An election would be an abuse of democracy. Knuckle down after the holiday and learn how to do modern politics.

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.

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  • Zig70

    When the GFA kicked Stormont back into life it was the right thing for the time. 20yrs on it looks like a monster. Another election wouldn’t bring it to the point of satisfaction but it would speed up the size reduction. Sf should call a halt and insist on tackling the number and cost of spads. It’s an open goal that would sit very well with the electorate.

  • Ernekid

    An election would be a bit pointless as the 5 year Programme for Government is now locked in and ready to be implemented. All it would achieve would be to slightly alter the makeup of the folks on the hill.

  • Tarlas

    “In the meantime the imminence of Brexit with perhaps more powers heading for Stormont is no time to mess about so carelessly.”

    On reflection maybe this could prove to be the very time to mess about recklessly.

  • DonArd

    Couldn’t disagree more. Ideal opportunity for an election: Brexit, Article 50, RHI, reduced Assembly, motivated electorate. Every day the credibility, affluence and influence of the north reduces further. Nollaig shona daoibh.

  • Brian Walker

    “Motivated electorate”? Where do you get that From? With what outcome? Complements returned.

  • notimetoshine

    There is nothing undemocratic about snap type elections such as are mooted here. There has always been an understanding that democratic societies must have some form of ‘recall’ function in order to hold elected officials and governments to account. I really don’t see how an election could be considered undemocratic or am abuse of democracy?

    I agree with you elections would do nothing, but I really don’t understand your premise.

    The word democracy is thrown around much too freely and with too little care of late in political analysis, especially for something so precious.

  • ted hagan

    Hobson’s choice; An electorate that will vote along sectarian lines but which will become increasingly disillusion with the options. A lousy set-up that will take generations to sort out.

  • ted hagan

    The real danger is where DUP/SF continue to prop each other up whatever the circumstances simply for the sake of power. Unfortunately the opposition is too flimsy and flaky to make any serious challenge.

  • Anthony O’Shea

    Sinn Fein have a golden opportunity here. They can force an election and be seen to at last be standing up to DUP arrogance, intransigence and plain old Unionist supremicist disfunction. Or, they could sit down with Arlene and present her with a wish list of goodies they want to move forward; Irish Language act being a good example. Sinn Fein have given Arelene a break over Christmas but more importantly they have given themsleves oodles of time to put together a strategy for the New Year while the DUP boil in the pot.

  • Brian Walker

    Your view presupposes that voters anf the parties are as keen on an election so soon after the last one as anoraks like you. I really doubt it. Nationalists do not have the power to “recall” the First Minister in this system as I point out. A nationalist campaign solely to undermine her would invite an aggressive unionist response. How then would democracy be well served?

  • Brian Walker

    They could sit down and agree on an inquiry which would be allocate responsibility impartially. That could be a bigger threat to Arlene than a suspension. If not, she would deserve to stay in office. Tilting at the DUP is tilting at windmills.

  • Brian Walker

    Far too pessimistic..Abandon the cheap thrill of party battle for the maturing and steadier business of learning how to get on and govern.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    I, for one, have no interest in another staged election with the same faces prevailing. I, and many others, want to see an independent judge led inquiry into the RHI scheme. All this guff, veiled election “threats”, Robin Newton being thrown under a bus, is all just the DUP and their apologists avoiding what the province wants. The truth MUST out, and heads need to roll.

  • Newman

    Couldn’t agree more Brian..time for some grown up politics and to broaden the lens through which we view difficulty

  • 1729torus

    “Motivated electorate”? Where do you get that From? With what outcome? Complements returned.

    That EU special status motion failed by only a single vote. Alliance and Greens would do well out of that. SF could also credibly claim they’d have more relative weight in the new Assembly after the election.

  • Anthony O’Shea

    I a not so sure Brian, The DUP are damaged after a collection of mishaps and misdeeds. Sinn fein letting the off the hook could have serious consequences for them.

