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.

  • abucs

    Our little experiment might just invent democratic transparency.

  • joeCanuck

    Thus far the spokesmen of the larger nationalist party have proved remarkably wooden, unresponsive to change and short of ideas.

    History has shown time and time again that successful guerrilla fighters do not necessarily make good politicians.
    One of the more recent examples being Mugabe.
    And before people come on objecting to my term and screaming that they are murdering bas….. the regulars on Slugger know what I think of them.

  • interested

    If the two ‘minor’ parties want different spending plans then what alternative proposals have they put forward to amend the draft budget?

    Has there to date been a single suggestion from either McGimpsey and Ritchie (Reg doesn’t seem that bothered so we’ll leave him out) as to where the extra money they want could actually come from.

    Its very easy (incredibly easy in Margaret Ritchie’s case) to simply bleat constantly for more money, but even a child can realise that there isn’t an endless pot of money. In that case there are only two places that money can come from – another Department or from ratepayers pockets. Given that both parties allegedly don’t support water charges or rate rises they must therefore want money to be taken from another Department.

    In that case its for them to put forward which Departments should have a cut and which services should be cut to fund their spending.

    The other question for McGimpsey is that with more extra money than the other 10 Departments put together, just how much exactly would satisfy him? 60%? 70%? 80% ALL of it???

  • aninnocent

    Each Government Department is subject to Article 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Is the ‘budget’ by law a political decision and not subject to Article 75 or a decision by the Department of Finance and subject to Article 75? If the latter, or a combination of both, the UUP and SDLP should be contacting the Equality Commission on the grounds that their Departments are being discriminated against simply because their Ministers hold a different political opinion.

    Article 75. – (1) A public authority shall in carrying out its functions relating to Northern Ireland have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity- (a) between persons of different …… political opinion….

  • interested

    Ahhh,,, but according to McGimpsey and Ritchie now they’re just being persecuted for trying to put forward ideas to improve the budget… they’re not trying to wreck it but just take part in the consuntation.

    The deathly silence of any actual proposals is the problem there of course. They’re not being persecuted for having a different opinion – they don’t have any opinion at the minute other than to cry for more more more more more more more more……

    The views, particularly from the UUP show where some of the tensions lie. Really, apart from a bit of show-boating recently Reg Empey has been remarkably silent over the budget – lets face it, he doesn’t want to see the Assembly and Executive collapse, but there are some, plenty, within his party who actually are encouraging it and they see the budget as a way to destablise things. Perhaps his Ministerial colleage sees it as a way to get rid of Reg and move into leadership. Basil McCrea’s already sitting there itching to get Reg out so it isn’t hard to imagine there are more where he came from…

  • DC

    “History has shown time and time again that successful guerrilla fighters do not necessarily make good politicians.”

    Have to agree, having watched McGuinness round on Alliance without much substance other than arrogance to then turn and see Paisley, of all people, smile in warmth and agreement with McGuinness over a nothing but a misstatement of a retort, it finally dawned that McGuinness lacks the political punch in terms of a critical response to concerns of a lack of Executive collective responsibility.

    Devenport had documented it on his blog but he is often using humour instead of substance too, perhaps he doesn’t want to be seen to take sides on this, but from a BBC perspective surely rallying around democracy would be better than trying to round up a few jokes at Alliance’s expense. It is this sort of subtle tolerance to such remarks that gives the BBC a bad name.

    The comments from McGuinness about ‘wee games’ and David Ford being ‘serious’ gives the impression that McGuinness, as a minister, isn’t really taking democracy that seriously and feels quite possibly that it his rightful, if not devine, place at Stormont and this should steady swaying members or humble dissenters.

    However, McGuinness is too phlegmatic for any of that charismatic appeal to work in a way that he thinks that it does just because of him being ‘who he is’.

  • I know what you mean DC, I saw McGuinness turning his intimidating stare on David Ford in the chamber. Shame it’s not quite as intimidating when you don’t have a large private army backing you up any more, apparently.

  • Mick Fealty


    With respect, the two party leaders where not arguing they were being persecuted: simply that SF and the DUP were demanding the cover of unanimous consensus in public whilst operating ‘majority rule’ inside the Executive.

