Belfast Telegraph

All Northern Ireland requires is a dull, plodding government... is that too much to ask?

Our mistake is to think that politics has to be a series of bright new dawns. Give Eilis O'Hanlon humdrum democracy any day

If you'd predicted in May last year that the Executive would collapse eight months later over some overpriced wood pellets, most observers would have said that you were mad. Here we are, though. Following Sinn Fein's refusal to nominate a Deputy First Minister at Stormont yesterday, Secretary of State James Brokenshire announced a dissolution of the Assembly before the end of the month, with an election to follow in early March. How on Earth did we end up here?

Last spring Martin McGuinness was confidently declaring: "We have confounded the sceptics and negative voices as we continue our journey forward." First Minister Arlene Foster, fresh from her own triumph at the polls, was equally hopeful: "There may be hurdles and difficulties along the way, but we stand on the cusp of a new and exciting era for Northern Ireland."

The decision by the Ulster Unionists back then not to take up positions in the Executive also seemed significant. UUP leader Mike Nesbitt certainly thought so, calling his creation of the first official Opposition in the Assembly "a new era for devolved politics at Stormont, and a big, bold step forward to normal democracy for Northern Ireland".

Finally, the Executive was going to be held to account from within. There were even some, bless them, who felt that the return of 50% more female MLAs than before would change the culture of Stormont. How wrong we all were.

But perhaps the omens were there from the start. The drop in the nationalist vote cast a shadow over Sinn Fein that the republican party never quite shook off. The party's traditional supporters were already dissatisfied at the lack of progress, as they saw it, so further frustration was never going to play well.

The SDLP's decision to join the UUP in Opposition also meant that Sinn Fein was faced with a challenge within nationalism for the first time in a long time. There may be a rancid whiff of opportunism about the SDLP's sudden conversion to testosterone-fuelled green rhetoric, but, crucially, there were now forces in the Assembly with a vested interest in its failure. That was new, all right.

With the SDLP repeatedly mocking Sinn Fein for playing second fiddle to Foster and People Before Profit outflanking it from the Left, there was only so much that republicans could take before something had to give.

Sharing power with a rampant DUP only made matters more difficult. Foster had gone into the polls with a red in tooth and claw unionist message and a warning not to let McGuinness become First Minister; Nesbitt called it 'Project Fear', but it worked a treat.

The DUP came back stronger than ever and, since the party's pitch was built very much around Foster's leadership, the First Minister herself was emboldened by that huge personal vote of confidence.

In a booming economy these contradictions might not have proved fatal, but austerity continued to tighten and too many people were feeling the pinch to stay positive about devolution. The Brexit result exacerbated the discontent. A majority of unionists wanted to leave the EU; a majority of nationalists to remain.

Nationalists lost that vote, too, and with the chance that an exit from the EU might tie us even closer to the UK for the foreseeable future, it was a loss with potentially huge constitutional implications.

When the Dee Stitt row erupted in November, relations were primed to sour. Sinn Fein wanted the loyalist chief to stand down from his role with Charter NI, a body in receipt of millions in public money, and was desperately humiliated when the demand was ignored.

Revelations about the Renewable Heating Incentive a few weeks later only left Sinn Fein looking more toothless than ever; and with Foster's naturally obdurate personality rubbing her critics up the wrong way, McGuinness's ill-health gave Sinn Fein an excuse to pull the plug on Stormont and crawl away for a rethink.

But, while it's possible to find reasons why the latest attempt at power-sharing collapsed, it's still hard to square it with the rhetoric of last May, when both parties pledged to work together for prosperity and progress.

It seems they fell, if not at the first hurdle, then definitely the second; and, for all Sinn Fein's bizarre words last Monday about an election being a chance for change (as if it was a plucky Opposition party striving to unseat an unpopular government, rather than one half of the administration itself), what exactly will be different next time?

Between them, the two main parties already have 54% of the vote and 65 of the 108 seats.

If that's not enough to keep the show on the road, what is?

Back in May McGuinness slated other parties' decision to go into Opposition as a refusal to "accept the democratically expressed wishes of the people, who have charged both the DUP and Sinn Fein with responsibility to lead this administration forward".

But, if that's the case, then isn't it a bigger rejection of the will of the people to pull the whole thing down on a whim eight months later? And what if the people return the DUP in strength at the coming election, which seems likely after what's set to be a bitter, divisive contest?

Will Sinn Fein then accept the "will of the people" and return to office, or continue to insist that shared government is impossible? If it's the first, what was the election for? If the second, what happened to democracy?

In retrospect, perhaps the fact that each roll of the dice is hailed as a new beginning, a new deal, a Fresh Start, is part of the problem, leading to greater disappointment when it fails to live up to scratch.

Last May's reboot, like all the ones which preceded it, was sold as if it was a gleaming new car, straight out of the showroom, when really it was the same old banger with a bit of work done at the garage to keep it chugging along until the next MOT. The mistake is to think there's any shame in that, when this is what real politics is like.

All a power-sharing government has to be is better than the alternatives. What existed at Stormont before Christmas fulfilled that criteria and it was political vandalism to risk it all on the remote possibility of getting something better.

Northern Ireland doesn't need "new and exciting". It just needs dull, plodding, ordinary government that lasts longer than the shelf-life on a packet of crisps.

Is that really too much to ask?

Belfast Telegraph


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