  • Brian Walker

    SF could score by using their emotional intelligence in government; also setting an example for their southern strategy. They are behaving as if they’re in two minds.

  • notimetoshine

    Granted there is no de jure power for Nationalists to recall the first minister, but in any democratic system, an election would meet that role in a situation where serious incompetence has lead to big problems such as RHI has..

    Of course our politics being a sick, sectarian, bigot fest would as you say inevitably lead to an aggressive response. I just hope against hope, that voters would realise that their seemingly blind loyalty to the major parties has lead to this mess. I have always maintained that the sectarian status quo here wouldn’t change until the voters get hurt, preferably in the pocket.

    Maybe RHI isn’t enough, it could well take a major hospital scandal to jolt them out of their reverie. Some democratic shock therapy would serve both democracy and the voters well. But a boy can dream…

  • But politics is more than a game.

    Oh, you really think so, BW?

    Oh, and Merry Xmas and a Happy Prosperous New Year to all and sundry posting to Slugger

    Play AI with a SMARTR Great Game and the Future will Supply Presents Free and Absent of Past Impediments with their Circus Hoops to jump through.

    And that is not a little something that MI5HQ, Palace Barracks, Holywood will ever admit to leaking and liking, given the advantage it extraordinarily renders to Grand Worshipful Masters on the Myriad Fields of Operation and Free Form Play.

  • Naomh Brid abu

    Hmm, well it would trim their numbers by 18 for a star. With another five to go if and when the Westminster boundary changes kick in.

  • Chris Spratt

    Personally I would rather we had the chance through the ballot box to rid the executive of what seems to be a culture of corruption, rather than sitting hoping for these fools to self right.

  • Anthony O’Shea

    But they must be in two minds, i think i would be. Arlene and the DUP have seriously messed up, seriously, its not a joke and not a game. But they are showing no signs of remorse or contrition or any willingness to take responsibility. The new year might bring a rethink within the DUP. Lets hope so.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    “The new year might bring a rethink within the DUP” No Chance !

  • Brendan Heading

    it’s not entirely risk free for SF; calling an election after spending six months acquiescing to the DUP could just as easily earn a sharp rebuke from the electorate. I wouldn’t anticipate a mass protest vote; just that SF would have trouble getting their vote out.

  • Brendan Heading

    The DUP are damaged after a collection of mishaps and misdeeds.

    I’m not sure what makes you think this. There was an election just over six months ago, where the DUP’s voters held onto their seat count and pretty much maintained their share of the vote.

  • Anthony O’Shea

    And we wont know how RHI has damaged them until the next poll

  • Sergiogiorgio

    Oh behave! You think the DUP voters give a toss for the RHI. The DUP paymasters all benefited from RHI – bid acre farmers, landed gentry, big business. A poll/election will only deepen the divide. A judge led enquiry, followed by criminal charges, will be the only thing to make DUP voters think again. It’s end game politics – go to your corners and come out fighting because the taigs will be taking over. Get out and vote and vote often.

  • Brian Walker

    Chris how would voting achieve that so soon after the last election ? The present row seems to be putting them all under pressure pretty well.

  • J D

    You are right, an election right now would be really bad for the DUP. It would be great for everyone else, but terrible for the DUP.

  • Chris Spratt

    We could at least hope that they might be stripped of the number of seats they require for their petition of concern. To tell the truth Brian, I have such a little regard for these buffoons we have in government I have no interest whatsoever in seeing them fumble around with governing and continuing to fail. Any chance that presents itself I would hope some blow could be administered to them.

  • AntrimGael

    I really don’t think most people, especially within the Nationalist community, really care anymore. There is a distinct whiff coming off politics here and it has no credibility left if indeed it had any in the first place. If RED SKY/GLAZING/NAMA/RHI/CHARTER NI had occurred in most other so called Western democracies PC Plod and the public prosecutors would have been called in long ago. This place has about as much political credibility as the dynasties in Game of Thrones.