    To be fair to Peter, Martin and Co, it’s probably easier to make functionable decisions within a practical timetable, by cutting the smaller parties out of the internal consensus.

    But that chosen stratagem is having unintended consequences. I would also point out that it is the Finance Minister’s responsibility to resolve the problem of competing demands on a limited budget, not the spending ministers. It’s a line that will earn him diminishing returns the longer it remains ineffective.

    Cutting the small parties out of the loop has created an opposition within the Executive. There may be a limit as to how far that opposition can leverage the limited advantage that can bring them. But, in the face of being serially set up, who could blame them for refusing to take the bait?

    Had Robinson been able to establish watertight collective responsibility within the Executive from the outset, none of this would be happening. But then, none of the parties would have been able to elicit any political differentiation out of what might otherwise be politburo decisions to be rubber stamped in the Assembly.

    Whoever ultimately gains out of this untidy, if entirely parliamentary, guerilla warfare, there is a windfall here for the general public, at least in the short term. Ordinary voters are getting an opportunity to see what actual positions the parties are taking up inside cabinet. And plenty of material upon which to base their electoral judgements next time out.

  • DC

    If David Ford wants to be serious or feels seriously about matters then that’s well and good but the whole smirking issue just didn’t divvy.

    The only persons who seem to be smirking in reality are Mssrs McGuinness and Paisley, bizarrely usually together and at each other.

    But this issue was really about democracy and democracy at work or not working and have to say that Devenport has been too keen to play along with this subtle form of bullying of minor parties by making out that David Ford was a) put down, and b) savaged by McGuinness.

    McGuinness was just arrogant, from a neutral viewpoint, it was nothing that remarkable so why a BBC journo played it up as something other than what it was is open to questions.

  • lib2016

    We are still at the early stages of building a reasonably stable system here so naturally we have disputes about where the power should lie i.e. with the Executive, with the Assembly, with the Committees or with individual Ministers.

    As far as I’m concerned it is great to see the lads (and far too few lassies!) getting stuck into real politics at long last. What does surprise me is that anyone outside the Assembly worries about the intricacies of all this sparring.

  • Belfast Gonzo


    I also noticed that SF had four statements in two days, all blasting Margaret Ritchie over her saying she will not be able to build social housing and will be cutting the Warm Homes scheme because of her lack of budget.

    But isn’t there a contradiction between Micky Brady calling her policies ‘neo-liberal’ (implying she’s cutting public expenditure on social benefits) and Pat Doherty urging her to be more ‘neo-liberal’ by selling off public assets, what like Michelle Gildernew did? Twas almost reminiscent of Peter Robinson’s days in charge of Castlereagh – “Rates too high? Find me some public parkland to sell to a developer!”

    Sinn Fein isn’t really a left-wing party, but in having a dig at Ritchie, it looks a little confused.

  • lib2016

    “…..guerilla leaders do not make necessarily make good politicans.”

    On the other hand Mandela did reasonably well and most electors seem happy with peace and a working Assembly. Maybe some of us remember the total statis we got when the other parties were in power.

  • joeCanuck

    You missed a key point lib.
    “do not make necessarily make..”

  • DC

    Mandela had charisma and boombas of the Muhammed Ali variety, now McGuinness and his own unique bog accent will remain forever without that.

  • Mick Fealty


    SF’s shift to the right makes good sense if Republicanism is about unification. It’s only by tight fiscal regulation of spending that the two economies stand the remotest chance of aligning.

    The damage is not the natural confusion arising from that: though it might, in part, account for the wooden script-based performances of many of its junior MLAs. It is, rather, the apparent deception of forcing a policy on the housing minister in a vote that it seems to have believed was taken in camera, and then trying to crudely pin the blame for it on her ipso post facto.

    The other weakness of this is that the Executive vote was not as decisive as it was clearly meant to be. Thus Empey’s serial emphasis on the word ‘draft’. Meaning, we can only suppose, that it ain’t over yet!

  • lib2016


    Yeah – and Mandela was a lousy terrorist but a brilliant statesman. Comparisons are rarely perfect.

