Northern powersharing is faring better than the southern version, says Emerson. Can this be right?

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.

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  • Mc Slaggart

    “The fact is, as everybody also knows, power in Northern Ireland has been too widely disseminated for effective government. ”

    The problem is not lack of power its the inability to use it. For example their was a deal which would sort out the marching issue between sf and DUP. It does not work as they need somehow the permission of the Brat (OO/bands) to make it work. The local administration should call in Supernanny to explain how they should deal with difficult children.

  • “Ignoring the recent Kearney-Robinson dingdong”

    Brian, Newton deals with it in a tweet:

    Remarkable. It looks like not a single person in Northern Ireland fell for this week’s DUP-SF sham fight. Shall we call that ‘historic’?

    “apparently unabashed at being dropped by the BBC”

    He’s already put that into context in Gemma Murray’s News Letter article:

    Yesterday, Mr Emerson told the News Letter that his “sympathies are with Sammy Brush, who has been treated appallingly”.

    “I think me losing a freelance gig over swearing on the internet is a minor matter,” he said.

    For elements in SF to ‘run after’ dissident republicans might not be much of a surprise but for the SDLP to do so IMO severely diminishes that party. As for the BBC, the only positive point to make about its behaviour in recent times was the decision to broadcast the programme about Donald Trump.

  • “the place was run by the cross community nomenklatura that basically still runs it today”

    Can you elaborate on this in plain English please, Brian? I’ve posted a blog on Stormont deviation from its claim to follow ‘Westminster good practice’ but the MSM hasn’t followed through on it. I’ve taken the view that governance sleaze that appears elsewhere on these islands is likely to be found here – and I haven’t been disappointed.

  • Brian Walker

    Too sophisticated an interpretation for me. nevin – although for all I know you may be right. Pity such energy and intelligence is wasted on dross ( the “sham fight” I mean).

    Neither the DUP or SF as far as I can see is under significant internal or external pressure – quite the reverse- so there’s no excuse for such mutual abuse

    I can only add that some of what Kearney had to say in Westminster struck me as making sense. But then I haven’t be exposed to the daily dingdong for years, thank God.

    Newton seems a bit torn in this piece between giving the local parties some points and criticising lack of movement. I think he’s ungenerous to Martin who is trying to rebuild FF. What’s the practical alternative?

    Columnists have to try to original and lively, whatever .
    Newton is often more than great gas – thought provoking as well as witty.

    But there’s at least PhD in it for a real nerd who might try to analyse commentators for consistency.

    Not that I count myself of course, as a mere amateur and occasional observer who often gets exasperated as the years race by,

  • Brian, I raised the ‘Belfast deficit’ with an independent board member and received the following reply:

    I did understand that the model in Whitehall is not mirrored by Northern Ireland departments. I took up my appointment on this basis.

    So much for the role of independents in the accountability stakes if this attitude is held generally. What we have are Ministers ignoring or being unaware of the guidance on good governance and, presumably, all independent members going along with it.

  • “Newton can’t wait for the SDLP and the UUP to disappear”.

    Perhaps this was the reason behind his recent intemperate remarks. Perhaps the SDLP (and I again declare an interest ……..I am a SDLP member) is showing some relunctance to quietly disappearing.

  • Professor Yattle

    Looks like the SDLP have decided they were being ‘expletives deleted’ after all.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Newton’s article as quoted in parts above sounds very interesting and as usual he makes a number of innovative points.

    I am not sure that I agree that the outward impression of the cohesiveness of the executive is anything to do with it being effective, or solving problems. The reason why there haven’t been any resignations from the executive (as there have been from the coalition in Dublin) is because the executive exhibits the classic behaviour of a confrontation avoider. Over any issue you care to name, it either dodges it, delays it, parks it or implements some sort of fudge which keeps the status quo as far as possible while doing the minimum necessary to avoid short-term problems.

    It is assisted in this objective by a relatively sleepy electorate who pay little or no attention to the political positions being taken by the politicians, and the politicians themselves happily assume that this arrangement is likely to continue.

    The phoney war as Newton alludes to is indeed ridiculous. These two parties meet each other every day of the week. Why do they have to resort to addressing each other on major issues by making pick speeches in London, or by leaking details of internal party speeches ? It’s stupid and terribly immature.


    What board are you talking about there ?


    The UUP disappearance is a foregone conclusion. The elections in 2015/2016 will probably be its last hurrah. I strongly suspect Nesbitt and Robinson are already holding talks, the outcome of which will involve some sort of pact which will benefit the DUP with a few tidbits being handed over to the UUP. I think their last days will somewhat resemble those of the old Liberal Party in the UK.

    The SDLP are hanging on for rather longer than would have been predicted. I suspect they will struggle to keep their Assembly seat in North Belfast if Alban Maginness steps down and their second seat in S Belfast is likely to be subjected to a significant squeeze if Alliance run two candidates.

