From deadlock to deadlock…

Alex Kane was at Stormont in the rain on Friday. He is not impressed with a process that, apparently, has little discernible forward structure. He notes below that, “The DUP and Sinn Fein are being asked to dole out the top jobs in advance of an election in which it is the electorate who are supposed to make the decision about votes and seats”. Even more than the November 2003, this election (if it actually takes place) looks like an election with very little purpose.

Soap operas survive on an odd blend of the dull, the doolalley and, occasionally, the downright absurd; those moments when the storyline is stretched so far that credibility flies out the window. But even the most crackpot of scripts wouldn’t have been able to compete with yesterday’s rumble at the Assembly.

As toothless geriatric dinosaurs roared their over-rehearsed mantras at each other, we were treated to a literal and physical return of the Stone Age. Now, I know that some people will go to great lengths to disrupt David Ford’s moralistic monologues, so no-one was entirely surprised when the fire alarm sounded as he reached his third paragraph. But even the most cynical of MLAs would admit that Mr. Ford’s passionless righteousness is preferable to being stranded for hours in a sodden car park.

And what are we to make of Stone’s contribution to the proceedings? Absolutely nothing, is my advice. The guy is, and always has been, a nutter; and worse than that, the sort of nutter who is hero-worshipped by other nutters. He was released from prison as a consequence of a deal between unionists and republicans and yet there he was, complaining about those same unionists and republicans trying to create an environment in which young people won’t be sucked into paramilitarism. For all of his efforts to convince us that he had become a respectable artist and wordsmith, he reverted to sectarian type with a spray can and a holler of “No Surrender.” Put him back inside and leave him there.

Meanwhile, the day started with Ian Paisley making a speech in which he didn’t actually nominate himself, but nor did he rule out nominating himself in the near future. It would probably take the Hansard equivalent of the Rosetta Stone to understand the true meaning and nuance of the DUP’s position, but it didn’t actually matter, for Peter Hain would have interpreted a grunt and a burp as evidence that the show was still on the road. All that mattered was that the Doc said the words “there can only be a deal with Sinn Fein when…” because for the past forty years he has been saying that “there could never never be a deal with Sinn Fein.”

And am I the only one who regards this nominations farce as an affront to democracy? The DUP and Sinn Fein are being asked to dole out the top jobs in advance of an election in which it is the electorate who are supposed to make the decision about votes and seats. The only thing required from the political parties, all of them, was a commitment to form a government immediately after the election; and, in the continuing absence of that commitment, Mr. Hain should not have called an election. He should have stopped the salaries, locked the Stormont offices and refused to do anything until the parties got together, under their own steam, and hammered out the remaining problems. As it stands we are to have an election to yet another Assembly which has no guarantee of functioning.

The other problem, of course, is that what has become the St Andrews Act provides for power division rather than power-sharing, and the only administration it can hope to produce is one built on utter mistrust and mutual veto. Messrs Robinson and Adams would have us believe that the issue of accountability has been addressed, but it hasn’t. Accountability is based on the opportunity to hold a government to account; to hold the Executive and individual ministers to account; to challenge, amend and defeat government proposals; and, most important of all, to provide the electorate with a genuine choice between an outgoing government and a potential alternative. Some new mechanisms have been included, but they are too cumbersome to be effective and they cannot operate against a background of mandatory coalition in which chipping at each other will lead to mutually assured self destruction.

Yesterday was a bad day for politics, devolution and democracy. I can’t imagine that it is going to get any better in the near future.

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 25th November 2006

  • slug

    I agree that the new devolved government will have very high levels of checks and balances. That will mean that beneficial things like further increases in student fees would be very difficult to get through. However it also means that things only happen if there is broad consent for them. Given the unease with which people regard a new Executive, that is probably not a bad thing. Yes, in principle, it would be nice to have a 65% majority rule and voluntary coalition. But that is an argument for a future day, maybe when we get changes in the leaderships of the political tribes.

  • slug

    “Even more than the November 2003, this election (if it actually takes place) looks like an election with very little purpose”

    There is more purpose than 2003. In 2003 it was clear that there would be no government. Now it seems that there could although it depends on what Sinn Fein decide wrt policing.

