Will the parties now start putting the public interest first?

The expected appointment of Alliance party leader David Ford as Justice minister will speak volumes for the Assembly’s need to step outside its sectarian boxes.The DUP and SF had the sense to realise they cancelled each other out. But high mindedness was stretched only so far. The often despised little “other” had its uses after all. One of them was to deny the job to the leading parties’ communal rivals. Adds At the SDLP conference Margaret Ritchie denounced Ford’s likely nomination as “a violation of democracy” because D’Hondt wasn’t rolled. She added her own not particularly democratic objection that “SF had acquiesced in the appointment of a non-nationalist round the Executive table. That is wrong.” (see more on the SDLP below the fold) Even so the SDLP although aggrieved at being denied Justice should pocket its pride and the UUP should stop sulking. The minor parties have a window of opportunity to score over the next few weeks. Ford is using his leverage to advance the Shared Future agenda the main parties have sidelined. Reg Empey and Margaret Ritchie ( as new SDLP leader?) have a real chance to take the lead in charting a new direction for Executive delivery. It would help if the minor parties working party on school transfer came up with a solution for breaking that deadlock. That would be one big real test of their effectiveness. Another would be to set a timetable for totemic issue of an Irish Language Act. ( I suggest bringing on the Welsh before the OFDFM Committee ) One way or another. the fragile new mood will be put to the test over the next hectic few weeks. But expectations shouldn’t be raised too high. The minor parties shouldn’t overbid. Even with Ford in the frame as a minister with full powers they’re still outvoted two to one. This is the least likely time to expect reform of the Assembly, just when the leading parties are congratulating themselves for saving it. You can forget “voluntary coalition,” a smaller executive and even the end of designations for quite some time.

A great deal will rest on the shoulders of Robinson and McGuinness personally. On efficiency grounds alone they should reduce the size of their duplicate government in the OFDFM and begin to rely on the Executive collegiality they claim to have strengthened at St Andrews.

In the Assembly, structures and procedures could ride to the rescue to deal with seemingly intractable issues. That’s what they’re for. The parties should exploit them. NI Assembly committees have the right of initiating legislation themselves, a procedure regarded as advanced by constitutional experts. If the party grip on committees were eased and they functioned more as hoped, they would break down problems into manageable proportions and take an independent, sometimes cross community line. Voting by simple majority when issues are detoxified might become possible. Party leaders might see some advantage in this to head off problems from reaching crisis point.

There are plenty of elephant traps in the Justice portfolio that will test the minister’s skills and the Executive’s cohesion. The programme of penal reform won’t please everyone and a decision has to be taken by the end of the year on whether to renew 50:50 police recruitment. If only they can settle on a parades regime a powerful precedent will have been set for agreeing outcomes.

Update Judging from the BBC’s coverage of the SDLP leadership speeches ( see start of videostream) I only got a glimmer of an answer to the killer question: what is the SDLP for? Alasdair McDonnell tried blatantly to flatter the grass roots with a limp anedote about a young woman candidate telling him she wouldn’t vote for him until she was convinced he was telling the truth.” But the truth about what Alasdair? You never told us. Both he and Margaret Ritchie would have “taken it slower” than Caitriona Ruane in trying to end 11 plus selection, but in what direction? Margaret’s Big Idea here is to get the Executive to discuss the transfer deadlock. It’s hardly earth shattering but it may now stand a chance of success if she puts it to the Empey-Ritchie working party. Just how cobbled together that was, was plain from her understandable anger at not being consulted about it in advance: ” It would have been only good manners.. Now they want us to clear up the mess they have created.” Well ok Margaret but there could be quite a lot in it for the SDLP. Right at the end of her interview with Jim Fitzpatrick she surprised me by producing the hint of an SDLP unique selling point on the “development of a vision.”

“We have principled differences on the economy and on a shared society and we are credible on Unity.”

The SDLP’s shared society vs SF’s separate but equal?” Those red lines drawn some time ago I believe by the outgoing Mark Durkan could have credibility if the SDLP took the trouble to flesh out the fine words into something like a political strategy. On the basis of the TV clips, my vote would go to Margaret but without overwhelming enthusiasm.

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

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