Solutions are negotiable, if there’s the political will

There’s something stereotypically Irish about a battle between two parties who are not competing for the same votes, were in one sense on the same side  – i.e. the same government – and will end up more or less where we are after the Assembly election. Incisive though it is, Mick’s analysis defers the subject of finding  a way through the standoff for another time.

In my own pitch to CNN, I noted the switch in morale between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Was it so long ago that the boot was on the other foot?   Time and again the DUP and unionism generally were infuriated by the concessions (as they saw them) to Sinn Fein to persuade the IRA to disarm. They were the boycotters then. But those concessions have dried up after the sequence of resiling on the Maze peace centre and the end of the OTRs arrangement, and peaking with the Action Plan on ending paramilitary activity six months ago.

With 38 seats in the outgoing Assembly, the DUP’s relative advantage rests on its ability to move petitions of concern and its keenness to use  them – 86 petitions since 2011 compared to Sinn Fein’s 29, according to the Detail’s analysis-  whereas Sinn Fein falls short of the 30 seat threshold by two. Although the 30 seat threshold wrongly remains for a 90 seat Assembly, Nicholas Whyte reckons  Sinn Fein are unlikely to reach it.  So their leverage is limited unless they keep going for the nuclear option and the DUP  are implacable.

If the balance of relative power remains unchanged, the temptation to play a zero sum game with it must be better resisted if  the Assembly is ever to function better.

Political behaviour around the action plan for ending  paramilitary activity is worth a second look. It originated in the Davison – McGuigan IRA  killings and Peter Robinson “standing aside”  to create the impression that the DUP were forcing  Sinn Fein  to take a tougher line against the  remaining IRA presence, under threat of  collapsing of the institutions.  However Martin McGuinness obliged with every sign of willingness, so Robinson’s move looked redundant, no more than a gratuitous gesture of rubbing Sinn Fein’s nose in it to play to the DUP gallery. Sinn Fein’s willingness to endorse this package was a careful balance between a call for stronger police action against “organised crime” and the  “reintegration of former paramilitaries into society,” which included lifting a ban on former paramilitaries’ eligibility for public  sector jobs.

All this passed over with remarkably little fuss.  The paramilitary measures were trailed in the Fresh Start package, alongside  the welfare mitigation which covered a Sinn Fein climbdown  over boycotting the budget. So it’s regrettable if true that Sinn Fein were starting to look weak to their natural supporters just at a point when they were  being  statesmanlike.

But now, by playing the “ stand aside “ card  against Arlene Foster themselves,  were  Sinn Fein trying to get their own delayed action revenge?

This week, Gerry Adams’ repeated demands,  for  “respect,” an Irish Language Act and a Bill of Rights, look like remarkably thin gruel. Mairtin O Muilleoir’s little list is indeed longer  – “corruption, show respect, share power and make peace.. LGPT rights, Irish Language Act  a Bill of Rights.” Even so although vague in parts, it looks negotiable.

Yesterday’s Assembly sitting was surreal, not only for the point scoring but for the keenness to debate the issues in the first place right up to the end. It also dramatically showed the glaring  need for the civil service  to coordinate their own divided advice to rival ministers. The DUP did nothing for the chair’s impartiality by selecting Maurice Morrow as its nominating officer for the post of FM, while he later took over as third string chair.  Deploying a petition of concern to block Sinn Fein’s no confidence motion in the Speaker was the ultimate abuse of the standards of impartiality required  for dealing with the  speakership that spoke volumes for those who were still listening.

Despite all the clamour on the airwaves  and the torrent of written opinion, remarkably little is known about the dynamics inside each party. I’ve yet to read a convincing account of the reasons for the speed of the collapse in relations after all  the spin about the united approach of Fresh Start.  Journalists should do their best to exploit the campaign to find out more and not leave their role to cheer leading or refereeing the knockabout. Social media should be mined to allow wider public opinion to influence what threatens to be an otherwise sterile debate.

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  • woodkerne

    “gratuitous gesture of rubbing Sinn Fein’s nose in it to play to the DUP gallery” …

    “Deploying a petition of concern to block Sinn Fein’s no confidence
    motion in the Speaker was the ultimate abuse of the standards of
    impartiality required for dealing with the speakership that spoke
    volumes for those who were still listening.”

    In a nutshell, these infractions, symbolic and procedural, against the spirit of the GFA provisions are indeed the reasons why a ‘constitutional’ election is needed – to ensure that the DUP cannot be permitted to deploy the POC device as a means of reasserting ‘protestant’ veto over the will of the local parliament and to reassert parity in the public mind, as between Orange and Green sensibilitiies.

  • Teddybear

    Storms are needed sometimes to clear the air. POC removal, Irish Language Act, Sorting SPADs out, ensuring proper fiscal scrutiny to all future schemes that financially benefit citizens, gay marriage, abortion need to be enacted

    As a Christian, I’m abhor abortion and object to gay marriage in theological grounds but the state should not be my instrument. Those who think like me should instead try to peacefully and respectfully persuade people against such activities but ultimately it’s up to people to do what they want. They will anyway. it’s up to the religious amongst us to try to persuade people to voluntarily live their lives differently but never by policing

    Finally all forms of discrimination should be made illegal

    Once all these resentments are taken care off, only then can all parties move on.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    “Although the 30 seat threshold wrongly remains for a 90 seat Assembly” This was my concern that it would be reduced pro rata to 25 MLA seats for 1 party to use the POC. It’s a pity it could not be pro rata upwards to 35 seats ! Anyway one can only hope and pray that the Electorate finish of this POC nonsense once and for all ?

  • Ciarán Doherty

    Let’s face it, there will never be an end to the crises under the current system. The current setup = stalemate, but not compromise. True compromise would be joint rule in which the status quo is no more offensive to either nationalists or unionists and constitutional change would depend on the will of the majority that can be independent of voting patterns and whatever is going on in Stormont.

    And let’s face it again, it is unionists that cannot possibly fathom joint rule, not the nationalists for whom it would be an equal sacrifice and compromise. This betrays the fundamental unionist mentality that there can and must never be any real compromise with nationalists beyond this point; “this far and no further”. It is that mindset that enables the arrogance and bigotry of the DUP in office and that is why the assembly has again collapsed.

    So long as joint rule is “politically impossible”, political stability in NI is politically impossible, and the statelet will stumble on until Brexit renders it financially impossible.

  • WindowLean

    “The DUP did nothing for the chair’s impartiality by selecting Duncan Morrow as its nominating officer for the post of FM, while he later took over as third string chair.”

    Maurice Morrow??

  • I am reading Bosnia’s Paralysed Peace, by Christopher Bennett. Over many years, whenever the voting rules allowed it, each ethnic party would use them to favour their supporters at the expense of others. With no institutional pressure to favour pro-social acts, the individualist (best for me) and competitive (make the others suffer) leaders forced through increasing discrimination in order to consolidate their clientilist power.


    After Mr Morrows glowing support for Arlene Foster to put him in the chair
    afterwards must be the greatest insult to democracy yet seen in any sort
    of a regime

  • ted hagan

    Look. Natonalists want an all-Ireland, unionists want to remain within the UK, and ne’er the twain shall meet. Why bring bigotry into it? Who the hell really wants joint rule anyway?

  • Brian Walker

    Don’t we all need now to use the election to talk about specifics and not leave it to the chances of a patched up deal behind closed doors afterwards?

  • Brian Walker

    How could they do that TE?

  • Brian Walker

    Sorry yes thanks

  • Brian Walker

    Is it realistic leave out party competition entirely under the GFA? Can you think of any Sinn Fein breaches?

  • the keep

    How is joint rule a compromise?

  • Fear Éireannach

    The question is what do the unionist electorate at large want? We have all seen the carryon of Gregory Campbell, Nelson McCausland et al, but some of us believed that while they spoke for a certain strand of opinion a lot of unionists wanted the union, but not necessarily the coat trailing that went with it. The Brexit referendum was an eye opener, as unionists voted for something that wasn’t at all in NI’s interest, in the hope of disrupting cross border trade and undermining cross border cooperation. Given the demographics, these regressive unionists can’t really get what they want on a medium term basis, and gung-ho attempts to bring back the past will simply lead to conflict.

  • Korhomme

    PoC could be changed in one of two ways. Either the number required is just less than the head count of the second largest party — which would mean both DUP and SF could block; alternatively, the PoC could require more numbers than in the largest party, meaning that the DUP alone couldn’t block anything. Chances of either happening?

  • T.E.Lawrence

    If the electorate voted and insured no one party reached 30 MLAs but you are right it would still remain on the statute book !

  • Karl

    Stereotypically Irish?? It seems to be people of a certain generation who pander to this rubbish. Is this the stereotype that all Irish people are stupid or do non-sensical things? You’ll need to expand on this or just return your language to Punch or the 1950s english comedy circuit.
    Tell me how many Front Nationale voters in France will be persuaded to vote Communist in their elections? Is there much cross over there?
    Aside from this narrative from the political cognoscenti that this election is unecessary for this reason is not justified. It escapes them that not to call an election would have allowed the DUP live in a consequence free bubble for their ineptitude.
    It also belies the fact that there is nationalist and centre under representation at Stormont on the basis of turnout alone. If turnout equalised and played out through the transfers there could be 10 – 15 seats moving between the 3 main political blocs even after the seat reduction.

  • Liggy85

    “all forms of discrimination should be made illegal…”

    Yet you’ve just said you were going to try and “peacefully persuade people against such activities,” such as abortion and gay marriage (!?!?!?!)
    Peaceful discrimination is still discrimination.