  • austin

    “Even more than the November 2003, this election (if it actually takes place) looks like an election with very little purpose.”

    I suspect that this election will actually see a drop in the SF vote leaving the SDLP as the largest Nationalist Party . This will see Durkan elected as Deputy First Minister meaning that unionists’ nightmare scenario of seeing McGuiness installed beside Paisley will be avoided.

    Unionists can then claim that Republicans will have been defeated both militarily and politically.

    Adams has done a sound job in avoiding a significant split in the republican movement thus far but I think that the next election will show that he will finally lost the battle for unity within the movement.

  • joeCanuck

    We certainly could be headed for very interesting times if both SF and the DUP lose around 20% of their support.

  • northsider

    Peter Weir(d) losing the run of himself on The Politics Show now. There’s trouble in the DUP – and it’s fun to watch. Reminds me of Trimbles troubles circa 1997.

  • Greenflag

    ‘And am I the only one who regards this nominations farce as an affront to democracy? ‘

    Alex Kane

    Not at all. It’s involuntary power sharing the negation of democracy. I suspect that this election will actually see a drop in the SF vote leaving the SDLP as the largest Nationalist Party .

    Austin,

    ‘I suspect that this election will actually see a drop in the SF vote leaving the SDLP as the largest Nationalist Party .’

    I suspect that you are not a detective and that your suspicions are based on if not in licensed premises . The election will produce the same result as the last census -ahem -election. Irish Republicans and Nationalists are not going to see Paisley elected as First Minister without a ‘real’ Fenian as his Deputy. The Croppies have finished with lying down as a means of political advancement.

  • Mick Fealty

    Aust,

    That’s an interesting viewpoint. It reflects Francie Brolly’s thinking too. But from where I’m sitting, it just doesn’t add up.

    I have SDLP on win one, lose one, and gain one possible bonus seat. Only the ‘possible’ seat is a straight fight with Sinn Fein. I’m not claiming to have my finger on the electoral pulse, but dissent or no dissent, I only see one vulnerable SF seat in the whole of NI.

    Not even dyed-in-the-wool SDLP supporters think that they are currently placed to do much more than give SF a bloody nose or two.

    Besides if SF don’t call a special Ard Fheis, they avoid having to test your hypothesis, and the Peace Process™ continues not reaching any pre set deadline, never mind resolution.

    We appear to be in a free form political improvisation stage at the moment. Anything can happen I guess, until the Chancellor takes over.

  • Smithsonian

    Fiddling will Rome burns
    While the politicos get excited about their potential share of the vote, the truth of the matter is that Northern Ireland is going down the pan. Public sector, Agricutlure, Education, Policing and Industry are all facing significant restructuring – read job losses, pay freezes and service cuts.

    What we need in this place,is someone to show some real leadership and take some hard decisions.

    The SFA (even if it was agreed) won’t work. Of course our politicians won’t care because their salaries will be safe and they get the opportunity to pretend that they matter, but collectively they fail the people of Northern Ireland.

    But it is not just our local politicians who are at fault, Blair, Hain, Ahern, are all are at fault and so to are the electorate who elect our local politicians(a point made by Mark Durkain). Taken together it is obvious why it is so difficult to do anything about it.

    Alex Kane is not far off the mark.

  • Tiny

    Is it a foregone conclusion to assume there will be an election in March if Sinn Fein don’t back policing and justice?

  • Greenflag

    Smithsonian ,

    Sounds like what Northern Ireland needs is to elect/find / get a ‘new’ people . This could be a challenge beyond even the limited talents of the NI politicians . The only way I can see it happening is by disbanding the NI 6 county State as it is and starting again via an agreed ‘repartition’ of the politically and economically non viable entity of NI .