    It should be admitted though that the general public do prefer to see our leaders being reasonably affable.

    The SDLP and especially the UUP are very close to gaining the title ‘Nasty Party’. It’s not the way to go if they want to attract voters.

  • Mick Fealty

    Great guys. Lib’s perfectly entitled to following this line because he didn’t introduce the man playing element to this thread.

    But what happens when you engage in ad hominem argument, rather than attend to the weightier matters in hand is that you, literally in this case, lose the thread.

  • Belfast Gonzo


    I wouldn’t disagree that SF moving to the economic right is good for the economy. But I do wonder how Brady feels about Doherty’s suggestion. It’s still a side issue to your substantive point about shafting the Minister after agreeing her budget, but the inevitable outcome is that Ritchie now has choices to make – cutbacks are probably impossible to avoid (so the Minister will take care to cut back on the more emotive services!) but another way to make up the shortfall is, as Gildernew has done, is sell off public assets.

    This sits well with Robinson, whose DUP is heavily in favour of privatisation of public assets. But how does it sit with the lower echelons of left-leaning Shinners?

    It might not be a huge issue for SF now, but then the economy didn’t seem like a big problem before the last election in the Republic either.

  • Mick Fealty

    Sorry to be overly pedantic (and Pete, I know that’s your job) Gonzo.

    What I infer from yesterday’s exchange is that SF voted with the DUP for a cut, whilst the minister herself voted against it. Thus the exhortations that she should be creative, which whilst it’s an incredibly weak and cosmetic line is nonetheless fair comment, so far as it goes.

    But if, as Durkan claims, they are briefing constituents that it is the Minister and not them who are the primary advocates of what is still a proposed cut, they are giving away a rather nasty hostage to fortune.

    Now, that may well be open to correction, but it looks like double dealing. Fine, reading momentarily from Nicolo Machiavelli, if you can get away with it. But not if you get caught, as in this case not just once but twice, performing the same trick.

  • Shore Road Resident

    Strange Mick, don’t you think, that these SF tactics of backing a cut in Ritchie’s budget then blaming her for the cuts are flagged up days in advance on the front page of the Andersonstown News? Reading its ‘news’ report from Cairan Barnes you would have no idea at all that she is working within a DUP-SF determined limit.
    If this sort of coverage has not been actively pre-arranged with Sinn Fein then the propogandist hacks at Teach Basil are even more fully pre-programmed than I’d thought.

  • joeCanuck

    Comparisons are rarely perfect.

    Excuse me for a moment, lib, I didn’t make any comparisons.
    I simply said that being a successful guerrilla leader (or terrorist as you say) does not necessarily make a good politician.

  • Mick Fealty


    There’s no reason why journo’s should not take briefing from political parties. I often talk to people inside parties and indeed, I’ve a meeting with a senior Tory staffer tomorrow morning in London. You cannot get a feel for the ‘game’ without some contact. And I have more than once had my fingers burnt by taking a bum steer in that way. Ciaran’s clearly been sold a pup here:

    “Ms Ritchie is again facing the wrath of West Belfast after she announced not a single social need house may be built during 2008 at a recent Stormont meeting.

    “Plans to construct 500 new homes in various locations including Hannahstown, Devonshire and Distillery Street are now in jeopardy.

    “Sinn Féin Assemblyman Fra McCann yesterday warned that it could be years before construction work begins on the much-needed projects. He said: “This is a disgrace. Those most in need in our society are the ones who will suffer. The future of up to 500 new homes in West Belfast is now in jeopardy because of this ridiculous decision.”

    It’s more difficult to be charitable about Fra McCann’s statement, knowing what we now know about his own ministers’ support for the cut, and Ritchie’s resistance. Did he not know the truth? In which case, was he deliberately misinformed? Or did he know? In which case he was almost certainly being economical with the truth, and in the process severely misleading the West Belfast public!

  • Frank Sinistra


    No chance you are falling for SDLP spin on this?

    She didn’t have much complaint about the Budget at the start

    Commenting following the announcement of the Programme for Government, Investment Strategy and Draft Budget, the Minister said: “The Executive has made a good start in getting down to tackle the many difficulties facing people in Northern Ireland..