    As an obviously heterosexual person you already enjoy the privilege of being able to marry which, by the way, religion does not have the monopoly on. Futhermore, you don’t have any right to dictate the equal rights of members of the LGBT community considering you’re not a member of that community yourself. Myself, and many others like me, will continue to fight for marriage equality and abortion rights for women.

  • woodkerne

    Analogously, it seems to me, from the start, when first mooted, although the PLO’s preferred model, Edward Said opposed the ‘two state solution’. He did so, as a secular socialist-humanist, because he saw in it an ossifying in future and forever of an ethnic-religious division as between mutually excluding Israeli-jew and Israeli-arab statehoods and citizenships (with the latter, moreover, in permanent inferiorised relation). His preference, with others, then and now, was to argue instead for a socially progressive unitary state in Palestine, grounded in regulated pluralism and supportred by a human rights framework of law, towards the subsequent emergence in the region of twentieth-century form of Left/Right political affiliation, rather that is than petrification of tribal politics and civil society.

    While the GFA Power Sharing model in NI has succeeded in buying the peace – and that it is its overriding significance – in doing so it formalises structures similar to those Said feared. The Belfast Agreement is an elegant, purposefully ambivalent document. It installed a kind of ‘balanced sectarianism’ at the locus of the institutions of governance and thus, in the short to medium term, condemns the society to repetition of Orange and Green categorization as the given terms of discourse. A better prospect and and ambition it seems to me – utopian, admittedly, but one I’m confident is shared by others – is to act as ‘persuader’ for a post-sectarian, post-civil war, post-colonial politics, culture and society, in which, over time, the definitional authority of nationalist and ethnicist forces and relations atrophies.

    In the meantime, though, understanding the institutions of GFA as transitional and ‘good-enough’, the medium term aims are twofold. One, consolidate the constiutionalization of SF which their eventual disavowal of political violence permitted. And two, detoxify, by astringent means if necessary, the unreconstructed protestant parochialism of the DUP and their ilk in the wider society.

  • woodkerne

    Why not a two-thirds threshold? This would have the virtue of conforming with the liberal democratic convention of minimum necessary margin to justify constitutional change.

  • Biftergreenthumb

    Disagreeing with someone isn’t the same as discriminating against them. Teddybear said that while he disagrees with gay marriage and abortion he recognises that its up to the individual to do what they want in these matters. His position on this seems to be a liberal one. He didn’t say anything about dictating what other people’s rights are. So I don’t see what your problem is.

  • Liggy85

    I couldn’t really have been much clearer with respect to you. Yes, he’s a Christian and he’s entitled to have his faith, but rights also should extend to LGBT couples who wish to get married which he stated, and as I’ve quoted above, that he’s going to peacefully try to dissuade them from doing. So, there’s a nice way to tell people that they’re wrong for their sexuality and that they shouldn’t get married because of his own personal beliefs?
    Also, an abhorrence to abortion and dislike for gay people is hardly liberal, is it? It’s just a nice alternative way of portraying the hard-right.

  • Liggy85

    “it’s up to the religious amongst us to try to persuade people to voluntarily live their lives differently but never by policing”
    You can’t “persuade” people not to be gay anymore than you can “persuade” a black person not to be black.

  • the moviegoer

    Stereotypically Irish? I thought Ulster was British! A touch of the Andy Murray Syndrome methinks.

  • lizmcneill

    Good luck with that better ambition with Brexit etc. Nationalism is on the rise globally, not atrophying 🙁

  • Nevin

    “It also dramatically showed the glaring need for the civil service to coordinate their own divided advice to rival ministers.”

    Really? The Permanent Secretaries Group [PSG] meets more or less weekly in the Glass House. Their most recent minutes are 21 October – and they are searchable and pasteable:

    6. Role of Independent Board Members (IBMs)

    David Sterling presented a number of suggestions on the future of Independent Board members and members discussed a range of issues. It was agreed David Sterling would prepare a paper giving further consideration to the role of IBMs on Internal Audit and Risk Committees and the NICS Board. ACTION: David Sterling

    7. Executive Press Secretary

    David Gordon was welcomed to the meeting and discussed his role as Executive Press Secretary with Permanent Secretaries.

    8. Tour de Table

    Andrew McCormick advised that the Public Accounts Committee will be focusing on the Renewal Heat Incentive Scheme in a number of PAC meetings.
    Malcolm advised members that the next Joint Ministerial Council meeting is scheduled to take place on Monday 24 October. He also indicated that there was an opportunity to invite Leslie Evans, Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Government, to PSG on 4 November. Members agreed to this invitation.

    And the PSG hasn’t been heard of since!

    And for the overly suspicious, I’ve just looked at this corner of governance. You read it here first on Slugger!

