Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Power-sharing agreement may be on the horizon...but it has to stick

'The Assembly has been suspended for more than 3,200 days of the near 7,000 it has supposed to have been sitting since it came into being in December 1999. That is almost half of its existence' (stock photo)
'The Assembly has been suspended for more than 3,200 days of the near 7,000 it has supposed to have been sitting since it came into being in December 1999. That is almost half of its existence' (stock photo)
Jon Tonge

Jon Tonge

Happy new year. Returning to work after the break is never easy. Nearly a fortnight away from the university made the first day back yesterday tough.

So spare a thought for all those Assembly members contemplating heading back to the office after three years away.

Can't be easy.

A fairly quick deal looks probable. It will involve an Irish Language Act but without that title. It will include reform of the petition of concern system. That is an easy give for each party given that none can trigger vetoes without help from at least one other.

There might possibly be a lowering of the weighted majority requirements needed for key legislative decisions.

The 2014 Stormont House Agreement can be repackaged and restated. The UK Government can sugar the pills with more cash for Northern Ireland.

So what could possibly go wrong? The risk is that the focus is solely upon the hiatus of the last three years, as if what preceded the 2017 collapse were halcyon years of glorious devolved power-sharing.

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The Assembly has been suspended for more than 3,200 days of the near 7,000 it has supposed to have been sitting since it came into being in December 1999. That is almost half of its existence.

What is remarkable is perhaps not the public's anger but its tolerance of this farce.

Devolved power-sharing remains - by a huge distance - the most favoured political option, despite continuing doubts over whether it can or will work.

Amid the ongoing health crisis, there were clear signs at the recent Westminster election of patience wearing thin.

This exasperation does not fully explain remarkable election results from Foyle to North Down, but it contributed to the SDLP and Alliance spectaculars.

The failures of the 1999-2006 power-sharing model were perhaps more excusable.

Some huge issues were being resolved in the immediate aftermath of a brutal conflict - prisoners, paramilitaries, policing.

The more recent problems have been of a far lesser magnitude, nowhere enough to justify this expensive 1,000 days (and more) holiday.

Belatedly, there seems to be recognition across all the parties that the old D'Hondt model of parties and people first; policies second, is no way to form a collective, coherent government.

While party size within the Executive will still be shaped by electoral fortune, the parties appear to be moving towards a system based upon producing a pre-agreed programme for government. This might work for the remaining lifespan of this Assembly, until 2022.

Elections then, or to reform the Executive this year, would test any such coherence, however.

Neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein will be going to their respective electorates highlighting all their nice cosy areas of agreement with each other.

So whatever is agreed over the next few days needs to stick - or it could be terminal for Stormont.

But let's start 2020 on a bright note. Expect a deal sooner rather than later.

And if the strain for the legislators of returning to work is a bit much for some, not to worry.

Only three months to Easter. You can have another break then.

Jon Tonge is professor of politics at the University of Liverpool

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