Sinn Fein is now a normal party that needs an opposition

In today’s Irish Times, David Adams touches on two big stories of the last week. He points out that Sinn Fein is now a political party just like any other and it should be treated a such, and some trust investedt aht they no more sanction criminality than anyone else. But he also talks about the scrabbling for clarity on the increasingly enigmatic Ministerial Code, which certainly exists but apparently without much gravitational force. Nevertheless, he argues, that if the two big parties are going to act as a ruling cartel within the Executive, what is in it for the UUP and the SDLP, if they are going to get knocked back on anything they wish to be bring forward that’s not already pre-approved by the big two?By David Adams

Recent events have reminded us of just how tenuous the political arrangements at Stormont still are. First, there was the public row over Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie’s decision to withdraw government funding from the UDA-linked Conflict Transformation Initiative (CTI). Then, reminiscent of times past, suddenly there is a possibility that a despicable crime might bring the Assembly crashing down.

The issue central to the first problem has been all but lost, amid arguments for and against Ms Ritchie’s decision; allegations of bullying, outside interference and negative briefings; claims and counter-claims around procedural matters; and various threats of legal action.

The DUP and Sinn Féin allege that the Minister broke an undertaking to share legal advice and consult with the Executive before taking any decision on whether or not to continue funding the CTI.

Ms Ritchie maintains that she pledged only to share her legal advice with First Minister the Rev Ian Paisley, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, and Minister for Finance Peter Robinson, which she did. Her Ulster Unionist ministerial colleagues, Sir Reg Empey and Michael McGimpsey, agree that she gave no wider undertakings.

All three Ministers subsequently refused to endorse a hastily produced set of minutes that backed the Sinn Féin/DUP version of events. The two larger parties then took the unprecedented step of simply voting the disputed minutes through, regardless. The adoption of these minutes could possibly lay Ms Ritchie open to a charge of breaking her ministerial code of office.

However, none of this has clarified in the slightest where ministerial autonomy for decision-making ends and where, if at all, the Executive’s collective responsibility begins.

If a (heavily disputed) broken promise is the best argument that the DUP and Sinn Féin can mount for censuring a minister over not seeking approval from the Executive before making a public announcement, then self-evidently there is nothing already in place that obliges a minister to seek such approval.

Moreover, if, as was attempted last week, the SDLP and UUP Ministers are going to be overruled on every decision that, for whatever reason, does not meet with the approval of the DUP and Sinn Féin, then the smaller parties are better off without any such obligation.

Yet, neither can we have a situation where ministers are free to do virtually what they like without reference to the Executive.

The answer to this problem is clear: as the minor players in an involuntary coalition, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP should relinquish their ministerial seats and form a loose coalition of opposition.
As I suggested here before (Opinion, March 16th), it is in the interests of both the parties and, more importantly, democratic accountability that they do just that.

If they remain in the Executive, they will get to share responsibility only for unpopular measures like water charges, while the DUP and Sinn Féin will receive all of the plaudits for any successes.

Of substantially more threat to the survival of the Executive than the row over CTI funding was the beating to death of Paul Quinn (21) from Cullyhanna by a gang of men last Saturday evening.

Mr Quinn’s family maintains that members of the Provisional IRA were responsible for his murder. If this proves to be the case, then the DUP will find it extremely difficult to remain in the Executive.

Yet, irrespective of who murdered Paul Quinn, this raises another fundamental question: how long, in a situation where paramilitary groups are disintegrating, do we intend holding Sinn Féin to account for every act of criminality carried out by former or even current members of the IRA?

We trust Sinn Féin enough to hold executive office in Northern Ireland, so surely it is time to trust that they do not sanction, control or necessarily agree with everything done by “republicans”. It is hardly in their electoral interests that unbridled criminality continues in republican areas. Both Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were unequivocal in their reaction to the murder of Paul Quinn.

They condemned it (easy enough for them to do), they described those responsible as criminals (not necessarily so easy), and they called for information to be taken to the PSNI and/or An Garda Síochána (this would previously have been unthinkable). There can be little remaining doubt that Sinn Féin supports policing and the criminal justice system.

We cannot afford for the Assembly to collapse again. Yet, its integrity is damaged more by the hair-splitting semantics of politicians and police chiefs struggling to keep it alive, than it ever could be by an open acknowledgement of a truth that is staring us in the face: Sinn Féin is now as normal as any other political party.

© 2007 The Irish Times

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