Belfast Telegraph

DUP and Sinn Fein marriage of convenience can't last

Mandatory coalition was necessary to get the DUP and Sinn Fein to share power, but what difference would an official Opposition make, asks political editor Liam Clarke

They may be making a bit of progress on the Budget, but, in general, the pace of progress in Stormont is slow, dead slow and stop. It has led many people to question whether our parties have the talent pool to fill all 108 seats and all 13 ministries.

They are stretched thin in Assembly debates where there is often a quota of plodding jobsworths reading out prepared speeches in a dull monotone.

It is not fair, though, to tar all our politicians with that brush. Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson are no dullards and there are shining stars in all the other parties, too.

The problem they all face - and the main reason they spend so much time doing so little - is that they are operating a system that is no longer fit-for-purpose.

The Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements between them produced a system that has so many checks and balances that blocking decisions is far easier than carrying them through.

It had to be that way to give the parties the confidence to proceed.

After years of conflict, trust between the major players is low and nationalists in particular have to be assured that they would not simply be outvoted by unionists on every issue that concerns them.

When, at an East Belfast Speaks Out meeting last year, Martin McGuinness was asked why we have such an unwieldy system of government, he reminded his questioner that in the old, pre-Troubles Stormont, the Nationalist Party only got one piece of legislation through and it was a Wild Birds Order.

That was a more streamlined system, he argued, but it produced government by one community alone and led to conflict.

That is why, he maintains, we need to stick to the series of agreements which ended the conflict and guaranteed every party a place in a mandatory coalition.

If anyone mentions a voluntary coalition, with some - but not all - representatives of both communities agreeing a programme of government, Sinn Fein takes it as a conspiracy to exclude them.

They all but called Mark Durkan, the former SDLP leader, a quisling when he floated the idea three years ago.

Durkan spoke of the need to remove "the ugly scaffolding" of big government which had been erected in the early years of the peace process and which, he believed, we should now consider removing.

Everyone except Sinn Fein feels the same way. At the same east Belfast meeting, Peter Robinson pointed out that nobody who wanted efficient government would come up with such a system, conceding that it couldn't last in the long term.

Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State, has said that the Tories would like to see it changed and voluntary coalition is a long-standing Alliance Party policy.

The UUP and SDLP both complain of feeling excluded from decision-making under this supposedly inclusive system of government.

Tom Elliott of the UUP spoke recently of "the tribalism of Sinn Fein and the DUP, as they carve up power and ensure a silo mentality at the heart of government." Elliott argued: "This situation was manageable in a time of plenty; however, as we head into a difficult period that will be defined by fiscal constraint, we require responsive government."

If Sinn Fein won't accept voluntary coalition, the obvious answer is for Elliott and Margaret Ritchie, of the SDLP, to consider moving voluntarily into Opposition.

That would free them from the crushing embrace of the DUP and Sinn Fein and it would answer Sinn Fein's fear of being excluded from government.

It would also give the voters a real choice at elections and enable parties to compete on policies. It wouldn't be simple. For one thing, there are no provisions for an Opposition at Stormont to be accorded speaking rights, funding and office space, as they are in the UK's other devolved assemblies - not to mention Westminster and Dail Eireann.

The coming Assembly election gives the smaller parties the opportunity to float this issue and test the stated commitments of the DUP and Tory-led coalition to normalising politics here.

It would be difficult for Sinn Fein to oppose, since the move into Opposition would be voluntary and no one would be forcing it on them.

One thing is for sure: as things stand, electors see Stormont as a revolving-door system where, whoever you vote for, the Government always gets in.

An IPSOS/Mori poll commissioned by the Assembly itself showed that 89% of people felt that they had little or no influence on decision-making and only 1% felt they had a great deal of influence.

The perception of a free-floating political elite, which does as it likes, has given rise to widespread cynicism about the democratic process and has the potential to damage every party at Stormont.

It is a long way from the promises of responsive government which they all held out at the time of devolution.


From Belfast Telegraph