Assembly brinkmanship must end soon

In the last mandate David Ford liked to boast that the Alliance party was unique because they had been finally chosen to occupy the Justice department by the whole Assembly rather than selected by the mechanism of D’Hondt.  Because of their status they are more essential to the formation of the Executive than the SDLP despite their fewer numbers. So what’s changed?  A bit of bargaining is ok at a time of maximum leverage but the brinkmanship should end soon. Prolonging it risks crossing a line and repeating the deplorable game of bluff that only ended in Fresh Start and would further damage the Assembly’s precarious reputation.

The delights of opposition are uncertain as Newton Emerson points out and the Ulster Unionists may soon discover. There is no need to believe that Alliance will become the prisoner of the DUP and Sinn Fein after they take up the post. Leverage in a different form continues. In this system parties may govern and oppose at the same time effectively if they know what they stand for. Call it open government if it works, or chaos if it doesn’t.  The overriding priority very soon is to form a stable Executive with or without the SDLP.  You’ve made your point guys, now get on with it.

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

  • Cavehill

    Someone isn’t paying attention – as an observer I’ve been able to glean that their decision will be made tonight. Sooner than the SDLP in fact who haven’t given a timetable.

  • Msiegnaro

    Alliance are at a crossroads, they really need to reinvent themselves as do many of the other parties. If Sinn Fein needs to re-evaluate its socialists roots and strategy for achieving a UI, Alliance needs to stress its liberalism and left wing policies rather than presenting itself as the cross community alternative which is now very dated.

    A number of recent examples of pettiness have damaged the Alliance as a credible alternative namely the complaint again Mike Nesbitt’s Goebelles tweet and reporting Jim Welles for an alleged “sexism” remark that turned out to be self deprecating.

    Unless Alliance change they maybe forced off the scene by a resurgent Green party.

  • Kevin Breslin

    To me this isn’t about Brinkmanship but “Oppositionalism”. Too many people opposing things simply for the sake of opposing things, and going to even oppose the consequences that opposition caused.

    Brinkmanship has a cut off point at the last minute, Oppositionalism doesn’t have to have one.

    The fact that neither the DUP nor Sinn Féin would want the other and indeed possibly even themselves to have the Justice Minister role was a fact known before these parties were elected back into Stormont again.

    People were moaning and complaining about the need for opposition, they gave absolutely no thought what soever to what was needed in government.

    The people didn’t vote on the basis that any party was going to sort out the Department of Justice issue. Such an issue was unimportant compared to the need to have an Opposition.

    I would have no issue with a DUP or SF justice minister, I hope we move on from this farce, but I understand the objections large sections of our electorate have to one or other.

    I’d be fine with the SDLP taking the justice ministry if it were the only way to keep the institutions running.

    If people want direct rule and direct rule ministers, by all means criticize any party who takes up that poison chalice.

    The Civic Dialogue on this issue was hopeless. If people didn’t want a DUP or SF justice minister and wanted Alliance in opposition, then they should’ve demanded that another party put themselves forward to take the role.

    As a result it’s likely there are two choices, Alliance becoming Justice minister even against their will somewhat, or the DoJ going back to a Permanent Secretary or NIO minister.

    Villiers is wrong to have an election on this issue. There should be a referendum to really ask the people the question, what do they want in terms of a Department of Justice appointment!

  • Gingray

    Joint First Justice Ministers perhaps?

  • Declan Doyle

    ‘As a result it’s likely there are two choices, Alliance becoming Justice minister even against their will somewhat, or the DoJ going back to a Permanent Secretary or NIO minister.’

    Sorry, actually thats just one choice. If you have a choice between a number of unseperated options that is one choice. Two choices would be having to make a choice between two seperate groups with various options within them. Sorry, its my bug bear ;-(

  • mjh

    “You’ve made your point guys, now get on with it.”

    What you are saying, Brian, is that the negotiations between Alliance and DUP/SF should be a charade. Irrespective of what DUP/SF do or do not offer, Alliance must take Justice on any terms or none.

    The logic of this is that even if any terms are agreed with DUP/SF Alliance must remain in post even if DUP/SF fail to honour them.

    And yet, you say “there is no reason to believe that Alliance becomes the prisoner of the DUP and Sinn Fein”.

