The most remarkable thing about the latest collapse in the now almost ten year long political arrangement, accommodation, call it what you may, between the DUP and Sinn Fein is its untidiness. Many of us assumed that if or when it came it would be a controlled collapse.
For most of their time in joint power their greatest single boast was that it had lasted longer than the original, much looser UUP/SDLP arrangement which was constantly stop starting, due to a combative DUP taking advantage of the IRA’s recalcitrance towards giving up its weaponry.
In a sense, it had always been a bit of a dream team. The more pressure Sinn Fein put on David Trimble’s pro Agreement section of the UUP, the better Ian Paisley’s DUP did in the polls, eventually eclipsing their rivals in the ice cold election of November 2003.
No doubt Mr Paisley and Mr McGuinness had much to chuckle about as, together, they surveyed the wreckage of the two old democratic parties of the Troubles era.
They copper-fastened their joint rule by awarding the First Minister’s role to the largest party rather than the larger designation of either nationalist or unionist through reforms jointly wrought at St Andrews, making each a near permanent fixture as ‘tribal tribunes’ at the top of the NI political tree.
Of course, though they’ve had their troubles – most notably their disagreement over the devolution of policing and justice (finally resolved after the Iris Robinson crisis of early 2010) – decommissioning was off the table and everyone else was conveniently inside the tent.
Elections became processions back to power with the shifts in voter sentiment only changing microscopically over the first three Assembly elections. Policy hasn’t mattered as much as the ability to pile up unionist and nationalist votes in the corner of the largest party in each tribe.
Unwillingness to be made accountable to anyone outside the big two, led to a ‘so what’ attitude in politics. Ministers appearing before committees would, at times, lecture their questioners, secure that their larger mandates rendered them invulnerable to such questioning, or indeed any possibility of facing voter anger.
This joint disdain for accountability is where this crisis begins and ends.
When Conor Spackman’s Spotlight documentary brought to light NI’s Comptroller and Auditor General’s findings that the costs of the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) were spiralling out of control, all hell broke loose.
In fact both parties had known about the problem since January last year.
When the Finance minister was brought before the Stormont Finance committee this autumn he made it clear that he felt at time that major blame attached to the now departed Jonathan Bell rather than to the First Minister.
For a time, it looked as if Sinn Fein was prepared to do some heavy lifting for the sake of the government coalition which had so airily waved copies of its own Fresh Start agreement in the faces of the opposition parties in the assembly and in those of the onlooking media.
However the Official Opposition of Mike Nesbitt’s UUP and Colum Eastwood’s SDLP – just newly ensconced in May – was gifted a defensive performance from a First Minister often showing her as snappy, ill-tempered and surprisingly shaky on the detail of the story.
Her inability to answer questions directly and in detail about scheme – largely created by intermediate level civil servants – launched a dozen conspiracies. Several senior DUP staffers were found to have had family members who had registered with the scheme.
Still, everything held. On the 14th December the Executive, containing ministers of both parties, agreed that Mrs Foster should make a statement to the Assembly about her role in the scheme and to outline what was being done about curbing its runaway costs.
Sinn Fein appears to have decided to abandon government two days before that appearance, after Gerry Adams visited an unwell Martin McGuinness in Derry. McGuinness in turn wrote to the Speaker saying he had unilaterally withdrawn consent for Foster speak the next day.
The result was mayhem, with most of the Opposition parties following a Sinn Fein walk out from the Chamber; leaving Mrs Foster to read her explanatory statement into the record into a room half full with only her own MLAs.
At first, McGuinness advised Mrs Foster to step aside while a private inquiry took place. When she refused, it was clear Adams’s late intervention had painted his northern party into a corner, which Mrs Foster, no doubt stung by their late defection, refused: forcing McGuinness to resign.
The severe nature of McGuinness’s ill-health means that resigning his singular role as deputy First Minister likely signalled the end of his long political career. A career that has prospered upon his consummate ability to play a public role in unionist outreach for Sinn Fein.
Not only does his hasty departure leave a leadership vacuum within the party, it also leaves them very short of anyone with McGuinness’ experience and ability to reach out and be genuinely liked by his opponents within unionism, even within the DUP.
Just weeks ago the two First Ministers wrote: “We made promises to voters that we will keep – taking on the heavy responsibilities that come with elected office, governing in their best interests, tackling head-on the tough decisions.”
Not only have those promises come to nothing, but in outlining how thoroughly the DUP have thwarted Sinn Fein’s agenda over ten years, Mr Adams has made it clear that unless he can find a coalition partner who would willingly enact all his party’s agenda, all bets are off.
Since the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement included mutual vetoes from the get go, only a cautious and conservative approach was ever likely to produce anything either party could reasonably call delivery for their own communities.
Allowing the expectations of its political base to grow beyond its capacity to deliver has made a rod for Sinn Fein’s back. And its hasty departure has only allowed DUP representatives to argue on Irish airwaves that it was Sinn Fein – not they – who ran away from power sharing.
After ten years, its big ticket approach has resulted in no Irish Language Act, no Bill of Rights, a strategic drift in north south development, and no northern government at a time when Brexit poses serious economic and political problems for all the people of Ireland, south and north.
The old British and Irish government solution of putting the two most extreme parties together and expecting stable if not productive government has been tested to destruction.
At a time when the UK is preoccupied with Brexit, the US is bracing itself for Trump and the new politics of the Republic is struggling to get anything agreed never mind done, mollycoddling the pampered politicians of Northern Ireland is an indulgence none of them can afford.
The Blairs and Aherns, with their long term peace objectives and abundance of resources, are long gone. Northern Ireland will have to find ways to solve its own difficulties. As Naomi Long puts it: it needs people willing to be accountable as well as to accept (the trappings) of power.
This piece was written for the Irish Independent and was originally published here.