Role reversal at slapstick Stormont

Posted By: September 12, 2015

Patrick Murphy. Irish News ( Belfast). Saturday, September 12, 2015


Stormont is so inept that it has been unable to organise its own collapse. A harsh view of this week’s unfolding drama, you might argue, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, like a second rate actor dying on stage, Stormont staggered from one position of semi-collapse to another, while shouting to its electoral audience, “I am dying.”

The audience response has been: “Get on with it, we have a bus to catch.”

In fairness, it was a well-scripted play in which the latest bout of political self-pity was prompted by what Harold McMillan reputedly said when asked what was most likely to blow a government off course: “Events, dear boy, events.”

There has certainly been no shortage of recent events. While the killing of Gerard Davison in May had little political impact, the apparent revenge killing of Kevin McGuigan in August sparked a chain of events, which drove an already off-course Stormont on to the rocks. The families of both men deserve our sympathy and respect.

When the PSNI Chief Constable said that members of the IRA killed Mr McGuigan, that, dear boy, was certainly an event. It resurrected the dormant belief among many unionists that not only had the IRA not gone away, it was alive and well and living in Stormont.

(The Garda Commissioner said this week that the IRA does not exist. Maybe it is now just the NIRA, the Northern Ireland Republican Army.)

Mike Nesbitt turned pressure on unionism into political opportunity by withdrawing his UUP regional development minister. (You will no doubt have noticed that the grass along our roads is now not cut in a more politically thoughtful manner.)

His decision transferred Mr Nesbitt from actor to playwright, a move significantly helped when event was heaped upon event by the arrest of three senior Sinn Féin members.

That allowed him to write the script for the DUP, which has subsequently subjected us to an onslaught of amateur dramatics. Peter Robinson exited stage right, but stood close enough in the wings to be seen by the audience, while leading lady Arlene Foster delivered her soliloquy: “Is this a nationalist rogue minister I see before me?”

(Pity poor Martin McGuinness having to re-learn his lines. With Peter Robinson now as a semi-detached First Minister, “Peter and I”, has become just “I”.)

The whole stage show developed because Stormont was not designed to withstand events. It was planned for political posturing, not for real politics.

Its current and previous problems have arisen because the Good Friday Agreement could not be transferred into a working political model of public policy-making for three reasons. 

First, there was no pre-agreed basis for the compulsory coalition’s social and economic policies, or even an elementary reference to a broadly common set of ideological values. The coalition had nothing on which to coalesce.

Secondly, the thrust of the new structures instead was to institutionalise and electorally reward sectarianism – even though sectarianism fuelled thirty years of violence. The sectarian cream would inevitably rise to the top, to dominate and divide political priorities.

Finally, the mechanics of the new system were deliberately fudged, so that when the machinery came under pressure, the wheels inevitably fell off.

If the forthcoming talks address those three issues, the parties cannot avoid the conclusion that the current model of political decision-making is unworkable. If they ignore them, Stormont will continue with its “I am dying” amateur dramatics in an appalling production which will run and run.

Thus the choice is not between Stormont and direct rule. It is between a failed Stormont and a better Stormont. But the parties do not want a better Stormont, for a very good reason. When a public sector organisation is administered on the basis of fairness, transparency and accountability, it exposes the incompetent, the lazy and the self-interested. There is no hiding place, so they will try to make the organisation dysfunctional.

A non-functioning organisation offers refuge for those who cannot or will not work. It is easy to be a minister or an MLA at Stormont. All you have to do is to blame the other side. Incompetent Stormont has no incentive to improve and in any case, how would sectarian parties win votes to a non-sectarian Stormont?

It is much easier to indulge in dramatic farce, ignoring and thereby insulting ordinary people who live in the real world, betrayed initially by the futility of sectarian violence and now failed by the politics of what passes for peace.

That leaves Stormont as the only stage show in which the actors laugh at the audience.