    I think Alliance is also looking at a possible reversal in its fortunes if it does not pick its game up. The fact that almost half of its assembly group has sided in with the religious fundamentalist wing of the DUP over the issue of marriage equality (and possibly also over the issue of abortion) means that it has lost a significant chunk of credibility with the section of the population who pinned their hopes on it being a voice for progressive politics. The presence of Chris Lyttle on the list of pro-life activists in the assembly with reference to the Attorney General’s meddling is another nail in the coffin of that particular idea.

    The party is therefore in serious danger from the Green Party on this front and I’d be betting that Judith Cochrane’s seat in East Belfast will be lost if the Greens are able to build up and field a solid candidate there. I’d suggest at this point that this may be an appropriate juncture for the party leader to hand the reins over to a new person who will be able to bed themselves in in time for a choppy period ahead in the political centre in NI.

  • Comrade Stalin,
    Always difficult to disentangle……partisanship from analysis……for you (Alliance) and me (SDLP).
    We will never really agree.
    I dont actually agree about SDLP in North Belfast. You have a much better point about South Belfast. And I would even add Upper Bann as problematic for SDLP.
    There are signs of optimism in Frmanagh-South Tyrone. And other possiblities if SDLP fortunes revive generally.
    I certainly have no sense of SDLP imploding.
    Its become a kinda wisdom that both SDLP and UUP are in terminal decline but I think (worst case scenario) SDLP position is not nearly as bad as UUPs.

    I am surprised that you are so pessimistic about Alliance. Presumably you are still a member.
    Worst case scenario is that their gains will be stalled. You are certainly right about East Belfast and possibly South Belfast but there are other possibilities (North Down and more if UUP implodes).
    Theres certainly a lot happening and they need all their ducks in a row…….I dont see how they can attract unionist (and conservative) votes without alienating nationalist (and lefty) votes…….and there is maybe an imbalance and internial tension between newcomers and traditionalists……….and that will sooner or later result in a leadership election (Farry and Long).
    But I think the underlying problem is whether it is better to have a single “lets get alongerist” party (as Alliance would clearly prefer…..or whether a crowded middle ground (Conservatives) could damage them as much as Womens Coalition damaged AP ten years ago.
    Theres a scenario where middle ground does well but Alliance do not benefit fully.
    We have sparred before about Chris Lyttle. I always thought you over-estimated him.
    We have sparred before about “fast tracking” newcomers. Im wondering if you have re-thought that. There certainly does seem internal tensions…….and I think you might over-state the pro-life/pro-choice tension.

  • aquifer

    People are beginning to notice where the governing coalition stand on various issues, and various constituencies do not like it.

    Sectarian education, abortion, corporate taxation, health, dismantling the public sector.

    These issues are not going away anytime soon.

  • BluesJazz

    The 2015 general election is going to result in a substantial drop in subsidy to NI no matter who is in (real) power at Westminster.
    That means health will take the major hit and old people dying.
    Education is next but less of a worry because we have far too many schools, many (most) are operating at less than 50% capacity.
    Contrary to popular opinion, we haven’t experienced the ‘cuts’ yet. But they are coming and will be significant.
    It will matter not a jot what parties are in the placebo assembly because they will have no choice but to rubber stamp them, Westminster rules OK.

  • Mick Fealty

    I agree with some of what Newt’s saying here. Coalition government is tough enough with just two partners, but damned near impossible with five.

    St Andrews tightened the architecture to make it possible to do something coherent rather than nothing. It concentrated power in OFMdFM in way that was previously impossible and in awarding the biggest party the biggest prizes, it has incentivised most of the electorate to plump for the big two over les autres.

    It’s the resulting stability that produces the general amicability of relations between SF and the DUP, at least in comparison to the southern coalition. But then again that’s also the difference between a regional administration and a sovereign government.

    The resilience of FF is something to behold. You may not like them, or their politics, but their group of ingenue TDs (that many of us had barely heard of before) are hitting the ground running at a rate of knots (see Niall Collins broadside on the Justice Minister today).

    NI is currently a dead zone for competitive politics. The south is not. The only thing that will change that is the entry of a seriously disruptive force. Just now, neither the UUP nor the SDLP seems to have an appetite for creating such disturbance.

    You might also think that FF have enough on their hands fighting back in the south. Though I do wonder at the prominence of Northern Ireland in recent politically literate attacks on SF and the current government’s move away from NI as a senior issue on the agenda if their longer game includes a bit of northern action along the way?

    NI is the kind of stable political environment that invites Newt’s analysis above. There are always events dear boy, events. But those rarely occur in politics of their own volition. This younger set of ‘incorrigible’ FF TDs have hardly lost their appetite for making trouble for their opponents.

