The danger of an impotent Assembly

The litany of ritual condemnation in  yesterday’s Assembly debate could have been spoken any time during direct rule.   There is no hint here of a responsible government trying to get on top of events. Just a wringing of hands in an Assembly, impotent, riddled with its own contradictions, waiting for the trouble to burn itself out. For another night the initiative is surrendered to the streets. No MLA  of course  shares any measure of responsiblity.

Perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps for the moment there’s not much else that can be done beyond careful policing. Politicians can sometimes make a difference behind the scenes and clean up the mess they helped create.  But efforts  that have been piecemeal and localised now need to become systematic, sustained, cross community co-ordinated and eventually upfront, so  we all can see that politics works. (Now there’s a thought).

The flags vote was indeed democratic but shows the  high risk of playing  an ill-prepared round of the  zero sum game. The rioting remorselessly exposes the severe limitations of power sharing at one level and continuing struggle for sectarian advantage at another. Perhaps one day politicians will decide what game they’re actually playing. This is a cycle that has to be broken. It can be done;  at least these days trouble is  the exception and not the norm.

What’s next on the Stormont agenda? Census reports will be unpicked for sectarian advantage and  tension will rise again.  The unveiling of a weak cohesion strategy will ring hollow in this atmosphere. It risks literally being laughed off the same streets.  Any common strategy has to be about more than funding for shared public spaces and school facilities. Alliance quitting the talks behind closed doors was a very bad sign. Why in any case were the doors closed?  Do the DUP and Sinn Fein really believe a programme of  development requiring close woven community cooperation can be stitched up and presented as a fait accompli?

A massive step change is required. At its heart must be a joint commitment to head off points of conflict between parties in the same government before they can be exploited by troublemakers. What are the odds that the Executive will meet the challenge? Can they at least honestly explain to us what holds them back?

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