Back to arguing

After a brief appearance of possible civility: SF and the DUP seem to be back to attacking one another’s position in the executive. The problems of course are lack of trust, fundamentally differing aspirations, the legacy of the past etc, etc. but at the moment they are manifesting as differing views of the nature of the partnership government forced by mandatory coalition.Much as I may personally distrust one party and loathe the other: I can see that both are holding intellectually sound positions. On the DUP side one can justifiably argue that if they cannot reach agreement on a given issue they should set it aside and get on with the rest of government. There are clearly more than enough other issues to be addressed and most of them are pretty uncontroversial and indeed many would help SF’s constituency just as much as the DUP’s.

Equally, however, SF can argue that in a partnership government both partners need to get some of their wish list enacted or at least some compromise on their favourite things. SF are of course getting some of what they want (hands on the levers of power). However, they have built the issues of the ILA, Maze and P&J into massive issues; almost a touch stone of the acceptability of the whole agreement. In addition the arguments about their issues seem to have become dichotomised into absolutes: either policing and justice is devolved or it is not; there either is or is not an Irish Language Act, either the Maze stadium (complete with “shrine”) is built or it is not. Then add in the mutual veto and the zero sum game nature of politics here and the DUP become extremely unlikely to give way.

Even if SF gave a bit and watered down some of their proposals (as they appeared to when Alliance were mooted for P&J) that does not force the DUP to give ground. Equally of course if the DUP were to accept some form of compromise on any of the above issues they would have lost in the dichotomy: there would be an ILA, or a Maze shrine, or devolved policing and justice. The DUP also undoubtedly fear that if any of these issues were allowed in they would be added to by SF in the future: even a weak ILA would become more prominent, the shrine would be talked up endlessly, SF would eventually get some control of P&J. Also of course on any of those issues they would hand the UUP and TUV an enormous stick with which to beat them. As Pete Baker has repeatedly noted SF failed to force the DUP to sign up to giving the ILA, the Maze or a timetable for P&J and the more SF complain about these issues and make them Republican shibboleths, the more the DUP will feel the need to oppose them.

Again a major problem for SF is that they are the ones who want major and controversial change whereas the DUP’s agenda is essentially that of normal boring government. The danger in that is that SF by using their current tactic of blocking everything, look as if they are only interested in issues which are fairly peripheral to the lives of ordinary people, especially in the credit crunch. Exactly what local politicians could do about the credit crunch is in fairness unclear but it makes an easy debating point against them to complain that they will not address bread and butter issues.

The problem centres around a series of essentially unanswerable issues: The parties are trapped in a mandatory coalition and with a mutual veto. They cannot split up and try to form an alternative executive. They cannot overcome the veto. Even when there is another election it is almost certain to return essentially the same situation. A programme for government cannot be agreed after the election during the coalition building phase in the way it would in any other coalition government due to the almost diametrically opposed positions of the parties and the inevitability that they will be in government together.

Even leaving aside the TUVish arguments about “terrorists in government”, the current system seems completely unable to deliver coherent government. The agreements supporters tend to answer this sort of comment by suggesting that any alternative would be worse. The problem with that line of reasoning is that as the whole process continues to look ever more farcical the alternatives will have to keep getting worse in order to keep pace. Otherwise people may decide to try something different. Of course the whole thing may yet be sorted out: this may all be window dressing for a deal already hammered out. That used to be the position I tended to adopt: I am beginning to wonder if that was an error.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.