A cautious approach to the McKay affair is right. But for the sake of Executive cohesion, O Muilleoir needs to say more or stand aside.

So rather than buckle down to the altogether tougher demands of trying the govern the place, the politicians are having themselves a jolly crisis. Far more fun isn’t it? And the more bizarre the better. But might there just be a chance that the Executive will in the end decide not to waste a good crisis, deal with it transparently and emerge stronger as a result?  If guilt proves to be  limited as is claimed, why should we all suffer?

The newspapers for all their partisan leanings  are playing the “crisis” cautiously, reflecting the careful behaviour of the Executive leaderships so far. It’s early days but this is a good sign.

Allison Morris in the Irish News sums up best the questions posed forensically by Jim Allister QC.  But the paper’s John Manley points out that

it took five days but finally the DUP got around to calling for Máirtín Ó Muilleoir to step aside as finance minister  until the investigation into the Daithí McKay-Jamie Bryson backchanneling scandal is concluded.

The party belatedly realised that tacitly backing Mr Ó Muilleoir remaining as a minister was not sustainable given the chorus of calls from the opposition for him to go – albeit temporarily. To regard this as a sudden hardening of relations at the heart of the executive would be to vastly overstate its significance.

It may merely be some expedient manoeuvring that enables the DUP to avoid a barracking from fellow unionists for propping up Sinn Féin.

When Assembly sittings resume in a couple of weeks’ time, the extent of the damage to mutual and public confidence may  be exposed. What more is there to say until the Standards Commissioner reports?

. As things stand, there is now deadlock over new Finance committee chair Emma Pengelly’s call for  Mairtin O Muilleoir to “ step down” as finance minister at least temporarily and the man himself’s  refusal to do so, adding  blank denial of  any knowledge.

This state of affairs would be quite a big deal in any mature parliament. In our still juvenile institutions its significance remains to be seen. According to  Alastair Campbell’s ( alas, mythical , it seems ) “golden rule” of media frenzies, if it lasts longer than seven or so  days, you’ve got yourself  a crisis. Well, whatever the  social media are doing, the print media have been pretty restrained so far.

All parties need to learn  the hard lessons of how to behave credibly under pressure and resist rolling themselves into a tight ball in the hope it goes away or can be toughed out, regardless of the damage

The big question now is how Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness will handle the affair. Will Mrs Foster adopt Mrs Pengelly’s call for the Finance minister to step down temporarily and what will be the Sinn Fein response? Will it derail them or spur them on tackle the main business of the Executive?

Added later 

Assuming no deep-laid conspiracy, much of the solution seems to rest with Mairtin O Meuilloir, then the senior SF figure on the Finance Committee. There is a strong suggestion that he knew something was up from Daithi McKay.  From such a witness as Bryson  who was a most improbable whistleblower, he might have treated  the allegation of  Peter Robinson taking kickbacks frivolously, with just enough in the swirl of “Swish Family Robinson” events  to create an ounce of plausibility and  to be worth a punt against the DUP.   But let’s not forget that Bryson’s charge was discounted at the time; otherwise there would have an immediate major police investigation and a political upheaval accompanying Robinson’s coincidental resignation soon afterwards.

Sinn Fein may now be  digging in in the belief that all the other parties the DUP included are manufacturing a crisis to do them down.

They would be wrong to  do that. O Muilleoir owes it to his ministerial office in the Executive and the Assembly as a  whole to say what he knew and when he knew it, even it exposes frivolity and poor judgement. He will have to do so sooner or later, to the Standards Commissioner.  Why not speak now and lance the boil before it festers? It would be embarrassing but no more than that. It wouldn’t be a hanging offence. Embarrassment can be as hard to deal with as more substantial guilt, but SF would gain credit for mature political behaviour.

On the other hand if O Muilleoir still refuses to say amore, the other parties should not force the issue now. He may not wish to say anything prejudicial in public about McKay before McKay himself is asked for evidence. That would be understandable. Frustrating though it would be, the other parties may have to await the verdict  of the Standards commissioner.  O Muilleoir  might have to weigh the advantages of continuing silence now against the possibility of a harsher verdict later.

With his unrivalled experience Ric Wilford describes the bigger picture for the whole Assembly in the Belfast Telegraph.

…the apparent incentive towards UUP-SDLP co-operation does, at the same time, lend some urgency to the need for the DUP and Sinn Fein to cleave more closely together in an albeit loveless political co-habitation.

It seems highly unlikely, indeed utterly remote, that the current controversy will lead to the demise of the diarchy: McKay’s swift resignation as an MLA, coupled with the suspension of O’Hara and the, to date, measured response of the DUP leadership – Sammy Wilson aside – to the matter, indicates that it will be business more or less as usual for Arlene Foster and Martin McGuiness.

If anything, the First and deputy First Ministers may be even more strongly motivated to unveil a new agreed policy on one or more of the neuralgic issues that bedevil Northern Ireland, not least the past.

The final level that will play out is the wider condition of popular opinion towards our institutions in general and politicians in particular.

 

, , , , ,