Stormont: a brief retrospective; then glimpsing forward…


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Last Thursday I was asked by NICVA to present to a range of voluntary organisations on the first 19 months of the reinstated democratic institutions. I began with a reminder of where we’d been before; and the significance, in public diplomacy terms, of the Chuckle Brothers routine. And thence on to where I believe the events (and non events) of the last 19 months have taken us.

The presentation kicks off with an allusion I made in May 2007 to David McKie’s Two Monsters children’s book. The idea that the two ‘monster parties’ of Northern Irish politics have won out is still something that some still find difficult to bear. Particularly those in the so-called ‘moderate middle’ who continue to struggle with why the two ‘extremes’ have ended up wielding quite so much power.

The short answer is pretty straightforward. The negotiations at St Andrews, in which all but Sinn Fein and the DUP were sidelined by the two governments, tightened the Belfast Agreement in a number of small but significant ways. In effect, we have what are now three distinct and quite separate tiers of government: the Legislative Assembly; the Executive; and the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister. The last and most important of these is now plushly headquartered in the Scottish baronial (for Barony the cynics, and ‘moderates’, will almost certainly claim it is) style of Stormont Castle.

This removal from the collective melee at Parliament Buildings to the Castle is a temporal fastening of those apparently small legislative changes. To wildly overblow the distinction, you might suggest OFMDFM has become a kind of mini White House to a peculiarly client Congress on the hill. If nothing else, what those infamous 154 missing days from the Administration’s business proved was that nothing can happen within the Executive, without the prior agreement of the two Castle-bound parties of OFMDFM.

In essence, it usefully reduces the complexity of settling between seven parties in the Assembly to a more manageable two; making agreement between SInn Fein/DUP critical to the smooth running of a four party mandatory coalition; not least since, between them, they control seven out of the ten Ministerial departments. OFMDFM minders have even been known to ‘meet and greet’ arrant ministers from the minor parties who significantly depart from their ‘Castle-authorised’ hymn sheets during live broadcasts, as they emerge from the studio in no uncertain terms.

If there is no official Opposition, then the two smaller parties in the Executive are at times certainly treated like one. Stories abound of Ulster Unionist and SDLP ministers spending the preliminaries of an Executive meeting trying to catch up with policy papers they’d only just been issued with immediately prior to the meeting, whilst their apparently pre-briefed DUP and Sinn Fein counterparts relax and chat amongst each other.

The concentration of power even in the hands of such previously irreconcilable opposites, makes life less complicated than it would have been under the individual ministerial automony of the Belfast Agreement. Though it has already suffered some notable failures in the past year and a half. The ‘no brainer’ each year has been the postponement of the Water Rates. An expensive luxury, but usually popular across the Executive.

Yet the cutting of funding to CTI demonstrates what happens when there is no agreement possible within the newly strengthened top tier. Without a consensus for action within OFMDFM, the Castle’s incumbents resorted to the possibility/likelihood that Ms Ritchie would buckle under various external and internal pressures. Utter chaos ensued when she didn’t. The result of a judicial review is expected any day now.

Then there was those lost 154 days. It became an aimless Buile Suibhne kind of wandering, which ended, we are told, with an understanding that something (ie the devolution of policing and justice) will happen some time soon. The other two major items of their list of demands, and Irish Language Act, and an end to selective education seem destined for a respectively quick and languorous disappearance.

If the DUP-inspired reforms at St Andrews toughened OFMDFM’s hand against the Executive, it also re-enforced the government-whipped strangle hold upon the Assembly. On Thursday, at NICVA the Speaker informed us there are now ten pieces of legislation teed up to come through the Chamber. But given that most will have already been firmly agreed to within the joint offices of Stormont Castle, there seems little likelihood that the Assembly in plenary will be tempted to bite the hand that keeps its vast majority fed.

What independence it will enjoy will be at the edges; and mostly though the communitaire offices of the Committees. What freedom of action the Assembly is able to exercise in plenary depends crucially on the Speakers Office remaining rigorously independent; and fostering a culture of independence amongst speakers from the floor. The danger is that its role reduces to little more than a salaried Electoral College; whose primary job, aside from scrutinising the detail of legislation in the more powerful committee system, is merely to choose the specific members of the Executive.

Yet, before we get too maudlin about this reinforcement of an already rigorously top down process, it’s also worth pondering some of the benefits to the Northern Irish public at large.

This settlement may mark the beginning of the end of old constitutional politics. Sinn Fein may be prevented from enacting anything even vaguely radical by what must be one of the most conservative political settlements since the founding of the Swiss Confederation in 1291. But neither can that settlement run without them. No one is locked out on foot of their settled view of the ‘national question’.

The efficacy of street politics also seems set to ebb, although that may take many years to effect in a society that has become accustomed to the instant gratification that comes with the pragmatic short circuiting of due process justice and law.

Old discourses will find it more difficult to gain purchase on the public imagination, as the interdependence with far flung global economies becomes more obvious and economically pressing. Already, the improved performances from local politicians on programmes like Let’s Talk and the recent visit of Question Time to Newry demonstrate the new premium our politicians are putting on matters external to Northern Ireland’s historic domestic rows.

Competence in health, education, economic matters and Northern Ireland’s contribution to the global environment are set to be the key markers of political progress rather than the integrity of the old, old quarrel.

If the former parties of the extremes still demonstrate a ruthless edge over the former incumbents, it is in now service to a nascent, if queerly shaped, liberal democracy. It remains to be seen whether such a rigid system can ever deliver the kind of lithe, intelligent government that can deliver good governance for its people that some of the incumbents of Stormont Castle hope it will.

It has been, as Frank Millar memorably noted this Autumn, A Triumph of Politics. And not simply the politics of the current incumbents of Stormont Castle, even though at this stage they are critically important to Northern Ireland’s future success. But also of their British predecessors; not to mention those of the Republic’s under the agency of the Department of Foreign Affairs; and of the US through its State Department.

And those of the previous local democrats who tried and failed, often under withering fire (both rhetorical and real), over several generations to attain the kind of hamely politics that now seems to be settling in.

Tus measra maith, is truly half the, admittedly pedestrian, work. But it remains to be seen whether such a mandatory coalition (for which read ‘Cantonised Confederation’) really can deliver the good deal the two respective communities plainly hope for. Irish history is a patchwork of long (sometimes very long) periods of settled moderation, followed by sudden, often violent outbursts.

The acid test may be the degree to which our politicians are prepared to stick to their decidedly modest lasts and, at the end of the day, be determined to have something worthwhile to show for it

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty