Northern Ireland is a great place for political clichés. “If only they could get around a table and talk,” is up there as number one.
But the most bizarre of the local political clichés is that only our local political parties can resolve our local problems. This concept – hard-wired into the idea of devolution – is clearly nonsensical.
We have an elected national parliament and Northern Ireland is supposedly represented at that parliament. But our political representatives do not participate in either government or opposition because they represent two “communities” that have no national relevance or involvement (in Britain or Ireland). Our political “parties” sit outside the national political discourse. Ours is the politics of parochial irrelevance.
When nationally important votes are taken our local MPs might be bothered to vote. Some might show up. Our supposed “Unionist” MPs mostly show indifference to any significant national political discussions. As a result they are ignored by the national media unless they might be able to shine some light on the latest crisis at Stormont. They do not aspire to real power because they choose not to take the whip of governing or opposition parties.
Westminster is the only centre of power that matters, of course. It holds the purse-strings. It provides our block grant. It decides on issues like welfare reform and taxation policy. And yet, our local politicians are fixated by the groundhog-day, brain-dulling crap that passes for politics “on the hill” – a place that is bereft of any ability to decide, legislate or set example.
I remember Bob McCartney, when he was at the Assembly, suggesting that it was (I paraphrase) like a bus that had lost its wheels and was going nowhere. Inside the motley passengers were convinced it was still going somewhere and argued incessantly about the ultimate destination.
Nothing really has changed. The destination is still unknown and the passengers are getting very old.
The solution, of course, is to retire the bus and send it to the scrap-yard. We clearly have no need for it. Local politicians, if they want local power, can aspire to our new so-called super-councils. They can pretend to be important by deciding on bin collection rotas or swimming pool opening hours.
But there is no need for a Northern Ireland “legislative assembly” because it is unable to legislate. Indeed we don’t even need departments of government. Most of the functionality that might be needed could be allocated to existing departments in England. Civil servants could be reallocated to those departments and be answerable to senior civil servants in Whitehall. Our civil service could be massively down-sized and most of our local quangos closed. At a stroke we would be better governed and more efficient.
But such a decision will not be taken, of course. Instead we’ll continue with the sham of pointless devolution because of veiled threats from the Shinners and a supine NIO. Such is Northern Ireland.