    “I welcome the commitment in the Programme for Government to providing decent affordable housing although the draft Budget settlement will present me with significant challenges in improving the provision of social and affordable housing and delivering social security benefits.

    “My Department received one of the smallest increases in the Draft Budget and I will now have to work very hard along with my officials, to manage within the resources which will be available to us. One of the Executive’s key priorities is to grow a dynamic innovative economy and improve skills levels and while I expect my Department to make a significant contribution to this aim, I acknowledge that the balance of resources should go to Departments such as DETI and DEL.”

    She then goes on about the Investment strategy. It seems clear she accepted the Draft Budget and has now flip-flopped herself on the issue rather than others.

  • Shore Road Resident

    If Ritchie is guilty of anything there, it’s allowing her officials to write her press statements back in the early days of the all-party executive love-in.
    Not a mistake she’ll be making since the UDA funding debacle, I expect – hence this all coming out into the open.
    And if Ritchie can now be accused of “flip-flopping” on the draft budget, so can everyone else. The difference is the personalisation of this SF attack on a single minister.

  • Frank Sinistra

    When the Minister responsible for Social Housing ,who has identified that area as a priority, announces she won’t be building any houses despite a rise in her Departmental budget she deserves called on it.

    If the excuse is now she let a civil servant draft her press release welcoming the budget she now rejects then she deserves even further focus for incompetence.

    The Housing Crisis is her responsibility and she isn’t dealing with it. That’s another failing Minister and this one is getting away with spinning it as others’ fault when it is very clearly is a situation of her own making.

    Yadda-yadda, SF/DUP carve up, yadda-yadda UDA. No yadda-yadda on actually dealing with the central responsibilities of her portfolio.

  • Shore Road Resident

    She voted against the cut to her budget – what more can she do for her budget in the executive?
    The failure of SF to take responsibility for the cut makes its attempt to portray Ritchie as fully responsible a joke.

  • Frank Sinistra

    What cut? She herself says she got the smallest rise. And for someone that voted against it referring to it as a good start seems a little odd, sorry a lot odd.

    This seems like an attempt to spin herself out of not actually being able to deliver on anything of central importance in her portfolio.

  • Mick Fealty


    I’m just interested in the dynamic, which looks to me will either end up in a walk out, or will hit the dead ball line in January.

  • Belfast Gonzo


    Another interesting example of SF’s shift was in how it backed Robinson’s new cap on rates. Now houses up to £400k will have a cap, whereas previously it was half a million.

    The new cap will only benefit a small handful of Northern Ireland’s wealthiest homeowners, yet not a peep from the Shinners…

  • joeCanuck

    I don’t know about January, Mick, but it’s becoming more clear to me as time goes on that the current arrangement definitely has a (very?) limited shelf life.

  • Frank Sinistra


    The accuracy of the SDLP claims are pretty relevant when you are describing some actions as deceit.
    Ritchie had a budget increase and broadly welcomed the draft budget then claimed a decrease and is now rejecting the draft. you taked about this in terms of ‘deceit’, seems you may be applying the decptuion tag to the wrong person – a pretty important point.

    As for the dynamic I doubt there is anything beyond amateur dramatics, the SDLP can decide they didn’t really like the GFA and powersharing after all, they can abandon the NSMC, they can lose their only high-profile position that seems unlikely but the sort of foot-shooting the SDLP are masters at.

  • Outstanding in my field

    You would not have known that there were NO CUTS to her budget. Indeed it is correct that there are is increased money in the pot – although not by as much as many (most?) would like. I imagine that every Minister would like more money.

  • mick

    Stuck on a train at the mo. I’m not sure I’ve got enough access to hansard to go further on this now. Before we get stuck on whether budgets went up or down let’s remember that these are spending ministries. I won’t generalise further till I look at what figures there are available. And I don’t want to be classified as a Blakian idiot.

  • Frank Sinistra


    I’ll save you the effort her budget is +1.6% for 2008/09.

    I’m sure others can argue about how inflation or whatever means an increase is really a reduction.