Surfing the long tides of political history…

Sometime during the last week I briefly misread a quotation from Alex Reid, one of two clerics who witnessed the IRA’s decommissioning last year, as saying Northern Ireland’s historic moments had taken place in nine different locations. He was, of course, talking about the decommissioning process, conducted with the space of one or two days. But last week we witnessed what could become the last significant date on a very long time line in Ulster’s march from war to peace.Somehow, in the course of the last year, Peter Hain has managed to cajole, bully, and perhaps persuade Paisley’s DUP to consider the possibility that it might share power at executive level government, in return for ministerial recognition of the police by Sinn Fein. If completed, it would finally bring both parties effectively with the letter and spirit of the Belfast Agreement loop.

As the Ireland editor of the Sunday Times, Liam Clarke noted:

Last Friday in St Andrews, as he rose to welcome the agreement outlined by the British and Irish governments, Ian Paisley made a moving and statesmanlike speech. He remembered victims of violence and the poor. He spoke of reconciliation and peace. The high point of his oratory was a striking image: he spoke of a political fork in the road and called for an election to allow people to choose the way forward.

“Today we stand at a crossroads,” he said. “We stand at a place where there is a road to democracy and there is a road to anarchy. I trust that we will see in the coming days the vast majority of the people taking to the road of democracy.”

Had he been able to hear Paisley’s words, Captain Terence O’Neill, the prime minister of Northern Ireland at the outset of the Troubles, would have done a proverbial spin in his grave.

At eighty, Paisley has a longer and clearer political memory than most of his political contemporaries. O’Neill was a gentlemen amateur class of politician who could not sustain even the most basic reforms of the Northern Irish state, squeezed, as he was, between the bellicose opposition of a younger Paisley, and an impatient Civil Rights organisation.

Paisley, in his unscripted reference to this key note in history, understands that O’Neill’s questions contain the key political litmus in today’s calmer, peaceful society as much they did in the tumultuous days of 1969:

“Ulster stands at a crossroads,” he told them. “What kind of Ulster do you want? A happy, respected province . . . or a place continually torn apart by riots and demonstrations?”

And worse, as it happened.

The difference between the O’Neill of ’69 and the Paisley of ’06 is twofold. One, there is no significant player to the Big Man’s political right to upturn any arrangements he agrees. And two, his organisation is now as professional and able to move quickly to quell internal dissent, as O’Neill was a singular amateur and almost completely alone in his attempts to head off what became a nasty and low level thirty year war.

As one of my colleagues at Queens said just after last year’s virtual Westminster wipeout for O’Neill’s successors in the UUP, “we have heard the death knell of amateur politics”. However, in lieu of the re-start of devolved institutions, we still await ‘product’ from its now reasonably well paid professional progeny.

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  • dolt

    Ministerial Accountability (Part 1)

    The DUP are widely arguing that they have secured additional accountability mechanisms. But does this claim stand up to analysis?

    Jim Allister in his (purportedly) negative response claimed:

    “Among the potential positives are…the introduction of accountability in respect of decisions by Ministers and in North/South bodies should prevent repetition of rogue decisions by rogue ministers in defiance of the wishes of the Assembly”

    Is this true?

    The first thing we must recognise is that there is absolutely no change in the ‘additional’ accountability mechanisms since the Comprehensive Agreement of 2004.

    So what will it mean in practice?

    The new Ministerial Code includes existing provisions (in article 3 of Annex A) but also carries purportedly ‘additional’ provisions under article 4:

    4. The Code will also provide for the discussion of and agreement on any issue which is significant or controversial and:
    (a) clearly outside the scope of the agreed Programme for Government or
    (b) which the First Minister and Deputy First Minister agree should be brought to the Executive.

    Issues under a Minister’s authority which require ‘agreement’ are those which are ‘clearly’ outside the Programme for Government or which the office of First Minister/Deputy First Minister agree on. As Sinn Fein will likely hold DFM for the foreseeable future, the only additional impact will be where a Minister is working outside the terms of the PfG. In such cases, they can be held accountable to a vote inside the Executive. As per the Belfast Agreement, Ministers are only ever supposed to act within the Programme for Government in any case given the existing Ministerial Guidelines. So little of any consequence has been gained here. If Martin McGuinness was to ban the 11+ again, this wouldn’t stop him as a review of the selection process was on the original Programme for Government.

