As conflict parties, stalemate and crisis suits DUP and SF

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

Hurrah! Let the doves of love and harmony swoop through the Great Hall at Stormont as choirs of children from integrated schools sing Kumbaya. Crisis has been averted: the institutions and processes have been safeguarded and Peter Robinson remains as First Minister. All is well.

Our 108 MLAs will be glad-handing their way around the corridors and giving each other the universal signs of peace. Friday was a good day for Northern Ireland—wasn’t it?

Of course it wasn’t. There wasn’t even a debate as such. What we had was the usual swaggering, snarling, finger-pointing and trench digging. Neither Peter Robinson nor Mike Nesbitt made the slightest effort to address the accusations that their party leaderships at the time should have known all about this: an accusation levelled by Sinn Fein, Peter Hain, the journalist Brian Rowan and Basil McCrea (who was a UUP representative on the Policing Board at the time), among others. If they didn’t know about it then they should have addressed those accusations head-on. Rowan and McCrea say there was a very clear paper trail and Rowan further accused them of not “listening to the news or following the news.”

We have no idea how much Robinson did or didn’t know. He dismisses claims in Jonathan Powell’s (a former chief of staff to Tony Blair) book that he, along with Dodds and Paisley, did know about it. When pressed by anyone he adopted the Manuel the Waiter defence and responded, “I know nothing, Meester Fawlty.”

He then went terribly Diva and threatened to resign if Mr Cameron didn’t give him what he wanted: fortunately, he set the bar so high that Cameron, on stilts, on the back of an elephant, on the back of a truck, was able to pass under without any problem. Yet, to paraphrase Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey Appleby, “a resignation threat is never serious if the only demand is for a public review to report after the next election”.

I have no idea what Mike Nesbitt was trying to do. He started off with a quote from George Orwell—never the best thing to do when the electorate seems ready to consign your party to Room 101. He accused Sinn Fein of bad faith and said the UUP was right to oppose both the 2010 Hillsborough deal and the Haass proposals. He could then have dominated the headlines by announcing that he was pulling the UUP out of the Executive with immediate effect: but no, he merely removed them from the ongoing leaders’ talks (where he has no personal influence anyway) and backed the DUP’s motion.

Alasdair McDonnell sounded as if he was trying to order a takeaway from a stone deaf receptionist; Jim Allister went into Dalek mode against the DUP; Basil McCrea ya-boo-sucked everyone and said he knew all about it all along (though it might have helped had he given a briefing paper to Reg Empey, his leader at the time); David Ford mounted a horse called Pompous and talked down to everyone in that way that only he can; Edwin Poots and Sammy Wilson decided that the best form of defence was to pick on Jim Allister rather than Sinn Fein; and Martin McGuinness simply morphed into Yoda and sprayed the chamber with verbal chloroform.

It was farce on an epic scale, the same old characters with the same old routines and, now and again, some stooge crashing through the French windows and shouting “hello, anyone for crisis”? But down the hill, away from Stormont and in the real world, fewer people are bothering to tune in. The public has mostly given up. Those who could be bothered to vote are voting for polarization, voting to keep ‘themmuns’ in their place. But ever-increasing numbers don’t vote: disconnected from the political process and embarrassed by all of the parties and politicians.

Friday’s choreographed nonsense didn’t make the Assembly any stronger: it didn’t make the Executive more cohesive; it didn’t improve the chances of consensus; it didn’t renew public confidence; it didn’t provide even the tiniest hint that the parties are serious about getting their act together.

Yep, some people will pretend that a crisis has been averted, but we still have government in name only; parody of esteem; silo mentality; score settling rather than problem solving; a scarred future rather than a shared future; mutual contempt; side deals; keeping each other in the dark; playing only to your own gallery; and blithe disregard for anyone who criticises them.

And that’s the real crisis in all of this: a crisis that shows no sign of being addressed or resolved. As far as the DUP and Sinn Fein are concerned it doesn’t even need to be resolved, because this atmosphere and environment is perfect for them: they are conflict parties with a conflict mentality. They see everything in terms of us-and-them. There are no votes for either of them in compromise or stretching themselves. Stalemate suits them both very nicely, thank you.

The SDLP and UUP seem happy with their roles as the Straw Man and Cowardly Lion (I’ll let you decide which is which), while Alliance skips along as Toto. Their problem, of course, is that they’ve probably maxed out their appeal to either new or former voters and seem content to cling to the wreckage. There is clearly a market for NI21, yet they have to face the fact that their market comprises only a section of the non-voters. The TUV, meanwhile, will be more attractive to existing UUP/DUP voters than to non-voters.

Here then is the real crisis: as it stands it looks to me that at the 2016 Assembly election less than 50 per cent of the electorate will vote. If that is the case then it raises very serious questions about the authority and legitimacy of the Assembly. More important, it raises very serious questions about the survival of the Assembly and of the entire political process. The crisis hasn’t gone away, you know.