In the Sunday Times,(£) Newton Emerson, apparently unabashed at being dropped by the BBC, strikes a counterintuitive note by offering a few words of support to the powersharing Executive at the expense of that other coalition in Dublin. Ignoring the recent Kearney-Robinson dingdong, he bounces his critique off Micheal Martin’s Bodenstown speech deploring the southern coalition’s failure to pay enough attention to the North, and turns it on its head.
Stormont is appallingly slow at making decisions, not just on the interminable tribal trade-offs of the peace process, but on real-world matters such as planning, public services and administrative reform. Some of these issues have been deadlocked by long-standing Sinn Fein and DUP disagreements from the past. However, a calm and objective analysis of Stormont’s sluggishness points to very ordinary problems of excessive bureaucracy, vested interests, an irreconcilable mountain of statutory and regulatory requirements and an aggressive “third sector” of media-literate crusaders who demand to be consulted at every turn.
Since finally coming to terms with each other through the 2011 Hillsborough agreement, Sinn Fein and the DUP have made great progress at either concurring on big-picture policies or at least walling off what decisions they can take independently. Both parties have been spurred into this by clear electoral evidence that their voters like it when they work together. Public cynicism about Stormont increasingly focuses on Sinn Fein and the DUP’s gift for a “stitch-up”, rather than their difficulty stitching anything up. A calm and objective analysis of the Stormont coalition might even find it is functioning more amicably than Dublin’s Fine Gael-Labour government. There have been fewer resignations.
This is Newton the economic liberal slating the political architecture of the GFA that Mark Durkan for a brief moment hinted might be taken down – if only we could govern ourselves responsibly. Newton can’t wait for the SDLP and the UUP to disappear.
We know how we will fix our system from here, whatever our essential goals. The DUP and Sinn Fein will increase their hold on power, the UUP and the SDLP will disappear, and a new centrist bloc will emerge, forcing gentle evolutionary change. Then we will extend our sympathies south of the border, where it looks like an incorrigible Fianna Fail will be around forever.
Newton would win a prize for the number of questions begged in a single par. But he has put his finger on a problem I would put differently. The fact is, as everybody also knows, power in Northern Ireland has been too widely disseminated for effective government. The structure of Assembly and Executive was simply grafted on to the bureaucracy of direct rule where the place was run by the cross community nomenklatura that basically still runs it today, while the politicians truffle for margin in the same old sectarian undergrowth. True, some administrative reform is on the way. But what do the politicians propose to do with single boards, fewer councils and perhaps a smaller Stormont? Waiting for a centrist bloc could take for ever.
The choices, it seems to me are: immediate financial pressure beginning to tell on the Executive to speed up the pace of reform; and in the medium term, the related political pressure in favour of more flexible voting, to loosen the bonds of the designations, and allow ad hoc majorities to emerge issue- by- issue, to decide the crucial details of how reforms are to be implemented. Change of any kind will involve greater risks than the main parties have been prepared to take so far. Beyond entertainment, comparisons with the Republic have little relevance. And personally I’m quite impressed with Martin’s strategy of taking on Sinn Fein for what used to be the republican vote in the south. Can you imagine Haughey or even Albert Reynolds playing it that way in a million years? Ever since he visited the Kilwilkie estate in the dying days of the Fiannna Fail-led coalition, Martin has been giving an example of leadership that others might follow.
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