    The November 24th deadline is now seen as a joke . By April 1st 2007 the March election will also have been seen to be the same joke part 2 🙁

  • Duncan Shipley Dalton

    Alex is correct. The St Andrews agreement did nothing to strengthen democracy or to create institutions that could be more viable. The utter lack of accountability is a disaster. It sees a dysfunctional mechanism put back together and then left to run with no serious opposition or scrutiny. The Assembly lacks an opposition and for people to have a real democratic choice of governments there must be some possibility of the removal of the government in place. As it stands all that is possible is to marginally change the balance of ministers and put a new face on the First and Deputy First ministers. An all party power sharing arrangement was a gamble and a radical experiment, well call me a stickler but the scientific method states that if the results are in and the data says ‘failure’,then you change your experiment, it is time for a restructure of the Assembly executive itself. Of course in our new deal the DUP had promised better accountability but they delivered us Irish language signs in all public places instead, a sorry state of affairs indeed.

  • Smithsonian

    DSD
    I agree that the current arrangements will not work.

    However, they will have to be seen not to work by the people. There is no way to short circuit the process. We will have elections, an executive will be formed but no further progress will be made. Some out of the box thinking will then be required.

    Running with your scientific theme and invoking Einstein “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

    Back to the drawing board

  • slug

    Smith

    You are right. This is a step by step business. A lot of people could see from about 2002 that the assembly set up was a problem with the whole designation system being the worst aspect and the D’Hondt being the second worst. However I believe that there were bigger issues in practice such as decommissioning and policing that had to be tackled first. It is slow but if you believe we are on the verge of a breakthrough on policing then having resolved decommissioning and policing are big steps foward. As you say after a few years of assembly and executive quagmire and mutual veto there will be a process to make things work better; that process will be based on actual experience of things not working. This is the way forward; a bit of experience and learning by what works and doesn’t and taking one step at a time.

  • bertie

    I wonder how much of how this is being played out is due to Blair. He just wants to end on something that can be spun as a high point. If it goes downhill after that, it didn’t happen on his watch.

    Hain too has ambitions to be anywhere else but NI. I wonder who Gordon Brown (if he is the new leader), hates enough to put in as SoS?

  • slug

    Bertie

    Brown will take over at an extremely important time; currently it looks as though he will take over some time after the election but before the devolution of powers.

  • Frustrated Democrat

    What happens if the electorate are fed up with the antics of the DUP:-

    The UKUP take four seats.
    The UUP take two seats there are possibilities – Lagan Valley, North Antrim, North Down .
    The DUP lose 6 seats.

    That would leave the DUP on 26 the UUP 26 and the UKUP on 5 which would mean the DUP would not be the largest party any longer it would be SF.

    It seems from my discusssions on the ground that the percentage of DUP voters that don’t buy into the ‘Fair Deal’ and feel conned is much larger than anticipated. Some are returning to the UUP and some are transferring to the the UKUP if there are candidates standing and some are staying at home for the first time.

    Maybe the possible result is stretching possibilities but the public have seen a fracture in the DUP and they don’t vote for fractured parties making the UKUP seem very attractive to a section of the population.

    Will there be an election?

  • bertie

    “Some are returning to the UUP”

    How would that work?

    Presumably these are anti-BA agreement unionists who are opposed to the SAA? What would bring them back to the UUP?

  • Frustrated Democrat

    They thought they were voting for a party that lived up to its guarantees, a ‘Fair Deal’ for example. They now know for certain the GFA (StAA version even though they like it less)is the only way forward and feel they are better with the devil they knew for many years and not the alternative of McCartney who is trying to be the ‘new’ Paisley.

    Strange people voters very fickle when they have been let down by the people they voted for…. and rates (both kinds) and education are very important to them.

  • bertie

    FD

    For those that were once UUP, one of the reasons most of them left was because the UUP did not live up to its guarentees (no guns no government). If there is a real split within the DUP, that is likely to be reflected amongst its voters. I think that some who are concerned will try and vote for the people within the party who they think will most reflect their views. I think that the others are more likley to go elsewhere, rather than return to the UUP. Apart from the Ervine pact, I think bridges were burnt when people switched from the UUP. Time of course will tell.

  • Smithsonian

    bertie
    People voted DUP in reaction to the McCartney murder and the Northern Bank job. How can we be going into government with these people?

