Posted By: June 29, 2013

Patrick Murphy. Irish News (Belfast). Saturday, June 29, 2013.

The ritual humiliation of the SDLP is almost complete. If the assembly passes the planning bill, the party’s sole minister, Alex Attwood, will be in charge of only half a Stormont department. The other half of the Department of the Environment (DoE) will be controlled by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), which will assume powers to designate special economic development zones.

You may argue that Mr Attwood would control more than half a department but only those who have lost the battle pursue the politics of fractions. (Observers of a more cynical disposition may wonder how Stormont etiquette and vocabulary would accommodate the concept of a half minister – presumably leath-aire in Irish.) If Mr Attwood wishes to avoid this humiliation, he must withdraw his own legislation from the assembly, thereby conceding that he will henceforth be a prisoner in his own department.

Either way the SDLP’s ministerial powers will be severely curtailed. This raises questions about the content, culture and likely future direction of our politics and government. The politics are easy to understand, but explaining the dynamics of government requires us to create a new academic subject.

In political terms, the DUP and Sinn Fein intend to seize a key government function from the SDLP and share it between them (a shared future?) to exclusively control the location of all new jobs.

Whatever your view on economic zones, there is no administrative advantage in establishing them outside the DoE. Thus the decision was purely political – although, in fairness, it was remarkably clever politics.

Mr Attwood’s protests were unconvincing. His party, which takes pride in having brought Sinn Fein into the political process, displays a much poorer grasp of politics than its former pupil. He said the decision represented “bad government”. But having two departments responsible for planning is no more ‘bad’ than three for economic development and two for education.

In any case, the efficacy of government is better assessed by outcomes than processes. His record on planning did not help. His effective destruction of the concept of national parks and his approval for a golf course at the Giant’s Causeway sabotaged significant potential support.

The politics of the DUP/Sinn Fein decision reveal the ethos and ideology of Stormont’s system of government.

With the support of Britain, Europe and the US, the Sinn Fein/DUP pact is now an integral part of western conservative politics. Its decision on planning represents support for the west’s philosophy that the state exists as a private secretary for big business, whether in facilitating fracking in Fermanagh or privatising the health service. That is why Cameron and Obama praised us.

The move illustrates how Sinn Fein is increasingly writing the lyrics for the DUP’s right wing melodies. Michelle Gildernew said recently that her party is socialist. While she no doubt genuinely believes that, many of northern Sinn Fein’s economic ideas could find a good home in David Cameron’s (and Enda Kenny’s) cabinet. But northern Sinn Fein’s right wing progress will do them no electoral damage as long as they wave a tricolour.

This political drive by the two parties requires their control of decisions and information in government to maintain their managed sectarianism and electoral populism.This is where the new academic subject of political physics comes in (Dear John O’Dowd, could you please include it in the school curriculum?).

It offers the best way to explain the Sinn Fein/DUP pact by comparing it with a black hole in space, which draws everything into it and prevents anything, including light, from escaping (Some people used to refer to the old Stormont as a black hole but they probably meant something different). The hole is surrounded by a point of no return, beyond which there is no escape from its gravitational pull. Under the laws of political physics, economic planning powers are now at that point.

A black hole can continue to grow by absorbing everything close to it. Stormont’s justice and regional development departments would be advised to move to the outer reaches of our political galaxy to avoid the gravitational pull.

So, you say, this column is now arguing that the peace process is really a power process. No, this column has argued that for some time. This week just offered a fine example to illustrate that view and a conceptual framework to understand it.

Under the laws of conventional physics, black holes evaporate over time. But the laws of political physics contain no legislative or political process to evaporate Stormont’s black hole. It will last for a political eternity. Wasn’t that good planning?