Belfast Telegraph

Bleak times ahead if Northern Ireland's parties don't hit the road to agreement

By Liam Clarke

While the parties lumber squabbling toward talks, we know the odds, but we don't know the truth. The odds are that, if everyone is as good as their word, Stormont will collapse; yet there are no real excuses for failure.

As Martin McGuinness said on Tuesday, retrieving the situation would take political leadership. The problem is that leadership cannot just be about defending your friends and former allies and blaming others if things go wrong. Leadership means taking responsibility, working with people and taking decisions.

The responsibility for the present impasse lies largely with the DUP and Sinn Fein. These two parties have 67 out of the 108 seats between them. All they have to do to make something happen is to agree on it.

The current crisis was a long time building. The Kevin McGuigan murder and the welfare row are the proximate causes; they could be the final straws that break the camel's back.

The deeper roots of the crisis lie in the long-term refusal to agree on difficult issues, the unwillingness of their leaderships to face down internal opposition and the unwillingness to disappoint supporters by compromising a principle.

Real political alliances are built by parties who patiently set out their 10 most important principles and then try to cut them down to six or seven in order to get a deal that will last.

The smaller parties at Stormont haven't always made life easy for the big battalions, but who would expect them to? They are in office but not in control.

Whether the UUP, SDLP and Alliance are called an Opposition or not, they are essentially makeweights and their ministers are frequently overruled.

The UUP, in particular, was a fig leaf to protect the DUP from the charge that it was the only unionist party in government with Sinn Fein.

From the point of view of the smaller parties, it is a struggle, often an impossible one, to get things on the Executive agenda. That requires the approval of both the DUP and Sinn Fein who can agree on very little except keeping the other parties in their place.

It is also obvious that, if Stormont survives until the next election in May, then the smaller parties will have to go head to head with the bigger ones.

It is harder to criticise an administration's record and say what you would do differently if you had been part of it all along.

A situation where parties in government don't vote for a Budget and still carry on in government is a farce which we shouldn't try to sustain.

The only way to get out of this impasse is intensive talks. It might be ideal to have had the Assembly suspended or adjourned during the talks, but the fact is that is just coming out its summer recess. We were told that negotiations were going on through that period, but there seems to be no concrete product.

Would a further suspension help? Why did they not use the one that is just passed more productively?

One thing is for sure: any reduction in Assembly activity would best be agreed. The DUP have threatened "unilateral action" if the Assembly reopens on Monday to ensure that it is no "business as usual".

They won't say what that means until they hear again from the Prime Minister on whether he will suspend the Assembly, but the odds are he won't.

Doing so would provoke a reaction from Sinn Fein and the SDLP that would make a resolution in a few weeks of talks impossible.

The DUP could stop attending the Executive, something that would make decision-making very difficult. The Executive did not meet between June 19, 2008 and November 20, 2008 due to a boycott by Sinn Fein over the devolution of policing and justice powers.

That is one way of gumming up the works and there are others. But is it worth taking on these side battles when there are so many more problems to be tackled?

Guerrilla warfare in the Assembly would create an even worse atmosphere for talks on the future. The parties need to sit down and responsibly agree a workload which may include a reduction in the Assembly's role during talks. That would be a start on the road to agreement and, if they don't make it, then things look bleak.

Belfast Telegraph


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