Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Why devolution is the only show in town

There is a massive gulf between Sinn Fein and the DUP but they have nowhere to go except back to Stormont, argues Jon Tonge

Arlene Foster, MaryLou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill at Lyra McKee’s funeral
Arlene Foster, MaryLou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill at Lyra McKee’s funeral
Fr Martin Magill addressing the mourners
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

The opening day of May seems early to decide the political moment of the year. Yet the sight of sheepish politicians rising uncertainly to their feet amid heartfelt admonishment from Father Martin Magill will be difficult to top.

Shamed into a new talks process, can those politicians respond to the emotion of a funeral and the eloquent words of a Belfast priest?

Is there much on which to build beyond the lowest common denominator of rejection of violent republicans?

Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill were positioned a lot closer in the church than their supporters outside.

The gulf in perspectives between the party's support bases offers an antidote to the hopes for progress revived in the tragic circumstances of Lyra McKee's death.

And with one, probably two, elections this month, the backdrop is unpromising. Northern Ireland elections are not noted for their capacity to display compromise. We then await the RHI inquiry report, not a document likely to inspire a rush back into government.

Some of the issues seem far less seismic than those overcome to produce the Good Friday Agreement. In 1998, politicians were dealing with the big Ps - power-sharing, paramilitaries, prisoners and policing. Today they are seen by critics as merely taking the P. And even among those who have not given up on Stormont, there is little consensus over what P needs to change most: the parties, personnel or procedures.

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At the risk of drowning in data from the last election fought in Northern Ireland, the 2017 Westminster contest, here are a few indications of the gulf which the main party leaders have to bridge.

An Irish Language Act? Only one in 10 DUP voters think there should be one; just 4% of Sinn Fein voters think there shouldn't be.

Brexit? Two-thirds of DUP voters back Brexit, but 86% of Sinn Fein voters disagree.

The Westminster confidence-and-supply deal? Only 4% of DUP voters opposed the pact with the Conservatives. More than 90% of Sinn Fein voters thought it a bad idea.

Perhaps most depressing of all is when we consider public attitudes to the personnel. A majority of Sinn Fein voters scored Arlene Foster's performance as First Minister at 0/10. A majority of DUP voters rated Michelle O'Neill at 0/10.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that even if Jesus Christ came back to Earth and led the DUP or Sinn Fein he would be subject to low ratings from the other side.

Then there are the procedural issues. Any return to Stormont will surely need some revisions to the rules. Scrapping the petition of concern is a much-vaunted proposal, but given that the DUP now lacks the numbers to fly solo in launching such devices - by far the most common type of such petitions in the past - it is not the biggest change needed. It might be better to lower the weighted majority voting hurdle.

At 55%, only 50 MLAs would be needed for a measure to be passed. There would still be a need for support for the bill from beyond a single community's representatives, but only something utterly unacceptable to the entirety of the other community's representatives would fail. The number of petitions of concern could also be restricted per party in each Assembly session.

There are utopians who would do away with all communal designations, weighted majorities or petitions of concern. Such advocates are invited to send me a 2,000-word essay entitled "An evaluation of the historical successes of majoritarian government in Northern Ireland" which I promise to read with interest.

Mutual vetoes are unhealthy but present in many post-conflict societies. Those who believe the Good Friday Agreement to be a good thing - and its defence has been understandably robust in the context of Brexit - cannot simultaneously wish away the consociational principles which underpin a chunk of the deal.

With those principles, unfortunately, come blocking rights which may reinforce divisions.

And the Good Friday Agreement says absolutely zero about what is - or isn't - a legitimate piece of blocking by one community.

Why, in God's name, is it possible then that, this time, talks to restore Stormont might just work? The absence of viable alternatives is one reason. Government by civil servants is undemocratic. Direct rule - with the Assembly at best a scrutineer of Westminster ministers - would be unpopular, joint authority is an apparent non-runner and a united Ireland is still at least one border poll away.

Local councils are not properly equipped to acquire Stormont's powers. So the parties don't really have anywhere else to go but back to the biggest vacant property in BT4. Perhaps remarkably, there remains sizeable public support for the return of devolved government.

Not all issues are quite as divisive as they might appear. More DUP voters now favour same-sex marriage than are opposed, in common with voters from the four other sizeable parties.

Attitudes to abortion are at least not reducible to inter-communal division, although the issue is obviously contentious. Stormont did manage to pass 137 pieces of legislation between 2007 and 2016 and acquired policing and justice powers, so the idea that consensus is invariably elusive is simply untrue. Some issues beyond Stormont's jurisdiction have quietened in recent years - flags and parades for starters - so not all the contextual background is bleak.

Devolved government has been absent for 40% of the time since the Executive first sat two decades ago.

No Assembly member has ever lost a full day's pay as a consequence.

The 2002-7 hiatus was partly excused on the grounds of its proximity to the conflict from which the political institutions eventually emerged.

Too much time was then wasted on trying to agree the past, an absurd notion when such fundamentally different narratives exist. Political instability is less indulged today.

If, amid some goodwill, the latest talks process really cannot end the unauthorised absences from work, maybe it's time to start talking about some other Ps. P45s.

  • Jon Tonge is professor of politics at the University of Liverpool

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