Yesterday, the Assembly system did not make a bad situation worse. Many will disagree but I believe all emerged from it quite creditably. While no doubt nervous of being outflanked on the nationalist side by the opposition SDLP, Sinn Fein finally opted for Executive survival despite the trivial charge of kowtowing to the DUP. The choice was a no brainer, although at first cunningly concealed behind a critical amendment too long and off- topic to be accepted for debate – as they will surely have known.
The RHI affair is not a red line communal issue; it is mainly about competence in “ ordinary” government. The whole episode shows the squeeze mechanism of power sharing at work, however convoluted and bewildering to ordinary voters longing for simple clarity. But it shows that while you don’t have to like your partner in government, you can still recognise a strong degree of interdependence even when you diverge – or are forced to a bit, as in this case.
This is good for government stability but not so good for democratic choice. The Opposition’s motion gained more votes but could not possibly win a cross community vote. However had Sinn Fein spoken in favour of the exclusion motion even if abstaining in the vote, it might have made Mrs Foster’s position more difficult. Much depends on what sort of inquiry terms the DUP and Sinn Fein agree between them over Christmas. If it is a judicial inquiry, it will have a lot more clout than the Assembly’s public accounts committee so beloved of Mrs Foster. The pressure will be strong on both parties to accept its recommendations. But the closer you look at it, the less the need for Mrs Foster to “stand aside ” in advance.
The Opposition parties united to make a substantial case. The hapless Speaker aided their cause on the day by bowing to their pressure and allowing most of them to make the same point of order in turn, that a statement by the First Minister without the support of the dFM was out of order. Here is a clear case for revising over-restrictive Assembly rules. In my view the Speaker was right to allow the debate to continue. The real farce would have been to suspend the sitting indefinitely.
The mass walkout seemed to threaten the Assembly’s very existence. But only for a while. They trooped back for the exclusion debate, as they were bound to do to avoid looking ridiculous. For the Speaker embarrassingly reduced to parroting a formula, there were extenuating circumstances without precedent and not of his making. So instead of collapse, we had democracy in action.
Mick is right. The Opposition should have stuck to calling for an inquiry while postponing the call for sanctions against Mrs Foster if the inquiry found her seriously at fault ( thus allowing her reply in terms of my fantasy speech). The hints of cronyism in the affair do not obviously touch her personally unlike Irisgate and Peter Robinson. I suspect the opposition became transfixed by the Jonathan Bell drama which raised the stakes by pinning the charge of liar on her.
The Bell case is a rare breach of party caucus solidarity. The Daithi McKay case is Sinn Fein’s nearest equivalent. Under pressure of government responsibilities, there will be more of these as time goes on.
Equally important is the key problem of weak coordination in the Executive system which Fresh Start was supposed to solve. Remember, most of the RHI business dates back to the multiparty coalition and Peter Robinson’s leadership.
An outside inquiry into the RHI process would be beneficial. It would expose the existential weaknesses in the Executive system, from party caucus government to overmighty spads and weak rotating ministers. Sinn Fein is as much a party to these weaknesses as the DUP.
The other big issue is the lack of strong civil service input to protect the integrity of the administration from within and the evident weakness of watchdogs like the comptroller and auditor general. Despite Mrs Foster’s carefully couched plea of mitigation in her Statement, the government machine moved far too slowly to correct the flaws in the RHI scheme. We need to lay all this out on the open. That is the most useful thing an outside inquiry can do.
The weakest part of Mrs Foster’s defence was her self satisfaction over observing the process and then dumping on the civil servants. If the process is failing, change the process and get better advice.
It is well known that civil servants have experienced real problems of coordination and advice to different minsters with differing policies and a lack of resolution at the centre. For that the parties are to blame for creating their own confusion. Now with a two party coalition, the buck stops with the DUP and Sinn Fein. They must allow the new head of the civil service to become the strong cabinet secretary, acting as the impartial guardian of effective and efficient government. The point the parties have to learn to grasp here is that such guardianship protects each of them personally, not just some abstract notion of the public interest.
Fresh Start has faltered. But crab- like and back- to- back, power sharing is working in its own inimitable fashion.
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