Cheer up for Christmas! Yesterday’s drama showed power sharing is working and is becoming more accountable.

Yesterday, the Assembly system did not make a bad situation worse.  Many will disagree but  I believe all emerged from it quite creditably.  While no doubt nervous of being outflanked on the nationalist side by the opposition SDLP,    Sinn Fein finally opted for Executive survival  despite the  trivial charge of kowtowing to the DUP. The choice was a no brainer, although at first cunningly  concealed behind  a critical amendment too long and off- topic to be accepted for debate – as they will surely have known.

The RHI affair is not a red line communal issue; it is  mainly  about competence in “ ordinary” government.  The whole episode shows the squeeze mechanism of power sharing at work,  however convoluted and bewildering to ordinary voters longing for simple clarity.  But it shows that while you don’t have to like your partner in government,  you can still recognise a strong degree of interdependence even when you diverge – or are forced to a bit, as in this case.

This is good for government stability but not so good for democratic choice. The Opposition’s motion gained more votes but could not possibly win a cross community vote.  However had Sinn Fein spoken in favour of the exclusion motion even if abstaining in the vote, it might have made  Mrs Foster’s position more difficult. Much depends on what sort of  inquiry terms the DUP and Sinn Fein agree between them over Christmas.  If it is a judicial inquiry, it will have a lot more clout than the Assembly’s public  accounts committee so beloved of Mrs Foster. The pressure will be strong on both parties to accept its recommendations.   But the closer you look at it, the less the need for Mrs Foster  to “stand aside ” in advance.

The Opposition parties united  to make a substantial case. The hapless Speaker aided their cause  on the day by bowing to their pressure and allowing most of them  to make the same point of order in turn, that a statement by the First Minister without the support of the dFM was out of order. Here is a clear case for revising over-restrictive Assembly rules. In my view the Speaker was right to allow the debate to continue. The real farce would have been to suspend the sitting indefinitely.

The  mass walkout seemed to threaten the Assembly’s very existence. But only for a  while.  They trooped back  for the exclusion debate, as they were bound to do to avoid looking ridiculous. For the Speaker embarrassingly reduced  to parroting a formula,  there were extenuating circumstances without precedent and not of his making.   So  instead of collapse, we had democracy in action.

Mick is right.  The Opposition should have stuck to calling for an inquiry while postponing the call for sanctions against  Mrs Foster if the inquiry found her seriously at fault ( thus allowing her reply in terms of my fantasy speech). The hints of cronyism in the affair do not obviously  touch  her personally unlike Irisgate and Peter Robinson. I suspect the opposition became transfixed by the Jonathan Bell drama which raised the stakes by pinning the charge of liar on her.

The Bell case is a rare  breach of  party caucus solidarity. The Daithi McKay case is Sinn Fein’s nearest equivalent. Under pressure of government responsibilities, there will be more of these as time goes on.

Equally important is the  key problem of weak coordination in the Executive system which Fresh Start was supposed to solve.  Remember, most of the RHI business dates back to the multiparty coalition and Peter Robinson’s leadership.

An outside inquiry into the RHI process would be beneficial. It would expose the existential weaknesses in the Executive system, from party caucus government to overmighty spads and weak rotating ministers.  Sinn Fein is as much a party to these weaknesses as the DUP.

The other  big issue is the lack of strong civil service input to protect the integrity of the administration from within and the evident weakness of watchdogs like the comptroller and auditor general. Despite  Mrs Foster’s carefully couched plea of mitigation in her Statement, the government machine moved far too slowly to correct the flaws in the RHI scheme.  We need to lay all this out on the open. That is the most useful thing an outside inquiry can do.

The weakest part of  Mrs Foster’s defence was her self satisfaction over observing the process and then dumping on the civil servants. If the process is failing, change  the process and get better advice.

It is well known  that civil servants have experienced real problems of coordination and advice to different minsters with differing policies and a lack of resolution at the centre.  For that the parties are to blame for creating their own confusion.  Now with a two party coalition, the buck stops with the DUP and Sinn Fein. They must allow the new head of the civil service  to become the strong cabinet secretary, acting as the impartial guardian of effective and efficient government. The point the parties have to learn to grasp here is that such guardianship protects  each of them personally, not just some abstract notion of the public interest.

Fresh Start has faltered. But crab- like and back- to- back, power sharing is working in its own inimitable fashion.

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  • Anthony O’Shea

    It is certainly true to say that the coalition as it is, seems to able to hold firm against attack but much of Arlene’s current safety net is predicated on the hope that no more nasty surprises will be revealed around the scheme. Even a whiff of perceived corrupt practices above that already alledged could leave Sinn Fein with no choice but to pull the plug; maybe that’s why they threw Arlene a life vest just before she went under? Have they have given her some time to find a dose of humility or are they really just allowing some breathing space for Nolan and co to dig deeper into the affair? Does Sinn Fein know something that the rest of us have yet to learn? If yesterday was a win for her, I would hate to see what a loss looks like.

