I’m struck by the fact that so much newspaper comment in the wake of Fresh Start has dwelt on the personalities rather than the issues. It’s as if the parties were still playing the old games of direct rule and had none of the responsibilities of government at all. Too much comment is about political attitudes and behaviour rather than focusing on what politicians are charged with deciding. Has Arlene got what it takes? asks Fionnuala O’Connor with characteristic perceptiveness. Who might succeed Martin McGuinness one day God knows when? There was an intense burst of interest in Seamus Mallon continuing to vent the frustrations of a lifetime. (Arguing against myself for a moment let’s hope P Robinson does likewise but doesn’t wait a dozen years to do it).
Was Mallon asked why he and his fellow old grump Trimble funked the issue of suspending Sinn Fein from the Executive because the IRA hadn’t disarmed – the first and probably the best chance of creating centre ground solidarity? Or the lessons the SDLP should learn for positioning now? Was he hell.
On second thoughts I’m not struck at all. Personalities are much more fun and easier to talk about than issues and policies. And it’s often more agreeable to interview veterans on roughly their own terms, especially when the general memory is so short Remember old Tony Benn deploring the lack of debate about “ishoos” while making his name and considerable fortune with his wonderfully gossipy diairies?. The compulsion of personality is hard to resist. Even that scathing critic of republicanism Malachi O’Doherty has been speculating about the McGuinness succession. Nothing wrong with that of course. But who is writing about how the Executive will have to bite a different bullet and face up tough choices over taxing and spending? Newton Emerson on the margins. Will we hear a word about it in the election campaign? Will we hell.
By contrast, consider a very different treatment from Dan O’Brien, now a columnist with the Indo but a former economics writer with the Irish Times and before that, the very specialised Economist Intelligence Unit. In a rare move he has dipped his toe into NI politics with some bold judgements worth quoting at some length.
To attribute the very large decline in politically-related violence to the institutions created by the Good Friday Agreement would be a very serious analytical failure. Those institutions came about because the main actors in the conflict wanted to end violence, not the other way around. For this reason and others, the devolved institutions should not be considered sacrosanct.
In May, the North’s voters will elect the Stormont assembly, from which the executive is formed. At least one foreseeable stumbling block in the formation of a new executive is the possibility that Sinn Fein overtakes the DUP to become the largest single party. That would give Martin McGuinness the position of First Minister. If the DUP cannot play by the rules of the game and accept losing the first minister role, there could be another period during which the Stormont institutions teeter. If they do, Dublin and London could well consider letting them collapse. A number of years of direct rule from London with strong input from Dublin would be beneficial.
There is plenty of evidence from democratic transitions around the world that the sequencing of institutional roll-out is important for the long-term durability of a political settlement. Independent institutions, such as police and equality agencies, are most important in building up trust in the state. A period of direct rule with Dublin’s close involvement could allow the trust-building effects of these non-political institutions to continue, while undoing some of the Balkanisation that has taken place owing to the nature of the Stormont institutions. That could give some real breathing space for sectarian divisions to heal.
O Brien’s main preoccupation I suspect is distaste for Sinn Fein seizing the left pole in a new left- right polarity in the Republic’s politics and emerging as the alternative leading party of government. I don’t myself believe or wish for collapse but it’s refreshing to challenge the indispensability of politicians whose complacency seems to be in inverse proportion to their success in government. At the very least the time for civil society to challenge deadlock is long overdue.
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