The glasses of full and half full Assembly results have been poured and are being eagerly being digested according to whether consumers are convinced they amount to a breakthrough for the nationalist cause or leave things much the same in a slightly different shape. Each according to taste. What matters more immediately now are the bums on seats in Stormont.
To allow Executive ministers of the old mandate to continue, MLAs will have to manage to elect a Speaker. It is presumed this will be accomplished. If 2017 to 2020 is any guide, the vista opens up of a long period of faffing about behind closed doors.
That period could be shorter than many people think. As Newton Emerson reminds us the new rules in New Decade New Approach allows the Assembly to dissolve itself after six weeks. Nothing can prevent a major party i.e. Sinn Fein from withdrawing from the frankly bizarre temporary arrangements of old ministers remaining in office indefinitely and precipitating an election within three months. The pressure is on the DUP therefore to return to Stormont within six weeks.
If Sinn Fein don’t force the issue – and as professed supporters of the Assembly they shouldn’t – what are the alternatives? Are the public supposed to put up another indefinite period which could last six months or even longer, while they parties examine their navels, and exchange platitudes with each other and the two governments behind closed doors? Coming on top the last three year gap this is intolerable. It serves neither the people nor the parties well.
The Assembly should turn itself into a deliberative forum on the big issues. While partial agreements would have no legal force they would surely create moral pressure.
Prof Pete Shirlow the academic champion of the centre ground, has called on Sinn Féin in its own interest to provide “an act of immense political generosity.. in joining the DUP to provide an evidence-base upon which to respond to the protocol.”
There are obvious issues.. (around) the EU changing laws around the movement of medicines, offering 50 per cent reductions in paperwork and 80 per cent reductions in veterinary checks. Those issues should concern all of us.
As Katy Hayward points out a decent majority exists in the Assembly for this approach “The majority of MLAs (54 to 36) were elected on platforms supportive of the Protocol and keen to see it remain”
But the greatest confusion over the Protocol lies with the British government, reflected in on – off- on comments about taking unilateral action to amend it.
Here is an opportunity for the Assembly to become part of the solution rather than the problem. A clear commitment in support of mitigation deserves the active support of the Irish government behind the scenes and achieve a solution the DUP could accept – perhaps under a new name.
Assembly debates on the whole domestic agenda, passing the budget, NHS and education reform would expose hard choices generally avoided in debate but none of them are insoluble.
Here is where the strengthened Alliance party come in.
In the deadlock over most policies they have the clean hands of former relative impotents. They are in a strong position to build coalitions of opinion to tackle the hard choices of NHS and education reform and identity issues over Irish culture. All parties should be able to indicate outline support for passing a £300 mn + budget. Of course there would be fierce disagreement on particular issues – your A&E unit or mine? – but better to air them openly than let them fester in suppression and evasion.
The new deadlock presents a big challenge to all parties to break the bad habits of boycott that have become all too familiar. It is an opportunity too good to waste for the two victors of the election, Sinn Fein and the Alliance party.
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