go into opposition.

The Budget is not a minor issue.  It's not just another disagreement.  Alliance, SDLP and UUP have signalled that they are opposed to the very core of the Executive's policies.  They have every right to vote against the Budget.  But to do so while remaining in government is both cowardly and reckless.

It does make you wonder about exactly why they remain in government.  Human nature being human nature, the Ministers from these parties have no doubt got used to the privilege of ministerial office.  Power, staff, private office, ministerial car - yes, it can be hard to walk away from this.

However, if a seat on the Executive is not to be anything more than a vanity project, these Ministers and their parties have to live up to their responsibilities as members of the coalition that is the Executive.  It would require political courage for these Ministers and parties to vote for a difficult budget.  But this is precisely what membership of any governing coalition is about.  It's not about the power, the staff, the private offices and the ministerial cars.  It is about taking tough decisions and standing by them.

On the other hand, if your opposition to the Budget is principled, rather than opportunistic, you show the public that you are not regarding Ministerial office as a vanity project.  You leave the Executive.  You openly tell the people of Northern Ireland that you don't support the Budget and that you have the courage and conviction required to go into Opposition.

And that is what is missing - courage and conviction.  Four Ministers and their parties are telling voters that ministerial seats are more important than political conviction.  They want the privilege of Ministerial office without the responsibility.

This is where the debate profoundly damages politics in Northern Ireland.  The actions of the minor parties - UUP, SDLP, Alliance - mean that they believe that dysfunctional politics is perfectly fine.  Having an Executive divided on the key, fundamental issue of the Budget, we are being told, is what Northern Ireland has to put up with.

Even as public confidence in Stormont bleeds away, fed up with the delay, division and dysfunction in the Executive, the minor parties are saying that delay, division and dysfunction are what we have to get used to. 

The irony, of course, is that in the long-run this damages the UUP and SDLP.  If (admittedly a big if) they ever become the lead parties in a future Executive, they have given a blank cheque to the DUP and Sinn Fein to perpetuate the delay, division and dysfunction.  Any future UUP and SDLP First Ministers will have to accept that, because of their own parties' actions, the DUP and Sinn Fein will have the right to continue the delay, division and dysfunction in Stormont.  And so the cycle of broken, dysfunctional politics will continue, with more and more voters cynical and switched off.

There is an alternative.  It is for the SDLP, Alliance and UUP to show some courage and conviction by leaving the Executive - an Executive that they are in disagreement with over the very heart of its policy.  Leave and join those of us who sit on the opposition benches.  Give voters a real choice.  Show that politics is about more than a vanity project.  Surely Northern Ireland deserves much better than another cycle of dysfunctional government?

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