Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: More dark days in Assembly, but future brightens for Boris after he puts indecisive Corbyn in corner

Bitter personal relationships have paralysed devolved government, and at Westminster the PM has given opponents a body swerve, writes Alban Maginness

SDLP members after walking out of the Assembly chamber during last week’s debate
SDLP members after walking out of the Assembly chamber during last week’s debate
Alban Maginness

By Alban Maginness

The well-intentioned recall of the Assembly on October 21, spearheaded by Baroness Nuala O'Loan and backed by the wider pro-life movement, to oppose and theoretically prevent the introduction of a draconian abortion law to Northern Ireland ended in a disappointing and unnecessarily bitter fall-out between the SDLP and the DUP.

While both parties are pro-life and are opposed to the imposition by Westminster of an extreme abortion regime here, they failed to agree a way forward.

The DUP tried in vain to oppose the abortion change by attempting to introduce a Private Member's Bill onto the floor of the Assembly. This was ruled out of order by Speaker Robin Newton on foot of legal advice he received on this novel procedural move by the DUP.

The SDLP then abruptly and bizarrely walked out of the Assembly chamber because they claimed that they were being pushed into a shadow Assembly by the DUP through the election of a new Speaker.

The simple truth is that there was no understanding nor trust between the SDLP and the DUP, even on the common ground of opposing abortion. If there had been trust, then this unseemly row in the chamber would never have occurred. These dispiriting events are a grim reminder that politics here are fundamentally broken and may never be repaired within the Assembly's current mandate.

None of these events did anything to lift the low reputation of a paralysed democratic institution, which offers much but has contributed little to our broken and conflicted society.

While those who attended the recall sadly couldn't agree common ground, those parties that absented themselves equally failed to add anything positive to the standing of the Assembly and the battered reputation of our politicians. The Assembly has become a graveyard of broken relationships.

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Given a multiplicity of divisive issues, not least Brexit, there is no prospect of positive political engagement happening.

And there is no sense of even a modicum of goodwill being present in current political discourse. All one can detect is distrust, nastiness and thoroughly bad interpersonal relationships.

Meanwhile, Westminster continues to display its own unique, though more decorous and occasionally surreal dysfunctionality. But despite all the parliamentary chaos and instability, Boris Johnson as Prime Minister has shown considerable cleverness and skill in outwitting the combined opposition of Labour, Liberal Democrats and assorted Conservative independents by reaching a palatable deal with the EU and thereby confounding those that believed he did not intend to do so, believing instead that he wished for a no-deal Brexit.

Collaterally, with ruthless inevitability, Boris and his fellow Tory Brexiteers betrayed the DUP, leaving them dangerously angry and feeling very sore.

He also surprisingly won approval in principle for the Brexit Bill at second reading, though he failed to get its accelerated passage through the House of Commons, thereby causing him to pause the whole process and threaten a general election.

But above all he has skilfully ambushed the Labour leader and his party by offering to amply extend the consideration stages of the Brexit Bill, so as to satisfy their demands for greater scrutiny of the Bill, but in exchange for a general election on December 12. This caught Labour on the hop and split their parliamentary party.

But even though Boris lost the parliamentary vote on a December general election on Monday evening, the issue has not disappeared.

It is now clear that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has run out of road and has been forced to publicly support a general election during December.

His hand has been forced by the Government moving a short Bill to circumvent the Fixed Term Parliament Act and the open support for an early election by the Liberal Democrats and the SNP, who stand to gain most from an early election.

The problem for Labour is that they know that Boris goes into a general election mightily armed with a Brexit deal. Boris can boast that he has achieved what he said he would do, albeit not within the October 31 deadline. By comparison, the indecisive Jeremy Corbyn goes into the election naked and unarmed, because he has no alternative to Boris Johnson's Brexit deal to offer the British electorate, who, sick of the present mess, are madly keen to get Brexit settled once and for all.

Whereas before his Liverpool summit with Leo Vardakar and his subsequent agreement with Brussels, Johnson was seen to be weak and faltering, he has been rejuvenated with the achievement of a final transition deal being dangled tantalisingly before the eyes of a fed-up British public.

What a remarkable reversal of roles, with an indecisive Jeremy Corbyn now on the back foot, faced with the inevitability of a damaging general election.

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