  • anon

    The issue is not just competence, but accountability and respect for the institutions. The DUP showed yesterday that they don’t give a monkeys about accountability or respect for the joint office, compounded by Robin Newton’s performance. The only thing keeping her in post is SF’s reluctance to pull down power-sharing, which shouldn’t be taken for granted. Arlene’s tone was completely misjudged. She may have clung on for now, but she is seriously wounded and the RHI issues will continue to drip like a leaking tap.

  • Anthony O’Shea

    But is she wounded within her own constituency? That’s the question. Why pull the house down only to see it built back up with the very same bricks? Had the boundary changes come into play sooner it might be well worth Sinn Fein forcing an election. The new boundaries will seriously impact on the overall Unionist seat count and in these conditions could give SF the First Minister spot. As it is, the most likely outcome now is Arlene would come back and look around asking what all the fuss was about. Sinn Fein have been surprisingly steady through all of this, they are getting good advice and they are under no pressure at all; keep the head down and plough on.

  • Nordie Northsider

    Ever since Arlene’s ‘I won the election’ boast after the last Assembly election, it seems to me that the DUP see themselves as THE Government party, only tolerating partners because they’re foisted upon them. Their determination to keep the RHI affair ‘in house’ indicates more than an instinct for self-protection; they are genuinely outraged at other parties ‘interfering in the business of government’. Where others might have winced at the strangeness of it all, they looked quite comfortable sitting in the chamber talking to themselves, praising themselves, scorning all others. I’ve heard a lot about what Sinn Féin are going to demand in return for not bringing down the institutions. From what I’ve seen so far, I don’t expect that the DUP will offer anything of note and that is going to be a big, big problem for SF.

  • Brian Walker

    If the joint office is Siamese twins all the time, how are the holders to be held accountable for individual actions, like minsters in the departments? Aren’t there matters Martin McGuinness should be questioned about? . The strict rule implies a degree of seamless agreement which beggars belief. It also lands the poor Speaker in a near-impossible position. Cut them some slack and amend standing orders. .Parliamentary processes evolve you know.

  • Brian Walker

    A case to answer there indeed. But behaviour in the Assembly is bound to be combative – even more so now that there is a formal opposition. Perhaps it’s not the best guide to conduct overall – although you might note that she uttered not a breath of criticism against Sinn Fein.

  • Anthony O’Shea

    Not a word of criticism because like it or not, her future is in their hands.

  • Katyusha

    What?

    More accountable than what exactly? North Korea?

    Bell is not an example of the DUP holding one of its members accountable (for none other than they have the power to sanction their own MLAs). It’s an equal parts mix of the DUP finding a scapegoat to save thier leader, and assassinating the whistleblower.

    Yesterdays charade saw Stormont at its most ridiculous, and no amount of positive thinking can warp those events into anything resembling a credible government.

  • anon

    There is a difference between respecting the joint nature of the office and agreeing with each other. If Arlene wanted to make a personal statement, or hold a press conference as DUP leader, she could have done so. To make a statement as First Minister to a half-empty chamber in defiance of her partners in Government made her, the DUP and the institutions appear ridiculous. And don’t get me started on the content of her statement – everyone else’s fault but hers. The BBC? tick. Jonathan Bell? tick. The Enterprise Committee? The civil servants? tick. Arlene? No way, jose.

  • Nordie Northsider

    That’s a good point, but I thought the wording of the DUP reply to McGuinness’ call for Foster to stand aside was a classic example of what I’m talking about: ‘The First Minister does not take her instructions from Sinn Féin, but from the electorate.’ In other words: we won the election, we’re entitled to form the Government, so suck it up. They were hardly going to welcome the suggestion that their party leader step aside, but the DUP are not carrying themselves like a party that has grasped the idea of partnership government, let alone embrace it.

  • Brian Walker

    Yes but party argy-bargy and formal statements in the House are rather different . And neither of them want to fess up to Sinn Fein saving her bacon – yet. Perhaps that will be recollected in tranquility. Quite a lot hinges on where they go from here.

  • Brian Walker

    Reasonably enough I’d say. But neither is it in their interests to bring the Executive down

  • Brian Walker

    You have your own cynical narrative and plenty will agree. But Bell is more than a scapegoat. You can hardly call your leader a liar – rightly or wrongly – and expect to get away with it. I’m trying to explain that admittedly tortuously, the coalition of opposites is working through its strains. The evidence is in front of us.

  • Ye gods, Brian,

    The marriage made in heaven is found to have a partner who is a serial philanderer. And you think that is okay, rather than a divorce and fresh start being appropriate?

    Oh well, there must be lots of monies involved to stay in and continue to suffer that relationship. And aint that the long and short of it all for the players up at Stormont? Whatever would they do for a good screw if they be out on the street looking for gainful employment with everyone knowing who they be and where they have come from?

    Or maybe it is a doddle for them to land something lucrative? Would you know?

