Despite going to the polls today, the Northern Ireland voters will have no say in the outcome. The two governments’ hands- off approach to Stormont will have to change

People  going to the polls today are being sold badly short. They do not  know whether they are electing members to an Assembly that will function again. Northern Ireland is facing not an existential crisis but a failure of politicians to work a workable system consistently. The trouble is that no effective means of calling them to account has yet been developed.  Most people, the public and politicians alike don’t seem to realise how appalling this looks to outsiders and the dependency on Westminster it exposes.  Judging from the last leader’s debate, the DUP and Sinn Fein seem entirely resigned to this fate  and are even comfortable with it, being content to trade slogans, assert their own virtue and blame each other. On the RHI scheme, both of them were either lying or the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing in each case.

Only after today will we discover if the two main parties – assuming they’re returned to their leading roles – are prepared to correct this shabby performance. But one thing is clear: the public who will have just voted will be left out of it. If there is a new deal sooner or later it will be  forged behind the familiar closed doors. It will be as if this unnecessary election had never happened.  Apart from the impact on party morale it hardly matters whether the results show the DUP and Sinn Fein neck and neck or as before, well apart. Either could produce greater or lesser intransigence from tomorrow.

Today, there is no issue of  significance to divide the parties comparable to  paramilitary disarmament that so badly blighted the Assembly’s  first decade. To adapt Franklin Roosevelt, there is nothing to divide them now except division itself. They dealt with all the bones of contention last Christmas a year ago in Fresh Start.

What’s changed? Tone, behaviour, respect all deteriorated under pressure of events dear boy, namely first at the unexpected  Brexit referendum result and the re-emergence of the border as a problem and then  the shock horror and embarrassment over the bogey right under the noses, the RHI debacle, just big enough to crack the facade of cooperation, like  a married couple’s bad habits in bed. They – and I’d say the DUP in particular –  hadn’t the imagination and emotional intelligence to cope and SF the forbearance  to resist .

Both the DUP and Sinn Fein leaderships were caught on the hop.   While the causes are not completely clear, it looks like the breakdown was not a deep laid plot by Sinn Fein but improvised after Jonny Bell’s confessional on responsibility for the RHI  debacle.  Perhaps  it was  not so much  a crisis too good to waste, as a crisis which Sinn Fein felt  pressurised  to accept out of comparative weakness  – and the cues on their side were Foster’s snarling  dismissal of any case against her and McGuinness’s  obvious need to withdraw.

The  local Brexit  referendum result vote will have been a bigger factor than acknowledged, with Sinn Fein coming in on the winning side with some unionist help.  While most of the emphasis is on the physical border problem, Brexit opens up a new vision of unity. But the influential factors are out of their control, depending as they do on a Brexit disaster.  However, allied to the emergence of a Catholic majority there is enough there for dreamers to dream afresh. Sinn Fein may be tempted to abandon the Assembly and wait on Brexit events to affect the climate, meanwhile concentrating on their southern strategy. But abstention works better as a principle than a tactic and would create a vacuum which others are already only too eager to fill.

I was struck by the general absence of angry partisanship in the representative public contributions in the BBC leader’s debate.  The strong impression was left of a public wanting agreement. This seems to confirm the  growth of open mindedness and scepticism that registers strongly in the opinion polls.  By contrast, the main parties’ failure to  risk  concessions to the other before the public vote actually jarred.  The DUP’s project fear to attack “the radical republican agenda “everyone knows can’t be implemented without DUP  consent rang hollow, as did Sinn Fein self referential presentation as the long suffering paragons of progressive virtue.  An outsider would find remarkable that the leaders weren’t even asked what they were prepared to do to reach agreement apart from making a few vague comments about “red lines,” and a threat to lengthen one list of grievances unless the other side shortened theirs.

The stirrings of cross community cooperation between the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP that were so poorly improvised at the start, are unlikely to make much of an impact. At the same time a greater part of the future lies in just such an appeal to the numbers of uncommitted who stay at home and to the deeply uncertain numbers of voters who long for a greater sense of the common public interest in a shared future. However they fare in the election, this is the future the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP need to develop.

Having already used up a lot of ammunition in Fresh Start which seemed to be working but quickly collapsed, the two governments  have little else  left in the  locker except  diplomacy. This will have been the third time in three years that they have had to intervene to patch up a political  deal and under worse conditions than in 2o14 and 2015.

