Another Christmas, another crisis? Yes, but this one is different from Stormont’s Christmas crises past. For a start, we now have an opposition. Far from a perfect arrangement. It doesn’t allow the electorate to kick the bums out, as they say in the US, for instance.
But it does mean there’s a large group of politicians not solely invested in making government work. Rather, their ability to grow political capital now depends on their ability to: 1, knock big holes in government policy; 2, present themselves as a credible alternative.
Many remain pessimistic that Opposition parties will ever come to anything in Northern Ireland. The sectarian bond remains strong, and mitigates against risky change. And the first few opposition days have been low, lacklustre affairs.
Speaking proportionately, the RHI story is probably just a departure point rather than the beginning of a revolution. For once, the conversations inside Stormont aligned (albeit via Stephen Nolan) with a matter of public concern (ie, the squandering of public money).
It’s shown some weaknesses in the overall Stormont system, not least the arbitrary way the Assembly can be called to convene by the Executive, and then literally messed about over what to me looks like just another sham lover’s tiff in Stormont Castle.
Having the DUP and SF fix the Speaker’s job may have been justifiable when the Assembly was little more than an electoral college for the Executive. But today, under moderate pressure, Speaker Robin Newton couldn’t explain the nature of his own ruling to the House.
Until later yesterday afternoon:
— Julian O'Neill (@julianoneill) December 19, 2016
A secret ballot, like the one recently introduced in the Dail, would put someone in with appetite and aptitude for the job. It would also remove any lingering suspicion that s/he is still beholden to his original sponsors in Stormont Castle.
SF’s ineligible motion was a crib of the First Minister’s own idea of putting the whole thing out to an external inquiry (thereby making the Assembly far less relevant to the resolution of the problem).
In the current, amazingly fact-free environment, the supposed deal breaker of Arlene stepping aside was never a goer. But the artifice of it all sowed enough confusion to lead one heavyweight commentator to suggest McGuinness’ odd manoeuvres saved the day.
Sinn Fein and the DUP need each other. It’s not that they’ve alienated almost everyone else, but that alternative partners are not likely to become available for some time. And their mutual credibility lies in fulfilling the modest ambitions of the Stormont House Agreement.
The “or the bunny gets it” routine is getting thin. The sooner they focus on how they can make government work for both, so much the better for them.
As for the opposition, I suspect they may regret scaling this right up to eleven with an exclusion motion: a high-level manoeuvre that has not yet been successful and which the DUP Assembly numbers always mitigated against.
One unionist friend made a useful comparison with Ruth Davidson’s handling of budget issues this week in Scotland, saying that she…
…would have scorched the SNP for something like this, because she knows not to go for the head while at a stage of chip chip chipping away.
Ironically, scaling down the story brings the detail into clearer view. And the key to opening this story up is still largely where the political gold remains buried. Whatever the outcome, the Opposition should be able to live, learn, (and unlearn) and fight another day.
They’ve seen how easy it is to upend an administration, still far more comfortable in a crisis with the sham fight scenario than sticking together and heavy lifting through the crisis. (Remember the DUP were briefing Sinn Fein on this matter long before it was disclosed to the Assembly.)
And how a party’s reputation for being good with money doesn’t always hold up to scrutiny.
Most (though, by no means all) of the telling detail in Conor Spackman’s excellent Spotlight report was contained in the Comptroller and Auditor General’s equally excellent report published last July.
Putting the administration through the wringer is good for the system. The opposition should not let go of the evidentially weak appointed Speaker system as part of a credible reform programme to help them build capacity to scrutinise and influence government.
For now, pre-Christmas time is all but played out here. The DUP leader has been shown to struggle with detail, and clearly lacks Robinson’s near obsession with every crossed t and dotted i in his (and other’s) department.
The Opposition as a whole – but particularly the two parties of the official opposition – needs to match this weakness with strengths from within their own parties. Clever sound bites won’t do it alone.
With most of the key, if vert simple political questions still unanswered there is more to come for Mrs Foster. Whatever happens over RHI, she’s unlikely to get the same easy parliamentary run her two predecessors were afforded by the ‘all shall have prizes’ first decade of a working Assembly.