So where does all this leave the Executive?

If you’re brain is numb with all this fine detail, that probably means you are as up-to-date with this saga as any of us. In case you missed the general story, here’s my own attempt at a recapitulation. Corrections, omissions, additions all gratefully received! Oh the joys of ‘involuntary coalition’!!Peter Robinson is as we speak (this could change) engaged in a stand off with the SDLP’s only Minister in the Executive Margaret Ritchie. It’s getting very messy. He’s said that she was lying about sending him her legal advice as soon as she had it. She’s claiming that the DUP and SF colluded in doctoring minutes that record her agreeing to things she claims were not even formally discussed. A position supported not necessarily supported by Reg Empey and Michael McGimpsey’s dissent from the accuracy of those minutes.

The problem for Ritchie (apart from the death threat now hanging over her head) is that her decision could be reversed after a judicial review. The problem for Robinson is that the Executive’s actions all along have been ambiguous, to say the least. That’s not to mention last night’s public allegation that an Executive colleague lied.

The best you can say about the disputed minutes is that they rather conveniently get rid of an ambiguity that arose back in June when the Minister first raised the possibility of withdrawing a particular funding stream because of the UDA’s continuing misbehaviour.

Ritchie’s contention is that members of the Executive offered ‘no comment’ when she took it to them in June. They complain that she had already made an announcement. But their refusal to even discuss the problem at that early stage has opened an unaccountable void in the chain of command which the Ministerial Code forged in the negotiations for the St Andrews Agreement simply do not cover.

It may also have been a calculated gamble on their part that she would not do something so politically, legally, not to mention mortally dangerous as to actually carry out her threat.

When a policeman was shot at the end of July followed by riots over police house searches a week later in early August, she upped the ante and gave the UDA 60 days notice that she would terminate the funding, if they did not begin to meaningfully engage with the international decommissioning body.

The disputed minutes now record that, at the very last minute, Minister Ritchie obliged herself at an Executive meeting in early October (ie, the day before the funding deadline) to consult her ‘cabinet colleagues’ before making her scheduled announcement in the Assembly last Tuesday, at a meeting slated to happen two days after that announcement.

The fact that they are disputed does not affect the fact that they are now ‘the official version’. That means the Executive, and not Ms Ritchie, is now responsible for making the decision to cut or sustain the funding. Perhaps they will finally get around to having that ‘difficult conversation’ they should have had last June? If they pull the funding, they face a possible Judicial Review.

If they don’t, then some of those that would necessarily be involved in making a decision will face some awkward questions about a very real 180 degree turn from last week when Ms Ritchie was prematurely cast as the UDA funding villain.

Ritchie has already elected to face her dangers. The alternative was to get politically shafted by Sinn Fein who, rather embarrassingly for them, have been flip-flopping on this matter ever since the Minister’s last minute switcheroo on Tuesday. At this stage, she may have little left to lose but to let this whole matter grind through to its conclusion.

But the others appear to be running a high risk strategy. Not simply in confronting Ritchie over a story that in the court of public opinion they cannot win. But if this story does take a further twist and go to court, we might expect Ritchie’s people to open up second and third legal fronts on the internal conduct of government.

Perhaps that’s a loose lid that more than one of her partners in government might prefer was left tight shut?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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