    If that’s not being tied up like a kipper, Brian, tell me what is?

  • Kevin Breslin

    My apologies, 2 feasible options that these two parties left as a choice. The status quo or the quagmire of what came before the status quo.

    There is clearly a choice to do something else, but that was not put before the people.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Love it, alas the DUP will never go for it.

  • Gingray

    They have failed as a cross community party – they may get votes from Catholics in areas that are overwhelmingly Protestant, but this is much in the same way the SDLP get votes from Protestants in Foyle and South Down – ie vote for the least worst option.

    Move into areas where Catholics are a majority and the Alliance vote collapses to a point where they are competing with the Tories.

    Which is unfortunate as they have a good message and good people, but they have done little to convince many of us that they are representitive of anything other than super middle class letsgetalongerists.

  • Lee

    That’s their problem in your first paragraph.
    What is their narrative? it’s some sort of cross-community middle class liberalism who yet seem to be confused on traditional liberal issues such as LBGT rights and abortion law. And probably pro-business putting them on the economic right.
    As a credible alternative/party of protest these sort of stances leave them looking quite unfocused for these times. The credible alternative is coming from the focused left, the Greens, PBP etc
    I think in NI people can understand the world through left/right prisms, but Alliance appear to fall outside that.

  • Lee

    To be honest I think their view on peace walls is an example of this. When they were saying they were wanting peace walls down within 10 years or something people who were living at for example the short strand / Templemore ave peace wall who have to endure lower level stone throwing on/off through the year are going to themselves ‘what???’. It’s a classic example of middle class liberalism preaching down on working classes and its startling to think that no one in Alliance didn’t stop to think hold on here, do we not sound a little patronising and a little removed from reality. At least real hippies can blame it on the drugs. That said I like Naomi Long full of mettle and the sooner she be’s their leader the better, and I like Farry too I think he is competent.
    We may have reached peak Alliance. The only shifting sand here might be demographics, with more nationalists voting for them in once unionists areas now increasingly mixed. However the Greens may now be taking that vote.

  • Msiegnaro

    It does seem like Alliance have peaked but to an extent they have done their jobs. It’s just unfortunate that they are now seen more as an irrelevance with their lofty middle class ideals rather than a real left wing alternative.

  • Lee

    S’true, but I think by not being left wing they are being true to themselves. I think they could carve out a usefulness for themselves by emphasising their pro-business and by properly scrutinizing the DUP/SF on this, by coming up with credible alternatives, through opposition.
    By taking Justice they are part of the government, and there is little to be gained by demanding eg progress on cost cutting integrated education; PBP, greens, and probably UUP will already be demanding this in opposition. Alliance should make economy scrutiny and alternatives their own.

  • Gingray

    Other than North Belfast, I cannot see where Alliance will grow? Hear good things about the Strangford MLA fro GT, but generally they are very detached from the real world.

  • Gopher

    Astounded that failure to select a justice minister creates an election. Surely common sense would have dictated this would be a likely scenario and power could have been returned to secretary of state

  • chrisjones2

    No …its an MLA as justice minister or a new election

  • chrisjones2

    Minister minister ……there’s a riot in the prison

    DUP Justice Minister …send in the troops

    SF Justice Minister …the poor prisoners forced into this ……………offer them conjugal visits Irish lessons and more sausage rolls

    Que 4 months of negotiations in Justice to agree modalities for a future discussion on how to deal with the riot

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    It’s interesting that Alliance can be seen as kingmakers now. Whether entering the Exec will be seen as legitimising the DUP/SF stalemate or seen as ensuring the maintenance of the still delicate equilibrium of devolution will be determined by how well they can justify that possible move. Opposition will need to be seen as a united front in order for it to work anyway so Alliance & SDLP are in a catch 22 whichever direction they take.
    While there’s a lot of sentiment in support of Alliance & SDLP abandoning the DUP & SF either to be hoist by their own ‘principles’ or to prove themselves as non partisan bedfellows in responsible Govt there are still wider issues which some unsavoury elements might exploit from a 2 party Exec.
    Emerson’s piece is spot on in that there is no real enthusiasm any more to embrace good Govt even though they have accepted to govern. Opposition in greater numbers could easily force a 2 party Exec’s hand but there are still wider dangers with Alliance not taking the Justice Ministry.