The failure of the DUP and Sinn Fein to agree on the big issues is giving Alliance more leverage than they could have ever dreamt of .

Listening to Radio Ulster’s Inside Politics, little Alliance seems to have the joint leaders on a hook. It appears that the main sticking point for David Ford was Foster and McGuinness’s refusal to accept reform of the blocking mechanism of the petition of concern. Ford has been campaigning for reform for a long time, most recently over the DUP’s use of it to block an abortion amendment  and earlier its use against the Welfare Reform Bill by SF, the SDLP and the Greens a year ago.

But the Fresh Start agreement  (Annex F3) between the DUP and Sinn Fein promised that:

 Petitions of Concern should only be tabled in exceptional circumstances…  and where a Petition of Concern is tabled, this should state the ground or grounds upon which it is being tabled and the nature of the detriment which is perceived as arising from an affirmative vote on the matter.

Did FM and DFM not offer Ford assurances along these lines? Why were they not enough?  Foster and McGuinness are keeping their counsel  so far.  Although the leaders are sounding confident about filling Justice by next Wednesday’s doomsday deadline, the idea of offering it to the newly elected independent unionist Claire Sudgen smacks of desperation for them both and a humiliation for Sinn Fein. If Alliance finally refuses,  the fundamental lack of trust between the DUP and SF is brutally exposed if they don’t fill it themselves.  Ironically according to Ford, Alliance would have “eighth pick” and win another department under D’Hondt after all, now that the UUs and the SDLP are in opposition.

A DUP- SF job share for Justice could be the salvation for the Executive if it signalled joint determination to tackle the toxic legacy issues  at last. Out of the nettle deadlock could yet be plucked the sweet smelling rose of new agreement.  Big call you think?  Swallowing Alliance terms would be a good second best.

Opposition solidarity does not exist over the idea of a voluntary coalition.   In Inside Politics the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood was against scrapping the designations, exhibiting the traditional nationalist fear of conceding pro-unionist majority rule by accident.  It seems Alliance is not in a position to take all the tricks.

 

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