    Paisley promised a new deal, a fair deal, where is it. Paisley said never, never, never, Paisley said over our dead bodies, Paisley wanted sack, clothes and ashes, Paisley wanted photographs. Paisley saw of O’Neill, Faulkner, Trimble. Now Paisley wants to be and do what he critised everyone else for.

    All elections are fought on the basis of trust and delivery. Paisley has delivered nothing and the people no longer trust the DUP.

  • bertie

    Smithsonian

    How would that bring them back to the UUP?

  • Greenflag

    DSD.

    I agree generally with your ‘criticism’ as above . I’d just go one step further . Instead of

    ‘it is time for a restructure of the Assembly executive itself’ I’d say it’s time for a restructure of the NI State itself .

    Involuntary ‘coalitions’ in a powerless Assembly is not what NI needs . It needs a proper democracy and that cannot be delivered given the constitutionally divided nature of the present NI State .

  • Elvis Parker

    ‘they delivered us Irish language signs in all public places’

    Dunc agreed with much of what you said but this is nonsense

  • Smithsonian

    bertie
    Neither the DUP nor the UUP are in a position to affect matters much. If the big concern is to reduce the mandate of SF, only one party can do that (SDLP).

    A vote for the DUP, encourages nationalists to vote for SF, so the logic is to vote for a party that doesnt’ do that.

    Of course if either of the Unionist parties are prepared to enter a coalition with SF and make it work then a different environment emerges.

  • west of the bann

    green flag has espoused to the point of ad nauseum the benefits of re-partition as he sees it.

    What if he’s right.

    sitting here in south down…i see merit

  • Crataegus

    Smithsonian

    Whilst I see your point about having to go through the process of an election to prove the obvious it does seem an appalling waste of time, and really it is time we moved on to important matters.

    Seems to me the only person that this process benefits is Hain as it buys him time and when the proverbial hits the fan he will be well away. What is really sad is that these difficulties were predicted in the original consultations and the initial agreement could have had more robust structures.

    Agree also with your assessment of the legacy of Paisley. I cannot fathom his appeal, a career built on obstructing without any real grasp or overview, and now when he has the opportunity to impress what exactly does he do? He forgets all his pronouncements and delivers what exactly?

    SF have problems which they are astutely avoiding until after the election and then they will doubtless proceed begrudgingly and slowly. So ‘IF’ there is an Executive there are going to be open wounds and lack of any trust.

    Within the DUP and SF we are already seeing discontent. What will save both is lack of sufficiently organised groups to attack them from the flanks. Both Parties may lose a few votes but nothing significant as the votes have no credible alternative home. So regrettably major change unlikely in March.

    This process just isn’t working and we might as well reopen wider consultations on possible improvements now! Why hang about?

  • Smithsonian

    Crataegus
    The people are ready for alternative thinking but it isn’t that easy to set up. The governments are determined to press ahead with SFA type of solution because they don’t have time to start again.

    I also feel that the majority of players are exhausted but I can’t see away of getting new people involved whilst the current scheme is in place.

    I have come to the conclusion that it is more important to get policing sorted out and that no real political progress will be made until normal politics can flourish. Outstanding issues must be resolved first. This will take at least another election possibly two (not counting March 2007)

  • Greenflag

    ‘green flag has espoused to the point of ad nauseum the benefits of re-partition as he sees it. ‘

    Hang on a minute here .What’s this ad nauseam bit ? The so called benefits of the GFA/SAA etc etc going back to the failed Sunningdale Agreement and now the whole nonsense of the DUP attitude to power sharing – has been discussed , reviewed, analysed, parsed , turned inside out , upside down well beyond the ad nauseam stage for almost 40 years . Repartition as a possible and practical solution does not get discussed because it does not fit in with the ‘dreams’ of both extreme factions in Northern Ireland . They would prefer the present political mess to continue at least for their ‘political’ lifetimes.

    The latest farce at Stormont on Friday followed now by ‘dissension’ in the ranks of the DUP makes it even more unlikely that any power sharing Government will ever sit at Stormont and even if it does it will not sit for long . There is SIMPLY no trust between the main parties and the constitutional divide between them is too great .

