Doomed to talks hell for hell of a lot longer

Posted By: July 01, 2017

Patrick Murphy. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, July 1, 2017

I am not sure what hell is like, but it cannot be much worse than watching television coverage of the Stormont talks for all eternity, while the devil hides the remote control.

Stormont’s spoiled children have been at it again this week, their sectarian muscles bristling before the television cameras in our pre-Twelfth macho-land of flags and bonfire pallets.

For 20 years now they have winged their way through endless “crisis” meetings, most of which broke all agreed deadlines.

After the various fudged agreements, our politicians expected (and received) praise from an often adoring media and the gratitude of a disengaged public, happy that they had stopped killing each other.

Now, neither media nor public care as much about what goes on up at Stormont and in truth, it matters little whether the politicians reach agreement or not.

Stormont’s self-serving culture has failed us in terms of key public services, especially education and health. Sadly, it has become just another sectarian burden on society.

Stormont’s departments have been spending almost £50,000 a week on hospitality. Taxpayers subsidize its bars and restaurants with almost £1,000 per week and we even buy mints for them to chew in the chamber, at an annual cost of over £1,000.

At the same time, MLAs earn £48,000 annually, plus expenses. Others earn more: ministers (£86,000), junior ministers (£60,000), Committee Chairs (£60,000) and of course, the Speaker (£92,000). They are still being paid even though there is no Assembly.

The Detail website has revealed that Stormont cost over £74 million in the past five years. In return, we have witnessed the Red Sky scandal; the unsolved mystery of who got what in the Nama deal; the £2m for the UDA-linked Charter NI; queries about MLAs’ expenses; the Social Investment Fund’s allocation (or non-allocation) of money; the £700,000 for SF’s ‘consultancy’ services; endless petitions of concern; the £60m for an apparently over-scaled Casement Park and, of course, RHI.

Meanwhile, 140 school principals representing almost 40,000 pupils recently wrote to the leaders of the DUP and Sinn Féin seeking money “simply to maintain a basic provision for the children in our schools”.

Ah but, you say, these are crucial talks about an Irish Language Act. Sadly, they are not – the language issue did not collapse Stormont. The talks are about using the language as another bone in an endless sectarian dog-fight.

Irish speakers have the right to access public services in Irish, but how fluent must you be to qualify as an Irish speaker?

Should non-Irish speakers also have the right to access public services in Irish? Is so, why? If not, who will determine what constitutes an Irish speaker, and how will they do it? Will we have an annual MOT system for Irish speakers to ensure that our irregular verbs are still in working order?

The Irish language needs official recognition at the government level. We could then develop a language policy, probably under an equivalent body to Scotland’s Bòrd na Gàidhlig, which could frame legislation to facilitate those who are fluent in the language and to encourage others to reach that level.

Irish language legislation should be stand-alone. However, the difficulty is that SF’s ‘two nations’ approach gives each ‘nation’ its own language (Irish) or dialect (Ulster Scots). In that sectarian atmosphere, it is inconsistent to say that Irish is for everyone.

It is, but the Good Friday Agreement suggests otherwise. In helping to create Ulster Scots, SF painted itself into a linguistic corner.

So we have not really had talks at Stormont this week. We have had an elaborate and rather cynical courtship, in which both the DUP and SF have marked out their territory.

Marriage is inevitable, but in the meantime both claim to represent sectarian interests, while arguing that what they have to offer will benefit all of the society.

But, you say, we do not want civil servants running Stormont. Why not? In fairness to at least some of them, if they had been in charge, we would have avoided Red Sky, the RHI scandal and probably even Nama. It would not be ideal, but it might end the litany of scandals.

But we are facing direct rule, you cry. Not really. Our politicians are just going on their holidays until the autumn. In any case, the choice is not between Stormont and direct rule.

It is between a sectarian Stormont and a non-sectarian Stormont. It is between one which works and one which does not.

Until we recognize that choice, we will be in political hell for – well, a hell of a long time.