The Justice Ministry, Disillusioned Nationalists and Delivery

A significant part of the reason for the declining nationalist turnout is the growing sense that, through their political class, nationalists have failed to deliver a return at Stormont – and in the post-peace process era in general- which would match the expectations of the broad nationalist community.

If unionism has suffered from a leadership deficit in the post-peace process era, then similarly nationalism would appear to be suffering from a delivery deficit.

The developing dilemma around filling the post of Justice Minister presents both a challenge and an opportunity for Sinn Fein to begin proving to their constituents that the Sinn Fein-DUP led Executive can deliver.

The sense within nationalism that the DUP play the role of senior partner has become increasingly accepted. That is something Sinn Fein must address, and be seen to in the coming mandate.

During the Leaders’ Debates preceding this month’s Assembly election, it was noteworthy that the only time the leading figures in the two main parties exchanged words was when Arlene Foster openly outlined why she was vetoing the Lord Chief Justice’s plans to deal with the backlog of inquests into many controversial killings during the Troubles. Notably, Martin McGuinness didn’t bite back.

There was more of that on Friday morning on BBC Radio Ulster’s The Nolan Show, when the senior DUP figure, Simon Hamilton, dismissively rejected the notion of the party supporting an Irish Language Act in return for Sinn Fein acceding to the DUP desire for a Unionist Justice Minister. This comes after the DUP Leader, Arlene Foster, had publicly “ruled out” a Sinn Fein Justice Minister. Again, in response, Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams, refused to take the opportunity to robustly highlight how the mutual veto system ensures that Sinn Fein could similarly rule out a DUP Justice Minister.

Part of that is a result of the differing leadership styles and broader political cultures that have defined not just the two political parties, but unionism and nationalism in general.

The brash “I won the election” style embraced by Arlene Foster is consistent with the approach long favoured by unionist leaders, a style which has got them into trouble in the post-singular veto era ushered in by the Good Friday Agreement. Ruling out an Irish Language Act and a Sinn Fein Justice Minister merely leaves the party open to charges of betrayal and sell out when both of those developments eventually happen at some point in our future. At times, it is as if DUP representatives have learnt noting from the devolution of Policing and Justice crisis of yesteryear.

The republican style has allowed room for greater compromises due to a more careful approach to conditioning the community to ensure such concessions can be made without consequences for the political leadership.

Yet the problem that Sinn Fein leaders are increasingly having to come to terms with is that the style and approach could feed the disillusionment within the broad nationalist community, seeming to confirm as it does the belief that the party is playing second fiddle to the DUP.

The news that the Executive Office has confirmed that there can be no joint Justice Ministers, nor appointment of a non-MLA to the post, would suggest that, unless the parties are willing to ask the British Government to intercede to make either of the above option a possibility, they face having to agree either a Sinn Fein or DUP/Independent Unionist Justice Minister in the coming days.

With Arlene Foster having publicly “ruled out” the former, it would be a significant humiliation were Sinn Fein to support a Unionist Justice Minister of any description- not least since the SDLP were denied the Justice Ministry they were rightly entitled to through d’Hondt when it was first devolved on the basis that the DUP did not want any nationalist about the place holding that post.

Given the loud message being sent by northern nationalists to their political class only weeks ago, I can’t envisage Sinn Fein endorsing a Unionist Justice Minister (and, to be clear, that means either Independent Unionist, Clare Sugden, or a DUP MLA) without significant concessions of the very type swiftly and confidently dismissed by Simon Hamilton only 48 hours ago.

Both Sinn Fein and the DUP are playing their cards tightly to their chest (and the show of unity between McGuinness and Foster last week was an impressive demonstration of what is possible in a two-party coalition), but I still think that both would much prefer the scenario of a last-minute deal being reached with Alliance to save them having to resolve a difficult problem.

Ironically, Alliance is emerging from an election in which it failed to distinguish itself, going 0 for 3 on its target seats. Many Alliance representatives and supporters are nervous about taking a course of action which publicly negates the perception they have long cherished of being ‘the glue that binds’ in a divided society- though I accept that many of their newer, younger activists are attracted to an Opposition role which allows them to aggressively articulate an alternative vision not compromised by the restrictions of holding office whilst also opposing the Executive.

The problem with that scenario is that, in the new Opposition era unfolding, Alliance run the risk of being relegated in the public’s eye to a distant third string team, struggling to be heard. Therefore, standing alone as the party inside and outside of the tent may offer Alliance the opportunity to uniquely position itself as challenging the main two parties to deliver on its own agenda throughout the term of the Assembly, with the possibility of Alliance walking at a time of its choosing in the event of party leaders deciding that the Executive route had run its course.

Alliance has a strong hand, but over playing it is not without risk.

We are in for a fascinating few days.