Asymetrical warfare at Stormont…

One guy has already gone home, because Michael McGimpsey has put Health Service restructuring on ice pending an outcome to the current wrangling over the draft budget. The reason? He takes the view that Sinn Fein and the DUP are acting in concert to force pre-determined spending plans on the three ministers of the two minority parties, regardless of those ministers’ analysis of need. Effectively, the traditional horse trading between spending ministers and Finance is now taking place in open session of the Assembly, allowing those ministers to make their own separate pitch directly to the public.It’s clear that the Empey and Durkan are not prepared to play the fall guys in what at times today turned into a surreal pantomime. Empey:

“Both Sinn Fein and the DUP can carry any vote in this place. What they want to do is use us to when it suits them to cover up for difficult decisions like water rates where they are demanding unanimity, but when it suits them, they just vote us down. They can’t do both of those things.”

The two minor parties between them command 3/4 of the total budget, and probably have little choice but to cut up rough. How well advised the major parties are in firefighting them so publicly and aggressively, thus amplifying an opposition within the Executive that Peter Robinson once conspicuously promised would not occur under his renegotiated agreement, is not yet clear. Empey’s emphasis on the term ‘draft’ may imply that if there is agreement in January, things will largely settle down after that. But that may depend on whether the big two call off ‘their war by other means’.

Sinn Fein, on the other hand, is still trying to lay marks on their only serious target in the Executive, Margaret Ritchie. Not only was she beset by no less than three senior Sinn Fein spokesmen today, but as Durkan alleges that they have also been telling constituents that Ritchie has slashed a prospective housing budget. The truth, it seems, is that Sinn Fein themselves actually supported the cut in the Executive, while Ritchie voted against. Given their past form on this, it’s not a clever move. Not least because it is making them eminently predictable.

Were there real collective Executive responsibility perhaps the ‘story’ may not have leaked. If it had, Ritchie and Durkan might well have been gagged from deploying an effective defence. But in these more open circumstances Sinn Fein in particular is playing a potentially self destructive game. Thus far the spokesmen of the larger nationalist party have proved remarkably wooden, unresponsive to change and short of ideas. In comparison, the smaller battalions of the UUP and the SDLP have found their voice and finally seem prepared to back each other up.

Finally, according to the ancient Chinese General Sun Tzu “war is based on deception.” But in a parliamentary process it is only effective if the voters cannot spot the deceit.