Lessons in democracy

Picking up from Mick here, is it good or back luck that the latest Stormont cliffhanger has been overshadowed outside by just about everything, from a feeble end to the recession, a widening poverty gap, and a week of Middle East obsessions, from Yemen and Afghanistan to Blair? Probably only inasmuch as it prevented Gordon Brown keeping up the pressure in person and shortening his life by, I make it, getting only 8 hours sleep in 72 hours. Whatever the outcome over the next 24 hours, questions about the conduct of politics should be addressed.

Should the governments have intervened before the 11th hour? Argument for:
Danger signals have been evident for over a year. The dynamic of the St Andrews Act was clearly for J&P completion by mid -08 and implementation of language and equality measures. Delay meant a deepening crisis, mediation was always going to be needed.

Argument against
All of the above was local business and an acid test of the 2006 devolution deal. It had to be tested to destruction. If still no deal, let a party resign and have an election. This is democracy at work. Are the DUP privately ruing the day they demanded scrapping the Secretary of State’s power to suspend the Assembly?.

After an election, what then?
It depends on the results. If the DUP remain the largest party we pick up where we left off. Ditto with if a united unionist party is formed. Legally could a unionist grouping short of a party nominate for FM? Probably not without a change in the law (unlikely) but has any authority pronounced?. I f Sinn Fein are the largest party, conventional wisdom says collapse is inevitable.

Hold on. Are there really no alternatives to collapse?

Maybe. Ulster Unionists might accept an SF FM. Trimble (who he?) has said UUs could overhaul the DUP in votes. He described the FM primacy as “symbolic,” implying that the UUP might live with it. Both assumptions are fantasy ( or probably mischief)

Should the Assembly try to reform itself?

Argument for
The Assembly review committee did a good job on the details of J&P. It should act more boldly as a ginger group to end deadlocks. A scheduled review of this Assembly could be brought forward and submitted to the governments. With expert help, the committee might tackle the question: in the present coalition system, should a convention of government be developed, whereby the manifestos of leading parties are implemented as a matter of course, provided they don’t clash directly with the other side?

Argument against
There’s no way a divided Assembly can reform itself further. Other reforms seem even less viable eg allowing designations rather than parties to nominate FM or the radical reform of voluntary coalition.

What next?
No early second election. Back to the drawing board but the governmenrts will not abandon the Assembly idea. By themselves, structures won’t solve the problem. Big issues are:

Would a voluntary coalition be acceptable in the medium term or has the pitch been fatally queered?.
The conviction that a voluntary coalition is designed to dish Sinn Fein is probably immovable. Pity, because SF’s position would remain unaffected but some pressure for flexibility could be introduced.

Would government at council level work, with a direct rule ministry? (Jim Molyneaux’s dream come true!)
Probably, but what an anti-climax.

Look at that photo of the two premiers in the back seat of the car with their seat belts on. Is this the picture of things to come – joint authority carefully not called joint sovereignty? It would retain all the real “British values,” elections to Westminster, the NHS, the armed forces, the BBC. And remember, the UK pays for nearly everything and he who pays the piper calls the tune. Irishness in the form of a language act and equality bill would be quickly implemented.

Question for the DUP: Is it worth letting the Assembly collapse for all that?

Would any change of habits help?
It surely might. Parties operating as secretive quasi-stalinist systems cancel each other out. They have to acquire better habits of democracy. The DUP are the worse obvious offenders currently, slapping down the Sinn Fein agenda they agreed to consider after St Andrews and spurning much of the machinery of modern democracy, like rights and the involvement of civil society. Perhaps their behaviour bears the marks of a longer struggle inside the unionist camp compared to Sinn Fein’s easier ousting of the SDLP. Perhaps if all MLAs give themselves more time, the pressures of government on 108 members will begin to overtake the habit of harvesting votes as the only real imperative. All parties need to learn how genuine engagement and consultation help to tackle big problems like secondary school transfer. To be generous to them, they’ve come a long way from murderous confrontation, but not far enough.

They could resume the task by sharing the lift.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London