  • Biftergreenthumb

    “he’s a Christian and he’s entitled to have his faith, but rights also should extend to LGBT couples who wish to get married”

    He stated that “ultimately it’s up to people to do what they want”. That means he supports the right for LGBT people to get married.
    Someone might be very anti drugs. But still liberal in that they think its up to the individual to decide for themselves whether or not to take drugs. They don’t believe in banning drugs rather they try to persuade people not to take them. Such a person is liberal and anti drugs.
    Teddybear’s post seems to imply that he has a similar position regarding gay marriage. He thinks people should have the right to do it (he is therefore a liberal) but because he is also a Christian he doesn’t think that gay people should get married. He therefore wants to persuade LGBT people not to exercise their right to get married. He is therefore Christian and liberal.

  • woodkerne

    Indeed it is, and in a virulent populist form as well, as dangerous in many respects as the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. All the more reason, surely, to argue and work against? In the words of Bertold Brecht (1932): ‘Should you consider this Utopian, then I ask you to reflect on the reasons why it is Utopian.’

  • lizmcneill


  • Katyusha

    But peaceful protest is not discrimination! Plus he does not claim to have any right to dictate the equal rights of the LGBT community, in fact he says quite the opposite!

    As a Christian, I’m abhor abortion and object to gay marriage in theological grounds but the state should not be my instrument.Those who think like me should instead try to peacefully and respectfully persuade people against such activities but ultimately it’s up to people to do what they want.

  • the moviegoer

    “not to call an election would have allowed the DUP live in a consequence free bubble for their ineptitude”

    Not just the DUP. The collapse of the executive over this issue sets a good precedent about what is expected of parties, ministers and civil servants going forward.

  • woodkerne

    Three cheers for evidence-based argument. Thanks for sharing.

  • Nevin

    It’s a bit rough and ready, woodkerne – hot off the griddle!

  • woodkerne

    Preferable to many of the half-baked productions on offer here nonetheless. No hacking involved, one trusts. One wouldn’t wish to condone that sort of thing!

  • Korhomme

    Sure; almost anything to prevent one and only one party having the ability to call a PoC using only its own whipped members.

    That surely is the kern of the problem; the DUP could block anything it liked, the others could not; really, an abuse of process.

  • Nevin

    Digging, not with a spade, not with a pen, just tapping keys on a keyboard.

  • Teddybear

    Let me be clear. I support the right of people to marry in law. I do not support theocracy. I support people coming to God voluntarily and not by force

  • Teddybear

    Thank you

  • Teddybear

    Thank you.

  • Brian Walker

    Well done for finding these minutes Nevin but so what?

  • Liggy85

    So……you support the rights to LBGT people to get married because it’s their choice, but at the same time you’re going to persuade them not to do that because it’s wrong? It’s…..well, I don’t know. It’s a bit confusing.
    I suppose I can draw a parallel though. I used to be a trade union rep and I used to defend attacks on people’s faith, which unfortunately occasionally happened, despite the fact that I’m an atheist. I was a Christian for the first 18 years of my life, but obviously not anymore. I believe people have the right to a faith despite not having one myself.
    So, maybe from that comparison, I can understand where you’re coming from. I apologise, Teddybear, if I’ve caused you any offence.

  • Brian Walker

    Oh Karl.. lighten up.

  • lizmcneill

    Something like “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”?

  • Liggy85

    Yeah, I guess that’s probably exactly it.

  • Nevin

    Have you read my NALIL blog? It’s in the Really? link.

  • Teddybear

    You’ve nothing to be sorry for but thank you. Religion is just like politics except that ones leader has a beard and lives in Heaven and his manifesto was written Thousands of years ago and never changes

  • woodkerne

    Made of ‘Bog Oak’ perhaps.

  • Nevin

    “I’ve yet to read a convincing account of the reasons for the speed of the collapse in relations”

    I think you need look no further than the incendiary nature of the BBC Spotlight coverage of the RHI debacle.

  • Brian Walker

    The example I was referring to was the clash between Givan and O Muilleoir over whether legislation was needed to mitigate the bedroom tax.

  • Brian Walker

    On the DUP v Sinn Fein?

  • Nevin

    It ripped the uneasy relationship between these two parties apart. It did so IMO by a misplaced focus on politicians, in this case Arlene Foster, rather than a careful study of the governance process that led to the RHI debacle. This hasn’t been the only debacle but it’s been by far the most serious one.

  • Nevin

    Hence my suggestion that the relevant parties need to be sitting around the same table, even when ministers aren’t clashing.

  • harmlessdrudge

    Your remarks were offensive and patronising, and in that regard were stereotypically British even if not accompanied by a Punch-style cartoon of a gorilla with a shillelagh.

    Surely you’re aware that one of the communities involved is not, in fact, Irish? (need I add “/sarcasm”?)