A vision for the Hucksters shop

When I read Peter Robinson’s speech yesterday I at first considered that it may have been a joke. It is very strange in a lot of areas.

The most publicity has come from the idea of removing community designation from Assembly voting. This is not a surprise in any way, and if Sinn Fein were thinking about it they, would agree. This would stop the DUP from flagrantly abusing the community designation system as they did to protect Sammy Wilson from criticism when he was Environment Minister. Sinn Fein don’t have such a veto at present, because they don’t have the 30 members needed to spark a community majority vote. It would also take a drop in Nationalist vote share that no one would consider predicting to remove the Unionist/Nationalist veto using a 65% majority voting system. Martin McGuinness’ reaction smacks a little of knee jerk – he should at least be thinking it over rather than slamming the door. Gaskin’s predictably offensive and ignorant contribution is a sad reflection of the poor quality of the republican blogosphere, and furthers the knee jerk reaction.

This section of the speech is clearly not a DUP attempt to better govern Northern Ireland, and it is idiotic to suggest that it is an attempt to achieve majority rule. It smells a lot of a sop to the Alliance Party as payment for their soul together with a Ministerial car. However for that to be the case, surely Sinn Fein would have known about it. If this was mood music to the Alliance, and the DUP didn’t think to tell Sinn Fein, then both parties have demonstrated astonishing stupidity.

However the most interesting section of the speech is, for me, this:

For some time the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP have complained about how Executive business has been handled and that they have been marginalized. At the same time Ulster Unionist and SDLP Ministers have been less than responsible in how they have approached Executive business. But rather than apportioning blame I want to find solutions. That is why pending the introduction of any new measures and as a gesture to the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP I believe we should consider requiring unanimity at the Executive in order to pass decisions.

While no party would be allowed to frustrate the commitments the Executive has made in the Assembly approved Programme for Government, in circumstances where the UUP and SDLP make a good faith effort to work constructively on matters in the Executive DUP Ministers would insist that all decisions will only be taken by consensus and we will not use our votes to override their opposition.

Indeed to make this participation really meaningful, I will ensure that SDLP and Ulster Unionist Ministers have a greater role in relation to Executive business. I cannot speak for the deputy First Minister but I am prepared, if they wish, to meet with UUP and SDLP Ministers in advance of each Executive meeting and to make arrangements so that their Special Advisors are fully consulted and involved in the process.

It is here that we get very close to admission that the Executive really is a Huckster’s shop. Sir Reg Empey used that phrase in complaining about how Executive papers were circulated so late as to be obstructive in scrutiny of important matters. Here it is surely implied that such actions have been deliberate measures to keep the UUP and SDLP outside of the loop. What kind of way is that to run a Government? Not only that, what does it say about the First Minister that he is willing to say that the Cabinet has been run badly in the past, but that he has now seen the light and is prepared to do it properly in future? The reference to unanimity being required in the Executive is fascinating, given that a convention of a three member veto at the Executive was dispensed with by the DUP/Sinn Fein Executive in order to push through disputed minutes. It is also interesting that Robinson claims that the UUP and SDLP have been “less than responsible” in the same speech where he announces that Sinn Fein rowed back on their CSI Strategy position near the end of the process, a fact that would be covered by the “not our practise to comment on Executive business” defence usually deployed when such questions are asked.

In many ways it is a shame that the media attention has been so specific in its focus on this speech, because it’s entirity is worthy of debate. But that debate is not likley to be generous to the DUP.