    Similarly in regard to Strand 2 Arrangements:

    17. The Code would provide that draft NSMC and BIC decision papers would be circulated to all Executive members within a period (to be decided by the Executive) in advance of a scheduled NSMC or BIC meeting. Any member of the Executive would have the right to seek an Executive discussion on such a paper. Notwithstanding the lead Minister’s executive authority in his/her area of responsibility as defined in the Agreement, where the Code provided that certain matters should be considered/agreed in the Executive Committee (see paragraphs 3 to 5 of the British Government’s Strand One proposals), this would apply to any draft NSMC/BIC decision papers falling within those agreed provisions.

    So ‘any member of the executive would have the right to seek an executive discussion on such a paper’. Note this is a ‘discussion’ not ‘agreement or vote’. A Minister would have his/her decisions discussed but not subjected to a vote (this is important below).

    To reinforce the point the article specifically excludes Ministerial authority: ‘Notwithstanding the lead Minister’s executive authority’ which excludes that from the applicability of this article. Then it refers to areas falling within the Code (as defined above and pretty much as per the initial Belfast Agreement). Effectively, what this means is anything arising in the NSMC which is outside the PfG or existing Ministerial code requires Executive Agreement (not just discussion). Again, this is not a position significantly advanced from the old Ministerial Guidelines.

    In regard to the Assembly holding Ministers to account:

    6. Assembly referrals for Executive review. An amendment to the 1998 Act would provide for referrals from the Assembly to the Executive of important ministerial decisions. Thirty members of the Assembly might initiate such a referral, within seven days of a ministerial decision or notification of the decision where appropriate. Before he could pass the referral to the Executive, the Presiding Officer, following consultation with the parties in the Assembly, would be required to certify that it concerned an issue of public importance. The Executive would consider the issue within seven days. A second referral could not be made by the Assembly in respect of the same matter. Only matters covered by the Ministerial Code, as set out above, would require a collective decision by the Executive.

  • dolt

    Ministerial Accountability (Part 2)

    So if 30 MLAs decide to refer something they need agreement from the Presiding Officer – who is likely to be DUP. If they get that then ‘the executive would consider the issue within seven days’. It is critical that the word is ‘consider’ not ‘agree’. Once again, to clarify this, ‘only matters covered by the Ministerial Code, as set out above, would require a collective *decision* by the Executive’. This means that only issues falling within the only slightly expanded Ministerial Code would require a collective decision i.e. a vote.

    So, how are decisions made?

    2. An amendment to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 would provide for a statutory ministerial Code, and place a duty upon Ministers (including junior Ministers), notwithstanding their executive authority in their areas of responsibility as defined in the Agreement, to act in accordance with the provisions on ministerial accountability of the Code. The Code would reflect a requirement for safeguards to ensure that all sections of the community could participate and work together successfully in the operation of these institutions and that all sections of the community were protected. There would be arrangements to ensure that, where a decision of the Executive could not be achieved by consensus and a vote was required, any three members of the Executive could require it to be taken on a cross-community basis.

    The line ‘notwithstanding their executive authority in their areas of responsibility’ effectively excludes Ministerial authority from the application of this Article and reinforces Ministerial Authority. However, the most important bit is the last sentence which states ‘where a decision of the Executive could not be achieved by consensus and a vote was required (note this), any three members of the Executive could require it to be taken on a cross-community basis’.

    So, let’s review the cases above:

    (a) An issue falling clearly outside the PfG – requires agreement (a vote would be required)
    (b) An NSMC issue which falls clearly outside the PfG – requires agreement (a vote would be required)
    (c) An NSMC issue which falls within the Ministers Executive Authority (no vote required)
    (d) A Ministerial Decision sent back by 30 MLAs which falls within Ministerial Code (a vote would be required)
    (e) A Ministerial Decision sent back by 30 MLAs which is within a Minister’s competancy (no vote required).

