DUP/SF solidarity facing a formal opposition marks a new Assembly era

Yesterday’s Assembly debate on the programme for government framework showed that a new era of some sort has begun. The new government v opposition format of debate worked well, better than it might have. Even more remarkably MLAs stuck closely to the fairly dry topic under discussion.. Nobody made allegations of DUP triumphalism or complained about Sinn Fein passivity towards it.

Most notable of all was DUP-Sinn Fein solidarity against Ulster Unionist/SDLP opposition .

To describe her “collective approach,” Arlene Foster was in her new element, revelling in the jargon of government.

“Outcomes-focused means being citizens-focused and evidence-based. It requires a collective approach, looking to draw in all the contributions in Government and, importantly, beyond Government, to make the biggest and best difference possible. It makes a real statement of shared purpose at political, administrative and societal level.”

Mike Nesbitt as leader of the largest opposition party replied, as opposition leaders do, raking over old coals and sceptical about future good intentions.

I hear First Minister Foster say that this mandate has to be about delivery. Through you, Madam Principal Deputy Speaker, I remind First Minister Foster and First Minister McGuinness that that is exactly what First Minister Peter Robinson said about the 2011 mandate. In his words, 2007 to 2011 was about survival and about going full term as an Assembly and an Executive, but 2011 through to 2016 had to be about delivery. It is clear from what these two First Ministers are saying that the Executive did not deliver between 2011 and 2016. So, while I can welcome a focus on delivery, I have to say this: we have heard it before; we will not be fooled again.

For Sinn Fein it was  Conor Murphy as the principal speaker, first as chair of the Committee on the Economy, then as an individual MLA. Although he is not a minister, he affirmed Sinn Fein solidarity with the DUP in approaching the Executive’s programme, strongly influenced by the concept of “wellbeing”

We have an important new way of doing business. I look forward to hearing those who do not agree provide alternatives. Make no mistake about it: there is a programme to be done over the next five years. Others have left the responsibility for doing that largely to my party and the DUP, and we must go forward because the people who elected us to the positions that we are in expect us to deliver for them, for their interests and for the communities that we represent.

After a DUP maiden speech Alex Attwood spoke for the SDLP, then Naomi Long for Alliance . Priority was later given to committee chairs and  maiden speakers of any party, including PBP’s Gerry Carroll.  All sides got a look-in, from the Greens’ Claire Bailey  to the solo veteran Jim Allister of TUV.

Martin McGuinness wound up for the Executive. predictably tilting at the UUs and the SDLP  for not joining the Executive and defending the Fresh Start agreement made between the two leading parties. Observing it will be the new Executive’s acid test.

If the (Ulster Unionist) party had been returned with enough MLAs to have three, or even two, Members in the Executive as Ministers, it would have gone through the door and into the Executive like a rocket..

The reality is, no matter how you dress it up, if there had been no Fresh Start Agreement … direct rule Ministers would have been in here the following week… If we had followed the SDLP position, there would have been no Assembly, there would have been no Executive, and the British Government would have had their fingers on the tiller here in the North. That is the reality.”

Although the government programme has yet to be developed, this formal debate was the nearest equivalent to a debate on the Queens Speech at the beginning of the session. As such, nothing was at stake for the Executive. The opposition as a whole enjoys “ enhanced” speaking rights greater than it would be entitled to by party strength, plus 10 opposition days a year and the first two questions to the First and deputy First Minister. It remains to be seen whether their speaking rights will work out so generously when it comes to debating votes on government business. They will have to work out how to share them between themselves.  

Standing Orders give considerable latitude to the Speaker, according to the balance of opinion on the subject discussed. The opposition parties are still entitled to places on the Business Committee according to party strength, and committee chairs are in effect guaranteed for the UU and SDLP leaders. That will give them extra speaking opportunities.

The description of the day from the BBC’s Mark Devenport hedges at a clear verdict but “reasonable start” seems fair.

With the Green Party, PBPA and the TUV all coming at the executive from their own distinct angles, the voices of opposition will make themselves heard, but they will not always sing off the same hymn sheet.

In comparison, the DUP and Sinn Féin have sought to portray a cohesive image.

Martin McGuinness’s trip to the Somme, Peter Weir’s visit to an Irish language school and the consensus over Mrs O’Neill’s decision to lift the ban on blood donations from gay men constitute a reasonable start.

So, will a cohesive government run rings around a divided opposition? Maybe, but all governments, power sharing or not, are vulnerable to the passage of events.