    ‘What if he’s right. ‘

    There’s no right or wrong in this situation. There is only what can work and what will work from a practical economic and political viewpoint .

    The convoluted undemocratic political pottage of the GFA/SAA/Devolution that is supposed to bring political stability to NI was designed and devised to help ‘moderate’ the gap between both constitutional positions in NI. Instead it has highlighted the gap and driven moderate opinion out of sight .

    Unionism in Northern Ireland has reached a political and economic dead end . It cannot survive in a power sharing 6 county NI . The DUP anti SAA/GFA/power sharing faction understand that . Never mind the present DUP ‘rebels’ insisting that Paisley’s previous ‘nevers’ to power sharing with SF did’nt really mean ‘never’ after all . The point is that the same people were also against power sharing with the SDLP .These people will be against anything or anyone who attempts to move NI an inch closer to the Irish Republic -economically or politically or culturally.

    I believe it’s time that Irish Nationalists and Republicans started taking these ‘irredentist’ Unionists at their word and give them exactly what they want.i.e their own smaller 2 county size predominantly Unionist State following an agreed repartition of Northern Ireland by a neutral international organisation such as the UN or EU .

    How many more decades of farcical nonsense will emanate from the present Northern Ireland State and it’s perennial political and economic woes will people have to go through, before it becomes finally obvious that this humpty dumpty of a State cannot be put back together again neither by all the Queen’s horses or men or by another generation of Secretaries of State or by the DUP.

    In the meantime I suppose the Nov 24 th deadline is now a March ? deadline . This political corpse has further to rot before both governments decide on a decent burial .

    Back to the drawing board indeed . But this time bring in the cartographers and demographers as well and put this NI excresence of a State out of it’s political misery .

  • Crataegus

    Smithsonian

    This will take at least another election possibly two (not counting March 2007)

    Truly depressing that progress can be stalled because of unwillingness to do what is obviously needed and the elevation of factional & personal interests and egos over common good. This process really is for the slow learners. Paisley has a lot to answer for as this could have been done and dusted 30 years ago. A generation wasted.

  • Valenciano

    Mick and Austin,

    Like many I’d love to see the Shinners get a bloody nose but I’m enough of a realist to know it isn’t going to happen. As things stand they have possible gains in West Belfast, West Tyrone, Fermanagh and Lagan Valley – the latter could very well see no Nationalist elected depending on transfers. North Antrim also looks very shaky for the SDLP and Strangford is starting to go the way of Lagan Valley with SF eating into the SDLPs vote so much that an even split could also result in Nationalists missing out.

    UKUP gains? Do be serious, they have no base at all in local government and anyone significant enough to have a chance has since moved to the political dead end of the NIUP who seem to be defunct. McCartney I reckon will lose his seat.

    The real winner in the election is likely to be apathy, why bother to turnout and vote when a sectarian carve up between the two extremes has been pre-decided anyway?

  • Truth and Justice

    Its is true to say people dont support split partys so the UUP have a problem with their support of a UVF/UUP Assembly coalition, hense in recent months they have lost three UUP Councillors and a former MLA. We also see thay they support the St Andrews Agreement with a few snips at the DUP on the way so any disafected DUP voters dont really have any were to go, when we talk about McCartney as a possibility he rejects the St Andrews Agreement but gives no alternative – he would lead Unionism to the Govenments plan B hardly a good election sell! I think the DUP will do rather well!

  • Greenflag

    Crataegus ,

    ‘Paisley has a lot to answer for as this could have been done and dusted 30 years ago. ‘

    True.

    ‘A generation wasted.’

    True also

    And another wasted generation on it’s way .

  • Greenflag

    T & J,

    ‘I think the DUP will do rather well! ‘

    I agree . I also agree they’ll deliver to the people of NI exactly what they’ve been delivering for the past generation – division -sectarianism -constitutional uncertainty-further relative economic emisseration etc etc etc .

    Something to look forward to for some 🙁