First Minister Peter Robinson has told the Belfast Telegraph that the systems up on the hill are “are no longer fit for purpose”.
The structures required cross-community agreement for every significant issue – a process that would have tested and defeated less divergent coalitions.
The failure for the DUP and Sinn Fein to build consensus or find a compromise over Welfare Reform has broken the Executive in the DUP leader’s opinion.
“It is transparently untenable for the Assembly and Executive to be sustainable while carrying the cost burden flowing from a failure to follow the national government’s welfare reform changes,” he wrote, warning of thousands of jobs losses in the public sector.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph to discuss the article, he added: “We have now come against an issue that doesn’t allow us to hang on with the present process at Stormont. The present process cannot survive the welfare reform issue.
“We have to deal with this. It is not the case that we can scrub along for another period of time.”
Peter Robinson has suggested that all-party talks (including those not on the Executive) and involvement of the British government would be required.[No mention of the DUP leader wanting Irish government involvement in “St Andrews II” discussions.)
Mr Robinson is now calling for “a streamlined Assembly, a reduction in the number of government departments and further normalising our arrangements with a recognised opposition”. He writes “our most recent problems also inescapably point to the absolute need for reform of Stormont’s decision-making arrangements”.
He reassured nationalists that he was not proposing a return to unionist majority rule. “Our divided society will still require arrangements that have regard for the need of widespread support across the community,” he said. Things have come to a head because of the failure of the Executive to resolve the welfare reform issue.
Some politicians have oft reminded us over the years, there are provisions for the Assembly to examine itself and propose reforms. The NIO formally consulted on a small range of issues back in 2012. Asked about Opposition, the DUP responded to the consultation saying:
The DUP’s long standing policy has been for the creation of a voluntary coalition at Stormont involving both a Government and an Opposition. We have no doubt that this would provide for a more effective form of Government.
We have proposed steps that could be taken in the Assembly to address this matter in the short term, such as new speaking arrangements in the Assembly and greater financial resources for parties of a certain size that would wish to form an opposition. We will continue to press for changes in the Assembly which would facilitate this though clearly widespread support will be required.
In order to create a more normalised system of government in Northern Ireland, amendments to the primary Westminster legislation are required. As it has previously indicated a desire to see a more normal form of Government at Stormont and as only the Westminster Parliament presently has the power to bring this about, we would urge the government to legislate on such a basis.
However, recognising that the Government has indicated that it is only likely to legislate with cross-community support in Northern Ireland, and accepting that it is unlikely that such support will be demonstrated in the short term, we would urge the Government to legislate at Westminster to allow, in due course, the Northern Ireland Assembly to legislate for changes to the devolved institutions, albeit with the consent of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
Realistically, Sinn Féin will hold out on Welfare Reform for a very long time … I’d assume they would be content to threaten the stability of the current Executive and Assembly, trigger an election (in which they’d point to the ‘terrible’ London government policies and boost their support) and even hold out on the current set of reforms right up to and including the re-imposition of direct rule.
The DUP continue to voice the need for Stormont reform. However, they have made few significant efforts to make structural changes, and have enjoyed the use of the blunt Petitions of Concern instrument to quash impertinent votes in the Assembly. Changing the working of the Executive or the Assembly independent of large contemporary issues like Welfare Reform and Haass is clearly impossible.
If the deadlock wasn’t over Welfare Reform, it could be over a Racial Equality Strategy, education, health, Irish Language Act, flags, parading or dealing with the past.
Today’s intervention restates a DUP policy that has been brought out before, waved around and then set back on the shelf. Why is this time any different?
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.