Let’s wait for a clear outcome before proclaiming a new dynamic at Stormont

Am I right in thinking that the small avalanche started by Mike Nesbitt has taken the DUP and Sinn Fein entirely by surprise? Not to mention the distinguished local commentariat who failed to clock that the smaller parties were as serious as  this about the opposition option?

So what do we know?   First, very little detail over precise sticking points.  This has not been an open negotiation – until perhaps today.

It seems that the smaller parties were even more frustrated by the experience of DUP-SF  carve up and deadlock in the previous Executive  than was generally thought. The pledges of good behaviour in Fresh Start  were either not strong enough or were not believed , even though they were  steered and commended by the British and Irish governments.

Fresh Start requires that the Programme for Government be agreed over a fortnight  before departmental  ministers are appointed. This increased the leverage of the minor parties. Despite being trumpeted in advance to be all about outcomes, the draft Programme plainly has not satisfied Alliance or the SDLP.

Messrs Eastwood and Ford  are at one in claiming that  FM and DFM insisted  that  things would be  done their way or not at all, ( “their process or no process)” Whether this is entirely true or not, the current outcome  suggests Foster and McGuinness  were over confident and miscalculated the response, buoyed up by their comfortable majority .

Eastwood dismissed the PfG last night as “ bluer skies and greener grass.”This is denied by FM  and DFM. Martin McGuinness accused the SDLP of dishonesty as the SDLP  were part of developing it in “four workshops from December to February.”Eastwood faces a plausible charge of opportunism.

The Alliance party have not left the field.  They should disclose the five points Ford says Foster and McGuinness rejected in ten minutes. If these are anything like the five point summary of their manifesto, they include ending the designations, making  real progress on  integrated education  “division proofing “ all policies  to put an end to  sectarian carve-up and progress on ending paramilitarism and dealing with the legacy. These topics are subject to all too familiar stalling mechanisms and are either pending, awaiting reports, farmed out to yet more committees  and eventually negotiable – but hardly over a fortnight.  FM and DFM could give satisfactory replies to the Alliance position if they wanted to, but they may decline to be squeezed.

How much leverage does Alliance have over Justice?  Quite a lot.  (It would be fantastic though to offer to it to Eamonn McCann – how well he would do it for at least a month before giving up in terminal frustration.).  A DUP- SF job share would concentrate minds over a hierarchy of victims, funding new inquests , endorsing a new historical investigations unit and  taking over parades regulation, to name but a few. All these have to be agreed anyway – or not as the case may be. Why not get down and dirty on the detail jointly in the Justice department?  Yet it seems unlikely, particularly if the DUP and  SF were acting under pressure from the minor parties.

How powerful will be the cross community opposition?  Together the UUs and SDLP are just short of the 30 seat blocking mechanism of a petition of concern. Pressing for an end to the unionist, nationalist and other designations  and replacing them with a weighted majority would  modestly strengthen the collective hand of the combined opposition and  introduce significant flexibility to case by case voting.

Support for  a “voluntary coalition” with a weighted majority of  “around 65% “  was repeated in the DUP manifesto.  Presumably this aim will be dropped, now that the UUs have gone into opposition and the DUP  and Sinn Fein have a cross community majority of only 61% in this the last 108 seat Assembly. Sinn Fein’s opposition in any case.seems implacable. And so this structural change requiring amending legislation at Westminster would be likely to be vetoed by the DUP and SF’s comfortable  majority.

A new dynamic will be created only if the UUs and SDLP can develop an alternative Executive out of case by case cooperation between themselves and “others.”  Otherwise trying to outflank the bloc leaders on identity and legacy issues risks deepening sectarian divisions and doing more damage than the inclusive Executive ever did.   The obvious temptation to bang a louder drum is at the heart of reservations over forming an opposition in the first place.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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