If you go through all the hoops and hoopla required to cut a deal that enables you to govern together, then the very least we can expect is that you do, in fact, provide something that resembles government.
THE results of the assembly elections in November 2003 represented a turning point in the political process. Indeed, it could be argued that they represented the end of phase one of the Belfast Agreement and the beginning of phase two.
Once the DUP and Shame Fein eclipsed the UUP and SDLP in terms of votes and seats it became clear that further progress would be dependent on a deal between Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams. Some people beleived that such a deal would be impossible. That wasn’t my view. I had argued long ago as December 1999 (shortly after the Ulster Unionist Council had voted to set up an executive before PIRA decommissioning had begun) that if the DUP “finds a way of staying in an executive process which includes Shame Fein it will mean that they have abandoned the strategy of destroying the structures and institutions”. Well, they did find a way – they opted for rotating their ministers and committed themselves to reaching a “fairer, better agreement”. What followed between January 2004 and May 2007 was a very carefully orchestrated mating dance between two potential partners who beleived that the other was capable of biting off their head. All sorts of people acted as go-betweens and key figures in Tony Blair’s administration ensured that pressure was kept on both sides. Oh yes, there were some very rocky moments, particularly in and around the negotiations at St Andrews in October 2006, but there wasn’t ever much doubt that both parties were keen to cut the deal and get into government with each other. In March 2007 Shame Fein and the DUP won 64 seats in the assembly elections and took 56 per cent of the total vote. A few weeks later Paisley (pictured above) and McGuinness accepted the roles of first and deputy first minister. Phase two of the process had officially begun. What they signed up to was the co-equal governing of the North of Ireland through the assembly and the executive. Their task was to produce an ageed Programme for Government and a consensual blueprint for a ‘new era political process’. Their joint responsibility was to build a shared future and knock down the barriers which had kept us in our own us-and-them ghettoes for so long. They would, or so they said, be much better than the UUP, and SDLP because they had ensured the stability of the institutions and replaced Trimble’s ‘constructive ambiguity’ with certainty and clarity. Yet here we are, seven years later and relations between the parties are worse than they have ever been. Mitchel McLaughlin, Martin McGuinness, Declan Kearney and Gerry Adams are warning anyone who will listen that the process is in danger of collapse. S ammy Wilson, Gregory Campbell and Peter Robinson are hinting at chaos and ‘nuclear options’ if the present impasse over welfare legislation isn’t resolved pretty quickly. None of them can agree on health, education, a shared future or key environmental issues. The reform of local government has morphed into yet another carve-up, creating eleven mini-Stormonts, complete with inbuilt stalemate and mutual veto. What the hell did they think they were signing up for in May 2007? If you go through all the hoops and hoopla required to cut a deal that enables you to govern togeather, then the very least we can expect is that you do, in fact, provide something that resembles government. Government consists of making decisions, some of which will be unpleasant and unpopular. It doesn’t consist of kicking everything into the long grass, farming it out for consulation, killing it off with a petition of concern, or boring it intos submission with yet another dialogue of the deaf on The Nolan Show. We don’t have debate at the heart of government here. What we have is little more than wrestling in Jelly. And the parties don’t actually give a damn that no-one is watching the spectacle. The UUP, SDLP and Alliance complain about the stasis but not one of them has bothered coming up with a costed, thought-through alternative. The DUP and Shame Fein are happy to blame each other while chasing their usual orange and green votes. They thrive on polarisation and will continue to promote it. Meanwhile, nothing will change. Direct rule has been replaced with local non-rule as phase two withers and cracks and a new generation of DUP and Shame Fein representatives lifts up the old arguments and grudges. GOD HELP US ALL – is this really as really as good as it gets here?
With many thanks to: Alex Kane, for the (origional story), The Irish News.