Belfast Telegraph

Stormont poll: Put this mockery of democracy out of its misery right now

The LucidTalk poll results in the Belfast Telegraph are proof the Assembly is a busted flush and should be shut down, argues Alex Kane

It's not often I'm surprised: but I was taken aback by the sheer scale of the public dissatisfaction with the Assembly indicated in yesterday's Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll.

Only 16.1% rated it as either 'good' or 'very good.' Stop! Read that figure again.

Yes, only 16.1% of the electorate believes that the Assembly is fit for purpose. 70% think it is 'not good,' 'bad' or 'very bad'.

Some 14% don't even have an opinion on the question, a pretty damning indication that they don't actually give a stuff one way or the other.

And if that wasn't worrying enough for our politicians (although I've reached the point at which I think they are deaf to public opinion, anyway), there is one other figure which should scare the pants off them: not one single person polled in the 18-24 age group rated the Assembly as 'very good.' And a mere 6% of them rated it as 'good.' A whopping 76% rated it as not good/bad/very bad.

This younger generation is the generation that isn't as heavily influenced by newspapers and mainstream BBC/ITV/Sky news, so they aren't as exposed to what Peter Robinson describes as the "relentless negativity" of that media. In other words, they don't stumble across cynical old hacks like me on a regular basis. Yet they are even more dismissive of the Assembly than their parents and grandparents. Which means that they probably won't be voting anytime soon, either.

The poll points to three very grim realities. Almost half of the potential electorate isn't voting, a trend that will continue; the younger generation-born just before or after 1998-are completely disengaged from local politics; and of those who do vote, the vast majority will vote for continuing polarisation – voting for us-and-them politics rather than genuine co-operation.

We are about to kickstart another talks process (maybe even two, because it isn't entirely clear if the Villiers process is the same as the St Andrews II process proposed by Peter Robinson a few weeks ago). I don't think anyone has any expectation of success or breakthrough. There was no agreement at the end of Haass, which was trying to resolve three issues. That list has now been extended to over a dozen, including reform of the structures themselves, so it's unlikely that a lengthening list improves the chances of a more positive outcome. Indeed, we've probably reached that bizarre moment in the process at which we are trying to prove that nothing is disagreed until everything is disagreed.

My own view is that this phase of the peace/political process is over: which means that there is no point, no point at all, in trying to improve things by doing what we have always done before. This time we need a new and very radical response, a response which may make the parties sit up, take notice, get their act together and finally do something to earn their keep. They need to get one thing drummed into their heads: this process cannot be protected and cossetted forever. It isn't, in fact, too big or too precious to be allowed to collapse. We can live without it. Many people, according to the poll, would be perfectly content without it.

The real problem with the process – and it goes right back to the 1998 Agreement – is that nothing is ever finished. All of the parties know this to be the case, yet it doesn't stop them from adding to the list. Kick it into the long grass. Put it on the back-burner. Send it out for consultation. Come back to it at some point. Consider it at some later stage in some later crisis talks. On and on it goes, piling unresolved problem upon unresolved problem and hoping that we can just bumble along, with politicians grinning like idiots and telling us to stop moaning because "it's better than it used to be".

The original Good Friday Agreement was built on "constructive ambiguity" and Sinn Fein didn't actually sign up to it anyway, insisting that it was just a "staging point" to eventual Irish unity. The St Andrews Agreement knocked down the structures required for authentic co-operation and replaced them with a carve-up between the DUP and Sinn Fein. It was designed to keep top dog politics at the heart of the process, along with a kill-anything-you-don't-like veto for either party to wield at will. Haass I and II delivered nothing, yet managed to raise tensions to new levels. And we've now reached the point at which all of the Executive parties have acknowledged that the collapse of the Assembly is a very distinct possibility. Peter Robinson admits that it isn't working and Sinn Fein says that it is ready for an election.

In the meantime they all seem prepared for a talks process: not because they want to talk, let alone expect anything to come from those talks, but because they think that they have to be seen to be doing something. They want to be able to say, in the event of an early election, "well, we did our best to sort out the mess, but A, B or C weren't willing to show the same degree of courage etc., etc." A talks process against that sort of background is not going to work. It cannot work. No one will give ground on anything if they think an election is just around the corner. They will not be giving any hostages to fortune. My goodness, even David Ford has threatened to resign!

So let me offer a short and brutal approach to a talks process. Suspend the Assembly with immediate effect: let's face it, the Secretary of State can keep things ticking along for a while. Close down the Assembly and constituency offices as well (along with salaries and expenses): there are enough MPs and local councillors to handle day-to-day stuff from constituents.

Make it quite clear that there will be no further election to the Assembly until such times as the parties have agreed a solution to all of the outstanding problems. There is no point reconvening the Assembly if there are still problems which could topple it or produce more stand-offs a few months later. And this process must include making the structures permanently fit for purpose and building in a proper tier of Opposition and accountability

You either make the Assembly fit for purpose and capable of providing effective government, or you close it down. What we have now is a mockery of democracy and a public laughing stock. We need to stop pampering these people and we need to keep them away from Stormont until they have proved that they are capable of doing the job they are paid – very handsomely – to do.

  • Alex Kane is a writer and commentator

Further reading:

Northern Ireland public's appetite for political change is clear 

DUP and Sinn Fein still dominate votes as SDLP and UUP play catch-up

Public don't want politics dominated by Orange march 

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