So, erm, if everyone agrees on how to deal with #RHI, why is Northern Ireland spending £5M on an election?

Sinn Fein, consummate news managers that they are, announced their massive U-turn on the form of inquiry needed for the RHI scandal little more than an hour after the media had recorded Martin McGuinness’s farewell interview.

It was obvious which one was going to grab the lead, but the U-turn is the far bigger political news. What caused it? Almost certainly it was confirmation by Andrew McCormick on Wednesday’s PAC that Jonny Bell was ‘Minister for the Spike’.

Indeed, he also confirmed that, even then, most of the blame lay with his own departmental officials both for not alerting the previous Minister (Arlene Foster) and in fact causing the spike in the first place.

Arguments over how long it took to slow things down are academic without further investigation.

So remind me why, if there’s finally an agreement on how to proceed, why the country is going for an expensive, exhausting – particularly for the smaller parties with least resources – and which on first glance will not change anything in terms of representation?

Mairtin O Muilleoir, who has been all over this story from start to end, tried to explain on Wednesday’s Today Programme, but left his interviewer none the wiser:

In fact, this whole mess appears to have been triggered by a particularly nasty and bad-tempered exchange between the Finance Minster and the former DETI man at a meeting of the Finance Committee in October last Autumn:

It may be that Bell assumed he was being prepared by his DUP/SF colleagues in the Executive to take the rap for the whole thing. As it turns out, it had very little to do with him: but neither he nor they would have known that at the time.

Newton Emerson nails the problem. We’re out of a government because of something few people now dispute: the outrage of Sinn Fein’s members and supporters had forced its hand:

Now the party leadership has to ride that wave of anger to the polls, yet make the wave subside during talks and recede before everyone is washed back up at Stormont again.

Anger may be useful in motivating voters, as long as no angrier party comes along – although each ballot is worth the same no matter how furiously it is marked, and as Gerry Adams pointed out bluntly this week: “there are more unionists than republicans.”

Anger may also be useful at the start of talks, to demonstrate opening positions. But after that, it becomes an increasing liability to compromise.

Anger in government is of no use whatsoever. It is not a policy, as the old saying goes, while in a power-sharing system it is actively counter-productive. Angry people are harder to make deals with and your own angry people are harder to sell deals to.

What has 20 years of foot-stomping about the Parades Commission achieved for unionists, for example, other than making them look impotent and ridiculous?

Republicans may be justified in their present anger and they may even have some cross-community sympathy, at least regarding RHI and the conduct of the DUP. But as anger fails to deliver, it will soon make them look impotent too.

The last night came this extraordinary interview:

You could see its effects on online audiences. It is no stretch to believe Ian Paisley when he said thank you to the former dFM. He views the re-establishment of the institutions as the pinnacle of his father’s long career, and McGuinness was integral to that.

In terms of crisis management, it was, as Emerson pointed out, just a return to proportion over the situation. But as Paul Gosling notes on Slugger this morning, the anger isn’t all situated at the outer edges of Ulster.

The sheer self-indulgence of it all it is breathtaking. And Gosling is right to note that all these melodramas are mere sideshows to the real purpose of politics, which as he notes:

…begins with getting the basic services right.  Until we get Northern Ireland’s health service operating efficiently, all schools providing superb education and those who need good quality social housing being able to get it, then promoting narrow issues is a luxury that we, as a society, cannot afford.

Quite. We can hope that the new partnership will work more smoothly than the old. But it won’t work if all they ever pursue the same blocking techniques over culture, cross-border development (which is now more than ever a live concern), and making NI fit for the 21st Century.

If they are not prepared to roll up their sleeves, take the tough decisions (and their consequences), then they should not continue to defraud the electorate by persisting with claims that they can and they will.

The ridiculous thing is that as a government it is clear there’s barely a tram ticket’s width between them. But they will be returned in roughly the same proportions. Despite having split the government after just seven months on the job, the Opposition doesn’t look like an alternative to enough people.

But they have forced government to cut and run to an election over an inability to jointly tackle the problems facing Northern Ireland. That requires above all, new ideas, intelligent engagement with the electorate and long-term focus.

If the government cannot do it, the opposition must be a sufficient alternative to enable people to take the deeply tribal risk of jumping ship.

 

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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