Beware hollow talk of a shared future in 2011

It’s progress of a kind that the Assembly leadership has survived the kind of sex and money scandals unimaginable a generation ago. Peter Robinson even looks stronger with one of his parliamentary legs cut off and Gerry Adams has departed with an air of confidence for fresh green pastures. Liam Clarke, never slow to offer constructive advice to government, offers cautious praise rare from a  journalist.

The Assembly is still more important for what it is than for what it does. The two party dominance can be exaggerated but it offers a form of stability and a united front against the threat of renewed violence. On the other hand relative stability argues against a dash to reform in the run-up to the May elections and probably even afterwards. This presents a difficult challenge to would be reformers in and out of the Assembly.

Early prospects for political reform appear slight. We can take it for granted that the AV voting system for Stormont won’t feature in any May referendum. Will the substitute of a weighted majority for block voting and the development of an opposition figure in any party’s manifesto? Does anybody know?

Perhaps surprisingly, some of the paternalist tone of Direct Rule has survived. The Executive takes offence when told to grow up.  And yet Owen Paterson’s goading and prodding has so far produced few results beyond putting down makers for what the Executive might aim for, according to a broadly Tory agenda. Will his tax proposals amount to any more than a long term aspiration?

If proof were needed, the Water scandals (both of them, in the administration and the response to the crisis) have ruthlessly exposed the perils of policy inertia. The devils in the detail of the Budget are still partly concealed but will have to be revealed early in the New Year, like the impact of severe capital cuts on the water service and so much else. Can we  expect a sensible debate on water charges this side of the May elections?

A new peril revealed itself during 2010, namely a fashion for adopting mildly progressive language to conceal lack of agreement over a shared future for society as a whole and education in particular. Over an Assembly vote to encourage education sharing, the News Letter raised some excitement from the integrated education lobby, but the Tele revealed the sectarian tensions beneath. Talk of cohesion and sharing means very little unless accompanied by action led by politicians who seek support in the popular will that crosses the divide. Lip service of that kind practices a deceit on the electorate. Voters and the media should be on the look-out for it during the forthcoming campaign.

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