The question I used to be asked most often by audiences at panels, conferences, seminars and community meetings a few years ago was a variation of “how long will it be before Northern Ireland can be described as a ‘normal’ political society?”
Nowadays it’s “how long before the institutions collapse and would it make much of a difference in day-to-day terms if we didn’t have an Assembly?”
Polling information and anecdotal evidence suggests that confidence in the political process here falls on a monthly basis.
Political spokesmen blame the “relentless negativity of the media” and insist that it’s really not as bad as it seems.
Well, how does it seem? The parties—who live and breathe by the mantra that nothing is agreed until they all buy into it—have failed to reach concrete agreement on the past, the future, flags, parades, integrated education, welfare reform etc., etc., (feel free to add to the list).
Not a day passes without them popping up on radio or television to rubbish each other.
In the past week we have had DUP ministers say they won’t impose the very cuts that were supposed to have been agreed by the DUP and SF at the beginning of the month.
Simon Hamilton has accused John O’Dowd of running his department like an “independent republic”.
SF accuses the DUP of running scared of Jim Allister and the UUP attacks “DUP/SF cuts” for undermining victims’ groups. And on and on and on it goes.
That’s how it seems because that’s how it is. But shush—keep it to yourselves!
Because while the various parties quite happily use the media to attack each other and blame each other (and there’s not a day goes by without someone from a party bending our ears in private, off-the-record briefings) they don’t want us to draw the only obvious conclusion—which is that this is government in name only.
I write and comment about what I see and hear: and what I see and hear are parties seemingly incapable of working with each other, while increasing numbers of ordinary people disconnect and opt out.
At the moment it’s very hard to avoid the conclusion that neither the DUP nor SF would care all that much if a manufactured (and, believe me, they are manufactured) ‘crisis’ resulted in an early election.
Their reckoning is that an early election would result in the sort of polarisation that would help them at the expense of the other parties.
Both parties blame each other (they always insist that they are doing everything required of them), which is what you would expect them to do.
But didn’t they say, back in May 2007, that they would succeed where the UUP and SDLP had failed? Didn’t they say they would bring stability, accountability and good government?
Yet what would be solved by an early election? Indeed what would be solved by an election at any time in the continuing absence of agreement on the big-ticket issues?
The problem is that the parties don’t look the same way at the same time and when, separately, they do look in the same direction, they don’t actually see the same things.
In fairness, the blame doesn’t lie entirely with the DUP and SF.
The UUP and SDLP had a pretty fractious relationship, too, between 1998 and 2003 and singularly failed to agree on key issues—although they were keen to blame ‘obstructionism’ from both Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley.
So what we have at the moment are five Executive parties who still look like they’re playing a very bizarre version of Blind-Man’s-Bluff and Pin The Tail on the Donkey.
It’s almost as if they believe that stumbling around in the dark will, albeit accidentally, deliver something of benefit. But really, this isn’t what they signed up for in 1998 and 2007. It certainly isn’t what the people who voted ‘Yes’ in 1998 voted for.
They voted for change. They voted for genuine cooperation. They voted for courage from the political parties.
David Trimble and John Hume demonstrated courage in 1998 when they rowed their parties in behind the Good Friday Agreement. Yet both parties failed to follow through, opting instead for kneejerk reaction to the challenges from the DUP and SF.
Instead of working together they pulled apart—and paid the electoral price for being neither one thing nor the other.
Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness demonstrated courage in May 2007 (and no one should underestimate what was required of both men at that point): yet both parties again failed to follow through and are now pulling apart rather than coming together.
They won’t thank me for saying this, but Robinson and McGuinness are repeating the mistakes of Trimble and Hume and are now, more or less, in the same position.
The only thing they have in their favour is that the UUP and SDLP are too weak to mount a serious challenge and provide an alternative leadership: while the so-called middle ground (Alliance, Greens and the disjecta membra of NI21) remain as far away as ever from an electoral breakthrough.
Meanwhile, what I’ll describe as the Jim Allister wing of unionism doesn’t appear to have a coherent strategy, or the votes, to deliver his alternative: although he clearly has the capability of disconcerting the DUP leadership.
It looks messy because it is messy. And no amount of politicians pretending that ‘sure, it’s better than it used to be’ is going to clean up the mess.
The choice is a simple one: go on the way they are going and prepare for collapse and direct rule (in a form that neither side will like); or prove that they can work together by actually working together.
If they don’t want to work together – or can’t work together – then, at the very least, have the moral integrity to stop taking the money for the job.
Stop blaming the ‘other side’. Stop blaming the media. Stop blaming the British and Irish governments.
The only people who can sort it out are Peter, Martin, Mike, Alasdair and David. Guys, if you can’t do it then call it a day and pack your bags.