The SDLP should decide which direction to jump

Belligerency seems to be the order of the day for the push-me-pull-you SDLP. In her first moves as leader, Margaret Ritchie finds herself in contradictory – well, maybe just paradoxical- positions. She goes militant over the SDLP’s claim to the Justice Ministry while at the same time sits down with Reg to try to devise a plan break the other Assembly logjams. As Malachi puts it, there is “a serious flaw in the SDLP’s response to the process devised for the appointment of a Justice Minister: they don’t agree with it, but they want to go along with it.” This we can agree, is hardly the SDLP’s fault. But after that Malachi takes off in a direction I don’t follow. His argument twists and turns to reach the cul-de-sac of the SDLP going into opposition. What good would that do? He says “The Agreement will have been defended, and that is what counts most.” But is it? I suggest what counts most is saving the democratic vehicle of the Assembly.It’s odd to see liberal-minded democrats treating the Agreements as fundamentalist Christians read the Bible. Politics is a moveable feast and the Assembly is a living, breathing institution (just about). In politics “power sharing “ is about power as well as sharing and that has to be faced. The DUP-Sinn Fein nexus commands a cross community majority of 59% – democratic by any standards. Nor is it obvious to me the Alliance Justice ministry ploy is in breach of the Agreements anyway. D’Hondt is a good mechanism for appointing ministers just after elections. But rolling D’Hondt in mid term only serves to reinforce leading party dominance, as Malachi himself points out. As the main parties checkmate each other for Justice, what’s the point in rolling? If their move to appoint David Ford been blatantly illegal, those useful persons the departmental solicitors would surely have spoken up or someone would have blown the whistle.

The case for awarding Justice to the Alliance party is pragmatic. In parliaments throughout the world, small minority parties have been used to break coalition deadlocks, even to the extent of assuming the premiership. Whatever the ulterior motives of denying the job to the other side, David Ford’s appointment would make a statement in favour of the wider interests of the community which have been so blatantly sidelined in the endless party battle. As for the centre parties, there is much to be gained, not least for their respective parties, in Reg and Margaret steering the Assembly into calmer waters. If a break point is to be reached, it is surely better deferred just now. What matters at this stage is to discover if the Assembly can swallow the completion of devolution and survive. That means the stakes and therefore the price of failure, will be even higher next time they decide to call a crisis.

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

Living History 1968-74

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