Is it accountability or partnership?

Seán Farren believes that the DUP must produce serious evidence that it is genuinely interested and motivated by the opportunity for partnership government. However he’s convinced there should be no ‘serious’ blocks to finding a widely acceptable accommodation in some form or other.By Seán Farren

The DUP’s recent conversion to a possible partnership with other parties to form an executive and allow for the restoration of all of the institutions set up under the Good Friday agreement is being widely hailed as historic and ground-breaking and as offering an opportunity that should not be squandered.

As significant architects of that agreement the SDLP wants to avail of any genuine opportunity to have the agreement’s institutions fully restored, to ensure they are never again subject to threats of suspension and that they work to the mutual benefit of our communities, North and South. And it certainly is not our intention to squander the present opportunity since an inclusive executive including the DUP, the UUP, Sinn Fein and the SDLP is essential to achieve those aims.

However, in light of some of the DUP’s policies and behaviour it is not unreasonable that parties who negotiated hard over two years to achieve the Good Friday agreement, negotiations from which the DUP deliberately absented itself, are now subjecting DUP proposals to considerable scrutiny.

One of the Good Friday agreement’s key principles is that partnership politics is the only basis on which to build a viable political administration in Northern Ireland. This principle is at odds with the majoritarian instincts of the DUP which has never accepted partnership as a basis for government, either at local council or at regional level.

Coalition arrangements are only entered into by the DUP when there is no alternative, while partnership is only accepted when offered by others. In Derry, for example, where the DUP has four seats out of thirty it has held the mayorship as a result of the partnership arrangements developed by the SDLP. Contrast that situation with Ballymena where the SDLP has four seats out of twenty-four and has never been offered the mayorship.

A similar attitude informs the DUP’s approach to power-sharing within the Assembly and Executive. The DUP’s first preference would be a majority controlled administration. But since this is not possible the DUP is obliged to accept the present power-sharing and cross-community arrangements. However, in doing so it wants to underpin these arrangements with new rules and regulations which are not really about accountablility and are certainly not likely to build confidence and trust. If accepted, DUP proposals would subject ministerial decisions to a veto by no more than thirty Assembly members, a situation not followed elsewhere.

When we bear in mind the DUP’s own record at executive level a critical approach is even more understandable. In the period of devolution the DUP took the two ministerial offices to which it was entitled but made no effort to operate the cross-community decision making it now deems essential. DUP ministers withheld papers requested by the Executive on issues which crossed departmental boundaries. The same ministers refused to be bound by collective decisions despite being given adequate notice of the issues under discussion and being afforded the opportunity to submit their views.

The DUP is now demanding that not only should a more collective approach operate at ministerial level but that ministerial decisions be subject to a possible suspension and that North-South Ministerial Council decisions also be subject to a possible veto by one of the two Northern minister who would normally attend council meetings. Furthermore, there is no commitment to the development of North-South cooperation until recommended by an ‘efficiency’ commission which would not report for some considerable time.

A party that refused to play by the rules and which has hitherto shown scant regard to the principle of partnership government now wants to rewrite those rules in ways that would be more likely to gridlock decision making and inhibit rather than allow trust and confidence grow between the parties.

Questioning the motives and the actual proposals of the DUP does not mean that the SDLP is opposed to improving how the Assembly, the Executive or the North-South Ministerial Council works. The Good Friday agreement is a living agreement with a built in capacity for developing and modifying its procedures in light of experience and changing circumstances and its workings are, therefore, open to change.

In the course of the current review of the agreement the SDLP has proposed many improvements touching on such matters as the voting procedures, the need to commit to and participate in all of the institutions, the need for a binding programme of government, the need for greater collective responsibility within the Executive and for a statutory ministerial code, more regular scrutiny of ministers by Assembly committees, etc.

So if the DUP is now anxious to work in partnership or, if it prefers, in coalition with pro-agreement parties and seeks to have its concerns addressed let it join with us in a genuine examination of how the agreement’s operations can be improved and abandon its demands for fundamental change as a pre-condition for restoring the institutions.

Reaching agreement on how to handle institutional issues will, of course, not be sufficient to allow restoration. Remaining problems include reaching satisfaction that parallel moves be made by Sinn Fein to support the new policing arrangements and that paramilitaries signal the end to all forms of paramilitarism. While by no means certain that such moves will be made, the signs are no longer unfavourable.

So while not successful in producing agreements on all of these issues the talks at Leeds Castle clarified what remains to be resolved. These should not be beyond our capacities to resolve. That point reached not only the DUP but also all of the people of this island will truly have crossed an historic watershed.