    And this is supposed to be amusing, but it isn’t …… “Politicians are like diapers; they need to be changed often and for the same reason.” .. Mark Twain

  • Anthony O’Shea

    Agreed, but they may be left with no choice

  • grumpy oul man

    SF is not guaranteed to be the largest party.
    The nationlist vote has been declining for several elections, not because their are less nationalists but because nationalism is not impressed with SF.
    THE SDLP has a fair bit to go before it has any chance of becoming a serious contender in politics.
    PB4P showed in west Belfast how soft the sand SFs support is built on.
    Play this RHI thing wrong and they will suffer as much as the DUP maybe more since nationlists are not as easy to play the themmuns card on as DUP supporters have proved themselves to be.

  • Anthony O’Shea

    I agree, but it is a possibility depending on how all this shakes down. PBP have put a dint in SF for sure and a permanent one at that. Will the dint get bigger? Its unsure for now.

  • Brian Walker

    Strong on metaphors and cynicism there, Mars

  • And speaking truths unto powers that be failing to energise systems for future great and good use, Brian.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    “You can hardly call your leader a liar – rightly or wrongly”

    If it is rightly – what is the problem. If my leader was a liar I would want to call them out on it. It’s a slippery slope, leading eventually, if things go badly, to Trumpism (or Clintonism, or Blairism, to be bi-partisan)..

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    As an outsider, can someone tell me who these ‘mmuns’ are?

  • grumpy oul man

    Yes themmuns are the other side. As in themmuns get everything and we get nothing,
    or themmuns started it!
    Each side shows this mindset themmuns are always to blame for everything even the things what we done themmuns made us do it.
    Its a crude playing of the secterian card used at elections or in time of doffuculty you rally the troops by pointing at themmuns and shout “they done it.

  • grumpy oul man

    Pb4p may not be the only dent. The right is a possible threat to parts of SFs support base.

  • larry hughes

    The DUP took Stormont back to the one party state era with the help of the speaker and SF permitted it to do so. There’s a serious need and desire for an election but will the MLA self servers give a hoot? If not it will only fester on until they have no choice, like FF in the south after the train wreck, they got a severe clear-out.

  • Anthony O’Shea

    All new parties and independents pose an electoral threat to established parties. And long may it continue. There are far too many hysterics over political fortunes. Most things in life swing from highs to lows and so it goes. The important thing is that as many people as possible get involved.

  • AntrimGael

    I think it will. There is serious discontent within the Nationalist/Republican community at not only Sinn Fein’s abysmal performance at Stormont but particularly their weak deference and embarrassing toadying up to the DUP. Brexit has also dented confidence in the political institutions as the thought of Nationalism being imprisoned in a perpetual Unionist/right wing Tory nightmare for decades to come is causing a LOT of unease and anger. Sinn Fein are doing NOTHING to allay these fears and seem more preoccupied with cementing their own comfortable and well paid position within Stormont.

  • Anthony O’Shea

    A point well made. However, to what extent do people feel as you describe and how widespread might it be? We wont know the answer to that until after the next election. This gives SF an opportunity to unravel such possible disharmony, if they are so minded.

  • AntrimGael

    Any anger that was within the Northern Nationalist community has now turned to complete apathy and total disillusionment. After the GFA people believed that politics might work and they should give the institutions a chance, and they have, but now there is a widespread belief within many Nationalists the Northern state is completely unworkable.
    Sectarianism and anti-Catholicism are still major driving forces within Unionism and there is no acceptance or tolerance for an Irish identity or culture. It’s also things like the DUP war on the Irish language and multi millions being pumped into the Titanic quarter, the Nomadic, HMS Caroline etc which are ALL unionist pfojects while the Nationalist community look on and go unrecognised and acknowledged
    Virtually everyone I have spoke to within the Republican/Nationalist community over the past few weeks have expressed the same opinion. Stormont is just rotten and Sinn Fein are now part of the Establishment.

  • Anthony O’Shea

    Sounds pretty bleak up there. Its more likely however that SF are trying to keep the show on the road and not rock the boat too much, and loyalists often complain that they feel similarly left behind with a descriptive not unlike yours above. Apathy can also be a sign of a happy settled community unmoved and or functionally unaware of boring old politics. Those who do vote seem to opt for SF in large numbers and the unhappy republican and nationalist heartlands seem very unwilling to throw up a new anti establishment republican party who can adress the issues you have listed. January will be interesting nevertheless.

  • AntrimGael

    People Before Profit topped the poll in West Belfast at the last Assembly election and that is really unheard of in a Sinn Fein ‘heartland’. This shows that given an alternative the Republican/Nationalist community ARE prepared to think outside the sectarian box and vote for people and parties who are not self serving or self seeking. Believe me the Nationalist electorate IS functionally aware of politics up here and are deeply uneasy as the GFA is picked apart by Unionists and the British government particularly since Brexit.

  • Anthony O’Shea

    Quite, but its not unusual for a new party to sweep in and cause a stir. Sinn Fein have done that themselves in countless constituencies in the South. In fact its alost unheard of in western politics for one party to have upwards of 70% of the vote in any one constituency. The Shinners are under pressure for sure but its unlikely to wipe them out.

  • grumpy oul man

    Well said.