Game of chicken has come home to roost

Posted By: January 14, 2017

Newton Emerson. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, January 14, 2017

Simon Hamilton, Economy Minister, and Arlene Foster

So the game of chicken about heating sheds full of chickens has come home to roost. The DUP clearly did not think Sinn Féin would walk and is now rather desperately trying to avoid an election. However, while Arlene Foster’s approval rating has plunged from 49 to 29 per cent, it is still 44 per cent among unionists, down from 63 per cent. In other words, the usual voting pattern will apply. Sinn Féin clearly did not want an election either, having spent the whole of December trying to spare Foster’s blushes. But having called the DUP’s bluff it will be hard to back down, even for early talks. The Northern Ireland Office, which determines the schedule of what happens next, is hinting at a quick election to deal with all these ruffled feathers – which implies talks later, perhaps requiring the suspension of devolution, before a second election on whatever is agreed. And all because our first minister cannot have egg on her face.


Secretary of State James Brokenshire has said the legal “position is clear” in requiring him to call an election within “a reasonable time” of the deputy first minister resigning. If only it were that simple. The law requires Brokenshire to “propose a date” for an election but says nothing about how long he has to do this or when that date should be, creating two undefined periods – from resignation to proposal, then from proposal to election. Legislative orders on timing exist from previous elections but

Brokenshire can just make new ones. The requirement for all this to be done within ‘a reasonable time’ – another undefined term – arises from legal advice and challenges, including a 2001 court case brought by the DUP against then secretary of state John Reid for not calling an election quickly enough after David Trimble resigned. If the DUP now ends up challenging its last challenge to slow down the next election, that would scarcely count as strange by present standards.


Stormont was already running out of time to approve a budget, and now the task looks hopeless. Budgets are meant to be agreed at the start of each executive mandate, to cover the entire mandate. But because of the Fresh Start talks and the rescheduling of Stormont elections from every four to every five years, a special budget was agreed for this financial year, with the rest to be agreed later. The next financial year for the public sector starts on April 1. If there is no budget three days before that, the top civil servant at the department of finance can sign checks until the end of July. If there is still no budget then – a distinct possibility with talks and two elections in the offing – every department’s spending is capped for the financial year at 95 per cent of the year before. This is in the law enacting the Good Friday Agreement, so short of a return to direct rule there is really no getting around it.


SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has called for joint authority if a new executive cannot be formed. It is true that our political system does not punish failure equally because for many Unionists direct rule is like Christmas. However, joint authority is like believing in Santa Claus. It would require a whole new constitutional settlement of a type the world has never seen on any scale. In

Practice, the best that can be hoped for is the kind of consultative arrangement introduced by the Anglo-Irish Agreement and rolled over into the strand two and three institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. Letting Stormont – the strand one institution – fade out while the rest remains would once have been the SDLP’s ideal outcome. This is virtually what John Hume called for at the start of the peace process.


Arlene Foster has been ridiculed in the UK press for her Facebook posting of a hamster in sunglasses, labeled: “Can’t see all the haters when I got my love glasses on.” Ascribing rational political criticism to ‘hatred’ is of course straight from the Sinn Féin playbook. Gerry Adams have previously tweeted “haters gonna hate”. What Adams and indeed most political leaders do not do is respond to abuse on social media, whereas Foster has been known to feed the trolls. This allows anyone to see the thin-skinned temperament that has brought our political system to the brink of collapse.


It would be handy for Americans to have the word ‘securocrat,’ given Donald Trump’s tussles with the CIA and Hillary Clinton’s wrangles with the FBI. The term is in common media usage in a number of English-speaking countries, most notably South Africa. However, it so unknown in the US that it is not even in Merriam-Webster, America’s standard English dictionary. Perhaps we could lend the Yanks our lexicon, now that their politics has descended to our level.