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.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London