Belfast Telegraph

It appears as if the DUP does not to have much time for democracy

By Steven Agnew

I find myself writing to criticise the DUP again. It’s a habit I want to break, but they don’t make it easy. I’m thinking of two cases within the space of a week.

First: Edwin Poots is criticised by Northern Ireland’s most senior judge for comments likely to be 'detrimental to the rule of law'.  You know the story.

Mr Poots had upheld a ban on gay men giving blood, and a judge ruled that decision ‘irrational’.  Mr Poots then said he would not take the matter to the Court of Appeal because the judges might ‘circle their wagons’ against him.  This implication of judicial bias is what moved the judge to deliver his critical judgement.

Second: the DUP themselves circle their wagons around Nelson McCausland to neutralise the threat of a vote in the Assembly over whether he had misled them deliberately or not.  Again, the background is well-known; Mr McCausland claimed to have met the Glass and Glazing Federation about NIHE contracts, when in fact the meeting was with only one company. The DUP successfully blocked the Assembly from passing a critical vote by means of a petition of concern.

The Green Party’s positions on equality and on transparency in politics are well known,  so I'll not repeat them here. What I will address is the underlying problem; the need for greater public scrutiny, as the DUP appear not to have much time for democracy.

Responding to the controversy over Mr Poots, the DUP's Paul Givan warned the judiciary not to get ‘too precious about their status’, adding ‘Politicians ultimately are the lawmakers which the judiciary then need to enforce through the courts’.  Is this the DUP’s understanding of the rule of law?  Politicians, on this reading, are there to lay down the law, judges to act as enforcers.  We call the shots, you make it happen, and don’t get too precious about it.

Well, here is the news: politicians are not above the law.  Not even if they are in a majority – indeed, especially not then.  Otherwise you don’t have a democracy, you have the dictatorship of whoever happens to be elected.  My fear is that the DUP appear not to have understood the difference. 

From the first case, then, they appear to believe their decisions should not be subject to judicial oversight; from the second, they appear not to have much time for political oversight either.  The petition of concern is a device designed to protect minorities: here it appears to have been used to get a Minister off the hook. 

The DUP, with enough seats to trigger this device unilaterally, have form on using it for party political ends – and have form on accusing critics of a ‘witch hunt’.

Sinn Féin's use of Petition of Concern has been tempered only by the fact that they need at least one other party on board to trigger it.

Such partisan use of the law contradicts the spirit of the very law invoked.

Those entrusted with making laws must see it as a privilege and duty exercised on behalf of all the citizens of their jurisdiction – not as a chance to boost their own support-base or protect their own ministers from public scrutiny or censure.

Democracy calls for lawmakers to be subject to the laws they make, and subject to the testing of their decisions in open debate.  Democracy requires both the rule of law and transparency.  What we have seen this week is a party trying to put itself beyond the reach of both.


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