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  • Redstar

    You do have to laugh at MMG. ” the British WOULD HAVE HAD their fingers on the tiller in the North”

    Yeah Marty, remind me again who do have to defer every single piece of legislation to and to whom did you hand welfare back to.

    Then again Marty, never mind all that, let’s cut to the chase- who actually writes your script

  • Declan Doyle

    It’s as good as it gets for now, an Irish parliament on Belfast is far preferable to direct rule.

  • Redstar

    What Irish Parliament?? It’s fantasy parliament with no power. ( although excellent perks for stooges , their kin and friends)

    Even any Mickey mouse deals that Arlene does impose on her nodding dog junior partners still have to be passed by the British!!!!

  • AntrimGael

    Mmmm, let’s see how it pans out if a Brexit Yes is the outcome in a few weeks. The house of cards, built on foundations of sand, situated in a wind tunnel could come crumbling down again before it gets going. Brexit will undermine everything and Sinn Fein will come under massive pressure from within their own constituency in such a scenario. Irony I know, Nationalists feeling uneasy if Britain leaves the EU. Strange times indeed.

  • whatif1984true

    “Outcomes-focused means being citizens-focused and evidence-based. It
    requires a collective approach, looking to draw in all the contributions
    in Government and, importantly, beyond Government, to make the biggest
    and best difference possible. It makes a real statement of shared
    purpose at political, administrative and societal level.”

    Does this mean:-

    “Doing things that people actually want not just our opinion of what they want.”

    Transparent communication leaves no wriggle room. Something no politico would ever want.

  • Sharpie

    It is what it is. You are now obliged to work the system – whatever is in front of you. You cannot wish the six counties away no matter the feeling of injustice about its creation.

    With regards to what would make a united Ireland happen and therefore do away with the “fantasy parliament” there are a couple of options.
    1. There is an attritional strategy of scorched earth – make sure that nothing works so that unionists get so fed up they cave or leave. With that you will quickly run out of friends overseas and destroy lives of hundreds of thousands for decades.
    2. A second strategy – armed warfare as a war of independence has been shown to be unwinnable, indeed farcical.
    3. The third strategy is constitutional change by consensus. The word that is key here is consensus. I’d say SF are trying to figure what that means and you can hear crunching of gears and maps unfolding as they look for the way through that landscape.

    They may be slow at getting there, but at least they now understand that the fastest way that is in their own gift is to win the peace and make the case. Events elsewhere like demographics and Brexit may help but are not dependable. The only sure fire strategy is to create an agreed Ireland where people walk by themselves into unity.

    You must also be aware that the unity that would await is never going to be a 32 socialist republic.

    I would be interested to hear your own blueprint for a transition to a united Ireland.

  • chrisjones2

    …the Brits would probably have done it all faster cheaper and better but never mind that eh

  • chrisjones2

    .and the current British Regional Assembly is even better isnt it Declan

  • eamoncorbett

    The Brits are many things but stupid ain’t one of them , Brexit will not happen , but it could be close and the result could see a third force in British politics.

  • Nimn

    It means if they get it wrong we are all to blame and if they get it right they did well, despite Nolan’s constant complaining as the self styled voice of the people.
    Once we are beyond the gobbledygook of the PfG process I wonder will the Executive follow Scotland’s lead and dedicate space on the Executive Office’s website to a ‘Northern Ireland performs’ page much as Scotland has done here…?

  • Reader

    Sharpie: I would be interested to hear your own blueprint for a transition to a united Ireland.
    Blueprints? We don’t need no stinking blueprints…
    Ideological purity and magical thinking – that’s the way to go.

  • Sharpie

    Humour us – give us an example of what that looks like.

  • Reader

    I wasn’t trying to be helpful to either constitutional or dissident republicans!
    However, since it’s public and obvious, I think the only actual route to a united Ireland is to groom the electorate in Northern Ireland so that cultural nationalists are keen and confident to make the leap into a united Ireland, and unionists aren’t too bothered or nervous about the notion.
    At present, Sinn Fein seems to be falling down on both counts. But they are miles ahead of the dissidents.

  • whatif1984true

    That would be good.

  • Sharpie

    Yes that’s the option three approach I outlined. It’s easy to write here but a master tactician to implement – and they are not in leadership of anywhere today. And I agree with your last paragraph too. But I think they now understand this reality. I would still like to understand the dissident strategy. Redstar?