“They have a mutual desire to maintain and build peace but little in common beyond that ideal”.

Ed Curran, writing in the Belfast Telegraph yesterday, outlined how the Secretary the State, with his open consultation on reforming Stormont, is playing the only hand open to him, appealing above the heads of Stormont to wider civic society to have their say:

The UK government is blamed for imposing austerity cuts here but rarely  applauded for the billions which it sends to keep the wheels of Stormont turning  every year.

Mr Paterson has a perfect right to keep a watching eye on how Stormont  operates because his Government is still paying the piper, if not calling the  tune.”

There is an austere acceptance that amongst all parties, bar SF, that ‘eventually’ we want to move to a new governing framework, with a simplistic message of cutting the number of MLAs and introducing an opposition at some unidentified point in the future. Michael Shilliday in Friday’s News Letter noted that this is not a simplistic slash and burn process, as the dominance of the two main parties is such that such slashing could actually reduce the breadth of participation and cantonise politics for good.

Indeed, slashing the numbers of the smaller parties may well mean that at the very point of delivery of an opposition, there is but only a rump of political contrarians left to form that body. If we are dominated by two big parties, there can be no prospect of developing power-sharing, the key principle of the Belfast Agreement, in both opposition and government. It is clear that this must be the long-term aim, one that confounds the deputy First Minister’s distorting assumption that reform and power sharing are mutually exclusive.

Brian Feeny outlines in Wednesday’s Irish News his fundamental objections to the introduction of any kind of opposition structure:

“His document talks about moving towards a “more normal system”, classical Unionist double-speak from people hankering after a return to something like the ‘British system’ of government. The reason for the contrived apparatus here is that this place is not normal in the sense of a homogenous political system that society at large supports. After all, a substantial proportion of the population can’t even agree what to call the place never mind how to run it”.

In an interesting twist on an old nationalist mantra, Stormont is irreformable because political nationalism deems it so; accountability structures and the ability to choose between alternative inclusive governments is too British to be palatable. The debate seems not so trifling to avoid mention.

It would therefore seem that there is some tension between the superficially appealing ‘slash ’em all’ approach and reforming the institutions to make politics more responsive, competitive and accountable.

The positioning of the main parties on this consultation may reveal much about their incentives towards reform and whether the quality of democracy means more than relative party position…..A first shot across the bow….

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