Belfast Telegraph

Why, despite all its faults, Naomi Long's proposal for a transitional Assembly is well worth a fair wind

Alliance plan could help retain MLAs who might otherwise be lost to the political process, writes Alban Maginness

Naomi Long
Naomi Long
Theresa May

The continuing acrimonious fallout in the wake of the collapse of the talks has left many bewildered as to where this will all lead and how we can address the pressing needs in our society. There seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel; indeed, the tunnel seems to have collapsed completely and we seem to be doomed to an indefinite period of political stasis.

Since that fateful Ash Wednesday, all of us have had to endure the Lenten penance imposed upon us by the two sectarian juggernauts, DUP and Sinn Fein.

Neither of them realise that it matters little who was responsible for that disastrous collapse, because we have no local administration to tackle the litany of pressing social and economic issues bubbling away underneath the heady rhetoric that passes as political discourse.

Therefore, the proposal by the Alliance leader Naomi Long to have a transitional Assembly is worthy of serious consideration.

It has, however, prompted a generally dismissive response from the other political parties, in particular Sinn Fein. But given the political desert that we are in, it is worth exploring.

There is merit in the idea, particularly when there is a precedent for such a transitional Assembly following the St Andrews Agreement in 2006.

This transitional Assembly was agreed by all the parties at the time including Sinn Fein. The idea following the deal at St Andrews was to provide an opportunity for all politicians to prepare for a new Assembly and pending power-sharing Executive.

The transitional Assembly came into being on November 22, 2006, and its officially declared role was to take part in preparations for the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland in accordance with the St Andrews Agreement.

This Assembly did some good work and produced reports on diverse subjects such as the review of public administration, the economic challenge for Northern Ireland, schools admissions policy, Workplace 2010 and the devolution of justice and policing.

This body of work was subsequently used to draft the Programme for Government, presented in January 2008.

In addition it worked on drafting standing orders, a ministerial code and also nominated the First and Deputy First Ministers. Its remit ended in January 2007 in order to facilitate elections to the new Assembly.

It wasn't a talking shop, nor therapy for underemployed politicians, but rather a preparatory arrangement to provide support for the new Assembly that was elected in March 2007.

The problem for Long's proposition is that her proposal is not for a preparatory Assembly, because there has been no agreement as there was at St Andrews.

On the other hand, it could be argued that the Assembly could do work on a draft Programme for Government in the event of a new Executive, and pass some legislation.

The danger is that it could become a cosmetic exercise to keep the pretence of politics alive, and in turn become a purposeless talking shop.

However, the Alliance proposal for a transitional Assembly is not made in isolation, for it also has a parallel proposal for the setting up of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and at the same time continuing the negotiations for a new Executive under an independent facilitator.

The intergovernmental conference could well be a game-changer for the way forward, because if the London and Dublin Governments act together, then that puts pressure on both the other two parties to respond in kind. It could incentivise an agreement at Stormont.

The counter-argument is that Prime Minister Theresa May is so dependent on DUP support that the party could stymie any joint development between the two Governments. But there are limits to the DUP's influence, because it cannot continually cry wolf.

If it goes too far, May might lose patience, allow the plug to be pulled and call for a fresh election, thus ending the DUP's powerful role at Westminster.

Some have expressed doubts about the DUP's commitment to a return to a power-sharing Executive given the enthusiasm that some of its MPs, like Ian Paisley, have expressed over the introduction of formal direct rule.

But that must be counter-balanced by those DUP MLAs back home in the Assembly: they are not likely to act as turkeys voting for Christmas. Arlene Foster has 27 (very hungry) MLAs and their respective staffs, itching to get back into Stormont.

If nothing is done to break this deadlock, there is the risk that we lose a cohort of politicians across all the parties, probably for ever.

Politicians can't wait around endlessly for a new Assembly to materialise. Contrary to popular opinion, we need to hold on to seasoned, experienced politicians - not throw them onto the scrapheap.

Therefore, in all our dire circumstances, Long's proposal for a transitional Assembly, with all its faults, is worth a try.

Belfast Telegraph

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