Even with a fairer wind than we experienced since 1998 , it was always going to be difficult to reconcile natural contention in politics with good cross community government. If all-party government worked well, the Assembly would have very little to do. If government failed, it would only amplify the differences. The select committees were supposed to supply critical scrutiny but lacked skills and were too often the creatures of the dominant party. In an Executive governing largely by rival party caucuses, genuine collective responsibility among the parties was very weak. Agendas were withheld and there were cases in which a minister of one party took the minister of another to court. Delay and deadlock were endemic.
The party battle over identity politics was paramount. Power was too much about patronage, feeding charges of cronyism and corruption, often if not always exaggerated. The skills required to transact government were neglected. These were the political conditions which gave birth to the RHI scheme, a scandal, not about identity politics or as far as one can tell, patronage; but dull old good government.
After the May election, the creation of a two party government combined with an opposition seemed to simplify matters. For a couple of months since the May election it seemed as if a genuine Fresh Start was possible. If the signs were cautiously favourable in the Executive, old games were still being played out in the Assembly. The Daithi McKay / Jamie Bryson affair showed elements in both parties targeting the other’s leaderships. Sinn Fein were prepared to sacrifice the up and coming but over-partisan McKay. But the legacy of distrust left behind may have been greater than many thought.
There was a surprising new phenomenon: Sinn Fein in the Executive began to be criticised for letting the DUP roll over them. Personalities were partly blamed: Arlene Foster’s perceived arrogance and Martin McGuinness’s supposedly weakening grip.
Alleged DUP support for loyalist paramilitary residues was resented at a time when Sinn Fein were on the defensive over the Jock Davison/ Kevin McGuigan tit- for- tat IRA murders. It was as if the DUP were consorting with paramilitaries just as Sinn Fein were being forced to give them up. The essential unity needed to carry forward “the reintegration of former paramilitaries into society” was put under some strain. Sinn Fein’s programme of cultural recognition in the new councils and the Executive was more boldly dismissed than ever. Sinn Fein haven’t been placated by the DUP Communities minister’s enthusiasm for rebuilding the controversial Casement Park stadium.
In this situation they failed to earn credit for their forbearance even from impeccably democratic critics; nor did they deign to explain themselves. Is forbearance now over and have old instincts revived?
Although one can’t be entirely sure, the RHI scandal may be becoming quite a serious political crisis, even managing to overshadow the deep challenges of Brexit. Despite that it has a certain comedic quality. Sinn Fein’s on-off-on tactics are confusing and perhaps confused. They declined to bring the RHI scandal to a head this week only to threaten a new crisis on identical grounds next month. Arlene Foster has refused to follow precedents which richly benefited her own advance and stand down “ temporarily.”
If the DUP and Sinn Fein don’t come to some agreement over the next few weeks there probably can’t be any sort of inquiry into the RHI scheme. It’s doubtful that the Attorney General has the power to convene one and anyway he’s hardly either party’s favourite. Under present circumstances it could also be very difficult to get the consent of a judge from across the water to chair it. If the terms of reference were anything like Sinn Fein’s abortive Assembly motion on Monday they’d be bound to draw in the whole system of government in which Sinn Fein is equally implicated.
I see only two solutions. One is for the DUP and Sinn Fein to agree the terms of an independent inquiry which leaves allocating responsibility to the inquiry itself. This is hardly a doddle for Arlene Foster and it should well satisfy Sinn Fein. The two ablest minsters, Mairtin O Muilleoir of Sinn Fein and Simon Hamilton of the DUP, can then present whatever evidence and solutions they have to the inquiry rather than drip-feeding the media. (Arguably though the solutions are a separate process).
The other approach is an election which would only inflame passions pointlessly and put solutions on hold. In normal democracies elections give voters the opportunity to “ throw the bastards out.” But this is no more likely in Stormont today as it was under communism or fascism – and won’t be, until or unless the opposition develop as a credible alternative coalition and the identity designations are replaced by a weighted majority. In the meantime the imminence of Brexit with perhaps more powers heading for Stormont is no time to mess about so carelessly.
I take the view that the institutions came out of Monday turbulence pretty well in the circumstances. Everyone had the say they wanted. There was even parity of dissatisfaction with those circumstances. They should resist the tendency to move from furious pedantry about procedure to bringing the whole house down in a single leap. If a sacrificial lamb is really needed, the Speaker who did his best might feel he has taken enough from both a government and an opposition party. The young Assembly is developing untidily as all parliaments do; even after 1000 years, Westminster is changing behind the flummery.
So in one sense the politicians shouldn’t be so hard on themselves and each other. On the other hand, there should carefully reflect over Christmas on the consequences if this latest exercise of brinkmanship tips them over the edge. Believe it n or not, some commentators seem exhilarated at the possibility of collapse and get high on the prospect of another sham fight so soon after the last one. But politics is more than a game. They should get their kicks another way, like the excellent Alex Kane.
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