“A dog walking on its hind legs…its not done well but youre surprised that is done at all” (Dr Johnson).
The Norn Iron Executive at Stormont is a bit like that. A lousy government but (for those of us who remember the bad years) it is a small miracle that it is happening at all…nationalists and unionists sharing power.
Of course it has all changed since 1998. UUP was the lead player on the unionist side and SDLP was the lead player on the nationalist side. The British and Irish governments felt that things would be more secure with DUP and Sinn Féin leading the tribes…and thats what we have had for years. UUP and SDLP cannot be excused for not seeing this coming.
But of course from St Andrews, via Hillsborough to Fresh Start, the Good Friday Agreement has been hollowed out. The euphoria, especially on the nationalist side has long gone.
Yet I get a sense that things changed yesterday. Or more likely there is a possibility of change.
I make no apology for saying that SDLP should have gone into Opposition in 2011. You all know the reason but I will say it again. SDLP and UUP had 14 and 16 MLAs respectively and one seat each at the Executive but Alliance with 8 MLAs took two Executive seats.
At that point Democracy was turned on its head. We should have walked away.
Does anyone seriously want to defend that shameful gerrymander?
Certainly Alliance claim the extra portfolio Justice was a tribute to their unique neutrality…not a gift from DUP-Sinn Féin but rather a vote in the Assembly itself. But lets get real here….they sought, received and maintained an advantage over two other democratic parties.
They sewed their Downfall…they reaped their Downfall.
What goes round…comes round.
Yes, Belfast Karma…serves the bastards right.
There is no real point in feeling sorry for the Alliance Party. They are sorry enough for themselves. More to the point, they just dont get it. As Alex Kane points out the sense of Entitlement in the Alliance Party is astonishing.
Has Election 2016 been a game-changer? Too soon to tell. But it os shaping up nicely. The reduction of the number of chairs around the Executive table has raised the threshold for entitlement to a portfolio in a power sharing Executive.
The magic number is TEN….and despite talking up an extra seat in East Belfast, North Down, South Belfast and South Antrim and breakthrus in North Belfast and Upper Bann….Alliance never even came close. They have stagnated under David Ford. The heady days of Naomi Long taking East Belfast at Westminster in 2010, looks like a one-off. Look around the Alliance MLAs and there does not seem much talent available.
Nevertheless Alliance have some bare-faced cheek. Now without a portfolio, they tried to negotiate holding on to Justice….making the DUP-SF an offer they couldnt refuse, they would generously “take” Justice if some other parts of the Alliance manifesto got into the DUP-SF Programme for Government.
Let me be clear.
ALliance DO NOT HAVE A MANDATE.
The meeting between DUP-SF and Alliance lasted less than ten minutes. They were chased out of Stormont Castle.
From “bare faced cheek” to the “Bum’s Rush”.
Still Alliance are optimists. Their Party meeting last night decided to adjourn without making a decision on the Justice Ministry. Over the weekend, David Ford will sit by his phone, hoping from a call from Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness.
Yet it seems that in this curious game of Bluff and Double Bluff, Arlene and Martin have a name or names in the frame.
Independent Unionist Claire Sugden MLA (East Derry). It smacks of desperation but she has already fought off a UUP challenge to take her seat. And if I was a high-ranking civil servant in the Department of Justice, I would be rubbing my hands at the prospect of “handling” a young and naive MLA.
Alternatively a Green MLA might take the DUP-SF shilling. But really Steven Agnew or Claire Bailey should really keep their distance.
Alternatively DUP-SF might find a willing Quangocrat outside the Assembly.
Or…as is being floated… A shared Ministry with a DUP and SF Minister.
John McCallister, the Independent Unionist who lost his seat deserves some credit for making Opposition possible. Mike Nesbitt of UUP also deserves credit for leading his Party out of the Executive last year and maintaining that position.
But it takes two Parties to be in Government and it takes at least two to be in Opposition.
An Opposition is after all an alternative Government. So the SDLP decision to walk away is crucial.
On a personal level I would not like to see too much agreement between UUP and SDLP. Leaving aside the unionist-nationalist problem, there is the much bigger problem that the UUP is a right-wing conservative Party and SDLP leans (increasingly) to the left.
As for Alliance…so what? They dont have a mandate to be in government or be part of the Opposition. Besides…even this weekend they still WANT to be in the Government.
The reaction to the SDLP decision seems mostly favourable. Certainly the Party is united. But it has been coming…a minority favoured it after 2011 but numbers have been growing and certainly the pre-election mood music was for Opposition.
Obviously a Party cannot go into an election “Vote for Us…we dont want to form a government”.
The Party fought on a manifesto and after election put its programme to DUP and SF. Their pwn “programme” is threadbare and the sole policy seems to be to stay in office.
But Sinn Féin has been savage about SDLP.
As I have said before SDLP membership of the Executive gives cover to Sinn Féin. Nominally every Executive since 1998 has been a four or five Party coalition as defined in the Good Friday Agreement. But increasingly the electoral power of DUP and Sinn Féin and the over-representation of Alliance (stooges to DUP-SF) has marginalised the Agreement itself…and marginalised UUP and SDLP. I would go so far as to say that at times it is uncomfortable and even humiliating…and SF has certainly enjoyed it all.
But there are deeper reasons for SF hostility. Having ridiculed and marginalised the “Stoops”, why should it bother Sinn Féin that SDLP have walked away?
Well I think that the numbers of DUP and SF MLAs is a factor.
THIRTY is the key number. That is the number of MLAs from one tribe required to block legislation. DUP have 38 MLAs and SF have just 28 MLAs.
Never has power-sharing looked so one-sided.
Remember that talk of Martin McGuinness as First Minister?
Remember that talk of Gerry Adams as Taoiseach?
Remember how Sinn Féin styles itself as the All-Ireland party. As Catherine Seeley MLA (Sinn Féin) put it…
Alas you cannot see it on Twitter as it was quickly deleted. Presumably someone in the Sinn Féin Press Office pointed out that SF would not negotiate about government in the Republic but condemns SDLP for doing the same in north.
Its a topsy-turvy world.
Sinn Féin would rather govern Norn Iron than Republic of Ireland.
Still…a government run by DUP and Sinn Féin is hardly a coalition of equals.
The precedents dont seem good.
Look what happened the Irish Green Party, junior coalition Party with Fianna Fáil in 2010.
Look what happened the British Lib Dems, junior coalition Party with the Tories in 2015.
Look what happened the Irish Labour Party, junior coalition Party with Fine Gael in 2016.
Does anybody in Sinn Féin understand History?