Time to admit mandatory coalition has had its day

Posted By: September 21, 2017

Allison Morris. Irish News. Belfast. Thursday, September 21, 2017
Secretary of State James Brokenshire has threatened to cut the salaries of MLAs if there is no deal to restore devolution and the clock is ticking apparently.

The clock has been ticking for some considerable time, since January in fact, with Mr. Brokenshire until now wielding neither carrot nor stick in order to encourage warring politicians back to work.

The secretary of state is well aware that his options are limited when it comes reining in the DUP and Sinn Féin. Both are emboldened by recent election results and in no hurry to rush back into another forced partnership. And while an accountable and locally elected Assembly is preferable by far to an austerity Tory direct rule, Sinn Féin are right in saying such an arrangement would likely be short-lived.

The party has eyes set firmly on Brexit and the possibility of immigration and customs controls being shifted from the Border to the ports, recognizing Ireland as one island.

A Border poll is now likely in the next 10 years. Changing demographics and the uncertainty over what Brexit will mean to the lives of people in Northern Ireland are now presenting a real opportunity for unity, albeit under EU direction.

The DUP have shifted their focus to Westminster where they now hold more power than at any time since the formation of the party. So when Arlene Foster responded to Mr. Brokenshire’s comments on the wage packets of her and her party members by saying it was “quite offensive” to think that the threat of pay reduction “will act as some sort of incentive”, she was making a valid point.

However, while many of her party colleagues share her political aspirations they do also rely on the Assembly wage to feed their children and pay their bills.

While there may be little in the way of sympathy for those who the public perceives to be doing little for the last nine months, in the permanent absence of an assembly those politicians will still need to find work.

Many are already privately looking for other employment. Others have told their constituency office staff if they are presented with the opportunity of another job they should take it.

If we were to take the callers to daily radio shows as a barometer of public opinion most think the time to chop the wage packets has long passed.

But for the secretary of state to make such a drastic move would be an admission that the devolution experiment is over for the foreseeable future.

To put those 90 MLAs and their support staff out of their jobs and offices is admitting defeat. Once gone they can’t just be conjured up again overnight and as we approach the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, I doubt Mr. Brokenshire wants that to be his political legacy.

His hands-off, let them get on with it approach is one that indicates he would rather the blame for the long-term failure of Stormont stays focused on the two main parties.

And while what Arlene Foster says is true, in that neither of those two parties will make a deal just based on wage packets alone, once they are removed it is lights out and shows over at Stormont.

Instead of the rug being pulled by a British minister the public would be far more receptive to honesty on the part of those they elect.

The mandatory coalition was never intended as a long-term form of government, nor was it intended to have two political enemies in power. It was a forced form of rule originally designed with the SDLP and UUP in the two top jobs.

The change in voting patterns will not be reversed anytime soon and neither can the fact that the DUP and Sinn Féin are just too different to share power. They aspire to very different things, they hold polar opposite views.

It is time they were honest and admitted that sharing power with a party you don’t agree with or even respect will never work on a long-term basis.

We do need to govern ourselves but it’s time for imaginative thinking about how we do that with the voluntary coalition, despite all the associated risks, now seemingly the more desirable option.

The current talks are never going to produce anything other than a sticking plaster and we deserve better than stop-start political dodgeball.

It’s time for Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill to come clean and admit mandatory coalition has had its day. If we are to have real lasting political peace and respect we need a government of people who want to work together, not one where they are forced to.