    Now the three Ministers rule only applies to cases ‘where a decision of the Executive could not be achieved by consensus and a *vote* was required’. So all this legislation effectively gives the DUP is that Ministerial decisions which clearly fall outside the PfG can be subjected to a vote and that 3 Ministers can require that to occur on a cross-community basis. This is pretty much *as is* as Ministers are not supposed to act outside the Programme for Government in any of their dealings – is this the great concession that is being flagged up by the DUP?

    Most notably in regard to the 3 Ministers line, as Unionists would already hold a majority in the Executive, they would be able to halt any such decision without this line in any case. However, the 3 Ministers line gives Sinn Fein an equal authority to do that also and so all executive safeguards are dispensed to both communities equally. Quite why the DUP look at this as a victory for themselves is beyond me.

    It is this 3 Ministers rule which might result in a slightly more circumlocuted Executive – but again none of this impacts on Ministerial Executive Authority so long as it is not *clearly* outside the Programme for Government.

    So we have to ask ourselves, just why is it that even Jim Allister is misrepresenting (and over-selling) the new Agreement? Are the DUP so stupid that they don’t understand this or are they trying to sell a pup to their supporters?

  • lib2016

    “..are they trying to sell a pup to their supporters?”

    Works for politicans everywhere else!

  • O’Neill )stolen name) was not an amateur. He was among the lkast of the “aristocratic Unionists” who had milked the sox counties since Partition. The terrorist baton was then passed down to Faulkner, Trimble and a motley crew until it ended up where it is today, in the sullied hands of Ian Kyle Paisley. Paisley has a lot ot answer for, as do his puppets, Robinson, Adams and McGuinness.

  • Nevin

    “(e) A Ministerial Decision sent back by 30 MLAs which is within a Minister’s competancy (no vote required).”

    Not necessarily, dolt. There’s another avenue:

    “4. The Code will also provide for the discussion of and agreement on any issue which is significant or controversial and:
    (a) clearly outside the scope of the agreed Programme for Government or
    (b) which the First Minister and Deputy First Minister agree should be brought to the Executive.”

    Of course, it would require agreement by the FM and DFM.

    As the Code has yet to be compiled and agreed perhaps all assertions are a trifle premature.

  • dolt

    Nevin,

    Point taken about things not being finalised but do you think that the essence of the SAA is going to be changed at this stage? And Sinn Fein to agree to it?

    Also, I agree that there is an alternative course open to the DUP – if something is agreed by both FM/DFM then yes it could be controlled. The main problem with that is that Sinn Fein will have DFM for the foreseeable future – are they going to refer issues back against their own ministers? Not likely.

    So DUP misrepresentations stand. They have achieved virtually nothing of significance in regard to ministerial accountability apart from a slightly harder code and co-equal abilities to hold things up which are outside the PfG.

  • Mick Fealty

    TG:

    Beyond the rough sloganising, what precisely is your argument here?

    I’m drawing, in part, from Alvin Jackson’s critical analysis of O’Neill’s performance in government in his book Home Rule, and that of others including Patterson and Elliott.

    Paul Dixon for instance in Nothern Ireland: the politics of war and peace, quotes the NILP chairman who:

    told Roy Jenkins that the UK government should support the ‘extremist’ Faulkner against O’Neill, ‘as a man capable of carrying his party with him. Roy Jenkins appeared to be fascinated at the suggestion that reforms were most likely to be secured, and bloodshed avoided, by supporting the ‘bi-got’ against the ‘moderate’.’

    It is a matter of intense conjecture whether Faulkner could have made a difference early on, by the time he did get control, the whole show was blown.

  • parcifal

    Mick,
    Surfing the long tides of Slugger, managed to fish this one out from the archives two years ago.
    Rebel columns…

  • Mick Fealty

    Indeed Parci. Same place I found the link above.

  • Nevin

    Dolt, it wouldn’t surprise me if the good ship SAA “Con” sank under the weight of its own ambiguities …

    The Governments will wish to keep the Sinners sweet so the DUPpies are likely to end up on the losing side.