As for political reform,  it  could just be the case that  stronger formal  administrative procedures within the Executive  – promised in Fresh Start but not implemented – could have nipped the crisis in the bud. The Coghlin report should have something to say about that.  The progress of Fresh Start  was supposed to be monitored by the Executive parties and the two governments sitting together. Why didn’t the alarm sound and the two governments intervene before the crisis point was reached? This is a  theme for another day; but it is clear that a more active role by the two governments is necessary once again.

Short term, the obvious move would be for Arlene Foster to assume the  original role of both John Hume for the SDLP and Gerry Adams for Sinn Fein, and act as the party leader who nominates candidates for ministerial office but does not occupy one herself.. Her  role would  be  contingent on the verdict of  the Coghlin inquiry. If she is cleared, she could  bask in a vindication that Sinn Fein  would be forced to accept  and reoccupy the place of first minister. If it hard to see how Sinn Fein could then bring down the institution once more. The move would involve only a  little loss of face  on both sides.  So why didn’t Foster stand down in December to save the Executive? She could plausibly argue that she didn’t quite believe in Sinn Fein’s threat in fast moving events  to pull the plug until it happened . She would standing aside now   bolstered by a fresh mandate and on her own terms, when the threat to  the Assembly is so starkly clear.

On more fundamental reform, the DUP are not the only ones to call for a change to voluntary coalition and reform of the blocking mechanism of petitions of concern.  An entire system of government  – not  just an administration  – which faces collapse through a single resignation in one move, is clearly defective.  Yet nothing will change while the mutual veto survives and it’s hard to see what can shift it.  No system can substitute for a fundamental lack of trust and a spirit of cooperation.  We may have to become inured  to this pattern of events as our version of normality, unless the politicians  spot an advantage  in changing  their behaviour.

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  • Karl

    I dont see why the hands off approach will have to change. The IRA have stopped bombing London and there is no politcal capital to be gained from London involving itself in NI. As history has taught them, they’ll get pelted from one side or the other or possibly both, whatever they do.

    The Irish government want as little to do with the place as possible. Mixing it with SF on their terms is not something they want to get involved with and they dont want to unncessarily antagonise the unionists on a regular basis.

    There are no votes in it for either government. It doesnt affect them in the slightest. So if NI remains a stagnant pool, economically, socially and culturally but the smell doesnt drift over to them, they will leave well enough alone because they dont care.

    If the people who live there dont care enough to make it work, why should anyone else?

  • burnboilerburn

    You make some valid points. In the past, southern parties shoring up the peace had some electoral dividend. At that time SF was no threat politically but now all that has changed. Neither FF and FG can stand shoulder to shoulder with SF and the SDLP in northern affairs and then go back to their base in the south and argue that the Shinners are the bogey man.
    In London despite riding high in the polls it is clear that the Tory government is sinking under the weight of affecting Brexit against its own best advice. With far too much on its plate, it simply does not have the time or inclination to egt too deeply involved. Secretly London is hoping that soon enough the pro union vote will drop low enough to justify a border poll and get shut of the place once and for all.
    Your final point nails the whole thing. If almost half the North’s population cant be bothered to vote today, why indeed should London or Dublin get too giddy about the province.

  • Kevin Breslin

    This is almost anti-Good Friday Agreement … Particularly going against the message of “It’s Your Decision”.

    I often think there should be an outward pro-direct rule party (NI Conservatives are just a de facto one in my opinion) to see how much buy into the arguement that it’s irrelevant who becomes their MLA.

    The people voting are sending not just a message to Stormont, but the two governments too.

    If another election is necessary to get local people to own their local issues with a greater enthusiasm, I think it is worth the risk.

  • Karl

    Hearing that early turn out is similar to Brexit referendum levels. Presumably a high turnout doesnt favour the DUP.

    This could be the election that sees a minority of unionists returned to Stormont. Hopefully this will lead to less obdurate negotiating positions and a sea change in thinking from the DUP in particular.

    Having said that, it will probably mean cries of sell out and Lundy and a hastening to a combined DUP / UUP uber unionist party.

    Anyway, as long as we dont live in Larne, we live in hope. *Ducks quickly and runs*

  • Croiteir

    Thanks a bagful, looks like I will have to keep the heid doon.

  • Skibo

    I have no problem with a single Unionist party. That has to happen in the end. Probably the sooner the better as there would be no other home for moderate Unionism other than the Greens or Alliance.
    Game on!

  • Karl

    I suspect youre right but I’d prefer to deal with 2 parties representing a well adjusted unionist electorate of 40% ready to share the future rather than 1 party representing a disaffected rump of 30% of the electorate raging against the dying of the light and the inequity of their plight vis a vis their destiny.

