In an interview last week about the effectiveness of the Assembly, I said of the parties: “They don’t like each other.
“They don’t trust each other. They barely speak to each other. They don’t socialise in the tearoom or canteen. They don’t cooperate.
“They can barely manage to be civil to each other.
“And in most exchanges across the floor it isn’t long before they start blaming each other for being the real source of the problems and the violence.”
A number of people asked whether it really mattered if they liked or trusted each other, pointing out that finger-jabbing and squabbling were part and parcel of politics everywhere.
That’s true to a certain extent, yet in most other parliaments and assemblies it’s not unusual for friendships to develop across the parties and for people on opposing sides to share a beer or coffee, or taxi at the end of the day.
The old cliché is actually true — most politicians get on perfectly well until the microphones and cameras are turned on in the studio and the interview begins.
They quite often like each other and, consequently, trust each other — even when they disagree on key issues.
That doesn’t happen in Northern Ireland.
Oh yes, some of them may be able to nod at each other and go through the motions of a bit of chit chat before an interview begins: but there’s no warmth in it, no sense of liking each other, or respecting each other, or even giving a damn about what goes on in their personal lives.
They don’t know each other.
They don’t want to know each other.
According to Martin McGuinness a ‘substantial’ number of DUP MLAs don’t even speak to him — and I’m pretty sure they don’t speak to any other Sinn Fein members either.
Robinson and McGuinness no longer bother with the pretence that all is well behind the scenes.
And last week’s Executive had to be adjourned for a while because of a ferocious row across the table.
All of this has an impact. The fractious nature of the relationship between the parties nurtures and encourages polarity in the polling booth, with the vast majority of those who could be bothered to vote voting for division and stalemate.
It also encourages increasing numbers to stay at home on polling day, adding to the disengagement between the broader public and the political institutions.
And it makes it very difficult for the parties to compromise on any issue, resorting instead to a petition of concern, silo mentality or even Robinson and McGuinness just simply refusing to sign off on anything.
Trust should be more important here than in most other places because our system of government is built on mandatory power-sharing.
In other words, the parties really do need each other.
If they are not prepared to govern together then there won’t be a government.
They can’t gang up and force each other out of office because the agreements they have committed themselves to don’t allow that to happen.
Ours is the like it or lump it compromise and it has been that way since power-sharing and an ‘Irish dimension’ became part of the solution equation back in 1972.
Yet here’s the rub: power-sharing cannot function in the absence of trust.
There cannot be government capable of delivering collectively agreed legislative solutions to problems if the parties concerned don’t actually trust each other to act in the interests of everyone, rather than just play to their own gallery.
And they don’t trust each other to do that.
It is obvious that they don’t trust each other to do that because they spend most of their time blocking and hampering each other.
That also has an impact. How can we expect people at street level to agree to anything when the key people and parties at the heart of government are offering no example for them to follow?
If people are fed a daily diet of news about how dysfunctional government is and how difficult it seems to be for their politicians to cooperate on even the simplest of things, then it’s hardly surprising that poll after poll indicates that large majorities have ‘little or no confidence in the Assembly/Executive to make a difference.”
As ever, the politicians blame the media.
Yet the same politicians who blame us are issuing press releases, making party speeches and popping up on radio and television to rubbish each other: and, for good measure, Sinn Fein and the SDLP will also rubbish each other, while the DUP/UUP/TUV can barely pass each other in a corridor without accusations of rollover, Lundyism or incompetence.
If you want the media to report ‘positive stuff’ and ‘good news’ then give us the positive stuff and good news.
Give us the shared future strategy; the integrated education strategy; the agreement on flags and parades; the solution to the Maze/Long Kesh project; agreement on welfare policy; the social housing strategy; something resembling agreement on dealing with the past; an end to briefing against each other; an end to the deadly dull us-and-them squabbles which pass for debate; something—anything in fact—which resembles a genuine attempt to work in the interests of all of the people of Northern Ireland.
Let’s face it, that’s what they were elected to do.
That’s what the DUP and Sinn Fein promised they would do when they stitched up their deal back in 2007.
So here’s the blunt reality guys: either start trusting each other and make a go of real cooperation; or stop pretending about a shared future and just get on with making the us-and-them strategy as good as it can be.
One thing is for certain; this ongoing limbo approach is giving us the worst of both worlds.