    I’d suggest that’s one reason why the cabinet table in Dublin is a great deal less serene than the joint offices of SF/DUP in Stormont Castle.

  • OneNI

    The ill feeling between the Coalition partners in the South is due to the fear that ultimately they will have to face the consequences of their actions at the ballot box. In comparsion DUP and SF feel no such fear

  • “Nevin, What board are you talking about there ?”

    It’s in the link above, CS, Northern Ireland Governance – The Belfast Deficit. In summary, the work of each Government department is controlled by a Departmental Board. Stormont claims that it operates Treasury best practice – Ministers chair DBs – but it doesn’t. The Boards here are chaired by the Permanent Secretaries and the Ministers are briefed by their PSs on a weekly basis. I’ve argued that accountability would be better served if the Minister, senior Civil Servants and Independent members sat round the same table.

  • “NI is currently a dead zone for competitive politics. .. Just now, neither the UUP nor the SDLP seems to have an appetite for creating such disturbance.”

    It’s also a bit of a dead zone for investigative journalism. As for the UUP and the SDLP, they’re in government so they’re vulnerable to attack if they challenge the big two beasts; they may also from a lack of competence as much as from a lack of appetite.

    Danny Kennedy has found himself in a bit of a pickle as a result of governance inadequacies that go back to the early days of his predecessor, Conor Murphy. The Minister has been briefed but AFAIK the victim of poor governance continues to be left to struggle on her own to obtain justice; departmental officials have known about the problem for over four years yet appear to have taken little or no action to resolve it.

    Alex Attwood has been put on the spot by Moyle councillors over a planning issue that goes back into the era of his DUP predecessors. Will the current Minister insist that planning officials stop being rolled over?

  • Brian Walker

    Mick makes the structurally arguable point that a 5 party coalition is damn near unworkable. We can see the natural pressure at work for a – 2? party coalition – with some options for a minority third, party coaltion if barriers of all sorts can come down.

    Perhaps that pressure will continue, particularly if the size of the Asembly is eventually reduced ( but not it seems in time for either the next Westminster or Stormont elections)

    I’m adding the less familar point I think of the chilling effect of the almost self generating bureaucracy of watchdogs and independent boards set up because the politicans couldn’t be trusted to govern effectively.

    The time has come to gamble and reduce this bureacracy further, perhaps leaving much governance, on schools for instance, to regulated local option supervised by ministers and the Assembly.

    To coninue the process – do we really need the Policing Board now? Its success shows that politicans in the right context can work together. They could do so under a Dept of Justice and a supervisory Assembly committee.

    Isn’t it humiliating that the regulation of parades is left to a bunch of the nominated Good but not so Great volunteers?

    But I know what you’re going to say. The DoJ must be neutral political territory.

    The two main parties in any case don’t want the burden of direct responsibility. They cherish their freedom to shout and scream. too much

    But unless responsibility is thrust upon them, will they ever take it?

  • IrelandNorth

    Power sharing in a 6 county neo-provincial regional assembly is both quantitatively and qualitatively different from that in the government of a 26 county proto-republic. Yet Newt’s comparison and contrast is not lost between the bipolarity of politics in the cardinal compass point of the island, and that extant in the other three. Perhaps that’s why green and blue power sharing in the north is paradoxically more functional than the forty shades of green extant in the south/east/and west where pastel politics prevails.

  • BarneyT

    Mick F – I wonder if FF moved north and pressed for unification, would that appear more palatible to those opposed to the notion? I often wondered was a united isle obstructed by those “asking” for it. Perhaps I’m talking rubbish, but a united Ireland perhaps even partially delivered by SF would stick in many a northern throat. I am perhaps talking with a glass overflowing view of life here.

    FF are not shy in coming forward when attacking SF, and they are a settle governmental party well removed from their armed past which would present an option for many that will never vote SDLP but reluctantly opt for SF as the best option.

    A FF presence in the north would focus minds, but I suspect would only serve to dilute the republican
    ationalist vote. The SDLP (assuming they have no intention of being subsumed into FF) would melt away. I might also be a step towards a government\opposition structure.

    Comrade Stalin – I never thought I hear anyone talking of East Belfast voting green. 🙂

  • IrelandNorth

    The currently constituted United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK/GB/NI) resembles something approximating a nation caugh with its head stuck in the revolving door of constitutional dysfunction. Rather than having absolutes of 19% 100% in a UK and 81% out, a sliding scale of degrees of association might be a more pragmatic compromise formation. With an Island of Ireland population of approximately 6 million, (1 million of whom are unionists), would this not predicate Ulster unionists moving to a 83% unity with the republic. And the republic moving to a 17% assocation with GB. Which according to my estimates would be equivalent to a united Ireland in the Commonwealth of Nations, which could be the requisite cultural safety net to persuade unionists to walk a tight rope into a united Ireland.