    Your way will probably be more entertaining but a lot sadder

  • Skibo

    Karl a disaffected rump of 30% would result in a border poll and reunification. There are those Unionists who could never vote for a party like the DUP and without the UUP would either give up voting or revert to Alliance and the Greens.
    Perhaps by that stage FG will be standing here and they will have a perfect replacement for the UUP.

  • Karl

    That disaffected rump will put a large portion of nationalists in the north and a bigger number in the south off voting for unificiation.

    A majority of unionists have to want a united ireland, or at least not vote against it. Before you snot your cornflakes at the thought of it, I believe if the London govt sat them down and had a hear to to heart with them it might work.

    Its not me, its you.
    Look, we had a good run. We tried a separate state, we tried gerrymandering, we tried shoot to kill. We gave it a good go. But we’ve been at it a hundred years and frankly, we’re just not that into you anymore.
    We’ve got better things to be spending our money on. You just come across as the whiny little brother. You say you’re like us but you’re not. You dont believe in the same things we do. The only thing we really have in common is a flag and thats likely to change soon. To be honest, sometimes you embarrass us in front of our grown up friends and some of you banging on about dinosaurs never existing does you no favours.
    So heres the deal. Ourselves and the Irish government will give you 10 years of support at existing levels. Its time for you to move out. We cant be your big brother any more.
    Have a chat to the lads down south, they’re not that bad, better than Michelle and her mates. They dont like them either. Talk to the Germans and the Yanks and see what you can come up with.
    Best of luck with it all. Let us know how you get on.

  • runnymede

    Of course there should be a system of voluntary coalitions. The existing state of affairs is entirely unsatisfactory, a parody of democracy and parliamentary government really.

  • runnymede

    pure fantasy

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Please elucidate

  • Karl

    Would that it were so simple

  • johnny lately

    Brian it’s becoming clear you haven’t a clue why Sinn Fein collapsed the assembly or what they will do after the results are in. The illusion you promote that the collapse was down to the RHI scheme is simply brushing under the carpet the reality that it was a combination of broken promises by both Unionism and the British government and especially the attempts by the PSNI and Westminster to provide cover for so called rogue police officers and trigger happy British soldiers which sent a message to nationalists that they were being taken for a ride and they vented their anger at Sinn Fein. RHI and Arlene Fosters attitude to her partners in government was the straw that broke the camels back but the illusion that this present British government its also not to blame is probably not helpful to promote them as honest brokers in any solution.

  • runnymede

    Really? Isn’t it obvious? nationalists on this board live in a dream world.

    The UK government is miles ahead in the polls, in mid-term, and is politically unassailable right now.

    But most of all is this ludicrous notion that the UK authorities secretly want a Sinn Fein agenda to triumph. They just don’t. That may be the story Gerry & Co, sold to the boys but it is a pure fantasy – especially today.

  • Conchúr Ó Conghaile

    It’s not a fantasy to say that the Brits couldn’t give a frck about this place and would be happy to finally see the back of us.

  • runnymede

    You are completely wrong.

    And in fact, Brexit is going to strengthen the union – the last thing the UK government wants in the post-Brexit period is parts of the UK peeling away. Indeed, there is going to be a lot of effort to make the broader English-speaking world come closer together.

  • No. The problem is that if a child doesn’t get what it wants it screams and shouts until it gets what it wants. Poor parenting. Children have to learn boundaries and that after 18 their life is their own responsibility. If they don’t agree an Exec in three weeks, send them back to the polls, and repeat until they all grow up.

  • Conchúr Ó Conghaile

    Mate. If anything is going to kill the Union it’s Brexit. The SNP are champing at the bit for Indyref2 and there’s a damn good chance that Scotland will be independent in the next few years. The Tories are basically now goading the Scots to make a break for independence.
    How exactly will Brexit strengthen the Union?

    The ‘English speaking World’ is one of those things that Empire nostalgic Brexiteer champion but it doesn’t really exist as a unit. The Commonwealth is irrelevant, Australia and NZ are Looking to Asia, the Americans are going to heck in a handcart with Trump and the Canadians couldn’t give a fig about the Brits.

  • runnymede

    You are just projecting I’m afraid.

  • Brian Walker

    You’ve read your own deeply held views into what I wrote. I said it wasn’t completely clear why the breakdown happened . Thats part of the problem. You don’t know either. Everything you mentioned was dealt with at Fresh Start. None of it was repudiated although a lot remained to be implemented. Like everyone else I wait to see what happens next.

