With the executive now seemingly deadlocked longer than it has been functioning, threat and counter threat exposed as ineffectual and now the apparent unraveling of even the limited agreement made, is it time someone brought the matter to a head?With Sinn Fein apparently rowing back on the form of the Policing and Justice Ministry, and the DUP’s stance seemingly dictated by Jim Allister, the Assembly seems locked in a death spiral. In normal circumstance it would probably do little harm to allow it to spin out, and hope that eventually reality would dawn. We have, after all, been here before. However, the economic crisis has changed the calculus. While the economic storms will hit whether our politicians sort things out or not, there are a number of actions the Assembly could take to alleviate the worst of the pain. Key among them is likely bringing forward capital projects to help a construction sector that is circling the drain. In any case, just the drain in confidence is doing us no good.
I fully expect someone to pop up to state that SF should seem allow meetings to go ahead. The response is simple; the DUP could simply agree to let Policing and Justice through in some form. The suggestion that either side will voluntary back down is naive, as is the suggestion that capitulation is a viable long term solution. Some of the underlying problems need solved in order to progress.
It is unlikely that the fundamental differences between the DUP and SF are going to be resolved any time soon. But there are several unknowns and assumptions that are helping to fuel this crisis. The DUP is clearly frightened of the TUV making even modest gains by attacking them from the right. Sinn Fein is clearly concerned about the drip drip loss of support and reaction from its base over support for the PSNI and the failure to deliver the devolution of P&J. It also assumes, perhaps lazily, that there is little imminent threat from the SDLP. Even the Alliance party seems concerned with electoral dangers in going back on its position as the leading party of opposition and accepting a policing and justice ministry.
An election would make some of these uncertainties more certain. It would also force the parties to make their respective cases on Policing and Justices directly to the electorate, who may be more unforgiving of poor argument than in happier times and it is unlikely that the pieces would fall exactly as they are now. Even if both main parties are returned largely unchanged, there may be advantages. It would be almost inconceivable that a new Assembly could be convened simply to deadlock, and the option of going back to the electorate again in that circumstance would seem to be remote. The question would then become an existential one, and a starker choice may help create some more fluid positions.
Either main party could pull the trigger; there are risks and advantages to both in taking this course. Clearly something needs to change to break the current impasse. If not the people in a democracy, what can?