  • aquifer

    You got it, these sub-adult politicians have got to suffer consequences until they start cleaning up after themselves. Direct rule just flatters Unionists, when the Brits would be perfectly entitled to threaten expulsion for destabilising the UK.

  • aquifer

    If Sinn Fein had treated the DUP the way the DUP treated Sinn Fein the Assembly would have imploded months ago. The DUP imagine they are top dogs, but the rules say they are co-mutts. They did not vote for the GFA and the relevant acts, but presumably they can read them.

  • aquifer

    Why would SF agree to permanent exclusion? Dream on.

  • Saint Etienne

    As one of the local governing parties clearly prefers to transfer powers back to, as they see it, ‘the English’, there is absolutely no reason for central government to change it’s viewpoint.

    Questions should well be asked after this election. But you’re blind if you feel those needing to answer lay outside Stormont.

  • AndyB

    ‘The DUP’s project fear to attack “the radical republican agenda
    “everyone knows can’t be implemented without DUP consent rang hollow’

    And some numpty on the front row made sure that everyone noticed.

    Alas, said numpty’s ability to ask the right questions didn’t let him get a comeback with “And you think a left wing Sinn Fein agenda is going to get anywhere with the Conservative party in the event of direct rule?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    RM, while the Conservatives may not wish for the triumph of SF, those I occasionally am at table with during my odd evenings in Chelsea clearly want shot of the liability which NI represents for them. At least that is how they usually talk when off the record. The appear to see havng to deal with the Dáil and with similar parties to their own, such as FF and FG would be far more agreeable than having the local boys from NI at Westminster. Anyone who regularly meets MPs or aides across the water could confirm this readily. The “pure fantasy” is that there is any strong English interest in holding on to NI, unhappily common with the kind of people who emotionally insist that somehow Queen VIctoria is still sitting at Windsor and the map is still very pink. As my very Edwardian (and Liberal) father in law used to quip, if you pointed out to such people that Victoria was dead, the response would be “Poor Albert…”

  • SeaanUiNeill

    So its “the Miracle of the House of Brandenburg” again, Brexit style:

    In early April 1945 Goebbels was looking to a similar rescue and believed….”a change of fortune was inevitable, like the Miracle of the House of Brandenburg in the Seven Years War. One of the staff officers had somewhat skeptically and ironically asked, ‘What Czarina will die this time?’ That, Goebbels had replied, he could not say; but Fate still held many possibilities in her hand.”

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Please explain, RM, just what assurences and proofs you have of this inevitable future for those of us without such psychic insights, unless of course the revitlaisation of Britain is simply wish fullfilment thinking.

  • Skibo

    Karl, I actually agree with your thesis on how the Unionist electorate will be convinced and I believe it will have to be the UK Government who will have to do the convincing.
    Where we differ is you suggesting that a majority of Unionists will be required to vote for reunification to make it happen. That is wrong. The GFA states 50% plus 1, a simple majority.
    I don’t believe the British Government would start any discussions till that happened.
    What will be required is for the Southern parties to open talks with the Northern parties to discuss what a reunited Ireland would actually mean.
    We may not get down to all the small print but I believe a set of parameters could be agreed.
    All depends on what percentage vote nationalism has been able to persuade out yesterday, whether that happens before Brexit or after it.

  • Skibo

    RM are you aware that the UK is prepared to forego access to a 500M free market area and one of the reasons was that they pay around £10B for the privilege.
    If you believe the figures the DUP report the UK pays a similar amount to prop up NI.
    NI will be in a precarious place with a possible Tory government in place for the next ten years with austerity and an ever decreasing budget and the South powering ahead all the time.

  • eamoncorbett

    Depressing , but possibly true.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    That betrays though the standard nationalist misunderstanding of Ulster unionism – to imagine that it somehow depends upon what anyone on the mainland thinks; or that unionists expect to rely on anyone but ourselves when push comes to shove. So your “chat” would meet a unionist shrug and a “so what’s new”. The problem for you is tougher than you seem to hope.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    But we would have pressure at last on parties to be constructive and work together. It’s what NI needs. But you would have to have some minimum community designation quotas for any such government to have a chance.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    It may be the last thing they want (although as pointed out above that is at best a dubious notion) but it is certainly what they are going to get, sooner or later. Preferably sooner, for everyone’s sake.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Please elucidate. And please try to do it better than the last time you tried.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Yes. “You’re not going to Larne on me” as the old joke goes.