Alex Kane: No deal? Then let’s shut down Stormont entirely

Apologies, but this isn’t a time for subtlety: we don’t need another bloody election to an Assembly that has been mothballed since January 26, 2017.

Monday, 18th November 2019, 1:02 pm

And we certainly don’t need an election followed by months of talks, stand-offs and daily toxicity, resulting in a widening rather than a narrowing of gaps. If the parties, primarily but not exclusively the DUP and Sinn Fein, haven’t been able to reach agreement in the past 1,031 days, there’s no way they’ll do so between now and January 13.

That’s not to say that there won’t be a very significant shift in the political dynamics if the DUP has a bad day on December 12. My gut instinct – and it is, of course, no more than that – is that it won’t be too heavily hit when it comes to votes and seats; but the party is clearly worried. You can see and hear that worry in the body language and press statements; and in the fact that it has done nothing to distance itself from the propaganda/protest meetings organised by a section of loyalism.

But, let’s be clear, a loss of two or possibly three seats, a downturn in votes and maybe even a majority of MPs from NI no longer being unionist, would be a catastrophic result for the DUP. The sort of result which would deprive Arlene Foster of the leadership and force the party into a massive rethink. I’m not, at this point, predicting that outcome, but nor am I dismissing the possibility. There are factors in play which have never been in play before (including serious challenges from Alliance in East Belfast, North Down and even South Antrim: along with the SDLP/SF/Green pacts in North and South Belfast).

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The notion that we should just go on and on giving it ‘one more try’ to restore government at Stormont is absurd

In a piece for the News Letter in the run-up to the 2017 Assembly election I suggested it was possible that unionists could, for the first time ever, lose their overall majority in a local Parliament/Assembly. I rowed back a little from my usual pessimism, arguing that they would just cling on.

They didn’t: and the shockwaves from that result are still reverberating and can be seen in the blind panic approach that some people are now taking to this election. I’m not certain what will happen this time – and we’re still 24 days away – but I do know that a bad result for the DUP would weaken their hand very considerably in the next round of negotiations for rebooting the Assembly.

It is possible, too, that Sinn Fein could have a bad day. North Belfast remains extraordinarily tight and may well come down to a few hundred votes. Colum Eastwood has a more than reasonable chance of nudging ahead of Elisha McCallion in Foyle, who has a majority of just 169, and where the intervention of the pro-life Aontú could have quite an impact on both parties. And while the odds still favour Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh/South Tyrone (she has a majority of 875), only a fool would dismiss Tom Elliott’s chances. Again, a bad overall result for Sinn Fein would weaken its negotiating hand.

I’ve argued before that the best way of resolving the impasse – while limiting the chances of another one – is to sort out the problems before, rather than after an election. The parties know the bridges which need to be crossed. They know the weaknesses of the present infrastructure. They know the flaws that have been revealed and highlighted during the RHI inquiry (and the official report, due early next year, will have a bearing on negotiations). They know the pitfalls of dealing with legacy issues. They know the problems of building and bolstering trust. They know the importance of producing and delivering a Programme for Government for which everyone accepts collective and public responsibility. They know the importance of restoring public confidence. They know that there is no appetite for a ‘let’s-just-sign-up-to-something-and-see-what-happens’ deal. They know that there is no room left in the long grass for problems they are afraid to tackle. They know they are a laughing stock – even among many of the voters who support them.

That’s why there is no point in an election followed by talks. Sort out the problems – assuming, of course, that sorting them out is even possible – and then have the election as a stamp of approval from the electorate.

My other suggestion – and I say this as someone who has long supported the need for an official opposition – is a collective willingness from the five main parties to create and sustain an Executive which will push through the pre-agreed Programme for Government and actually make a change for the better for everyone here.

But, as I’ve hinted, it may not be possible to reach an agreement which covers all these bases. So, what do we do in that case? Close the Assembly down. Everything. No MLAs, no constituency offices, no salaries, no expenses. Nothing. The new peace/political process began in earnest with the first ceasefires in 1994 – that’s 25 years ago; and now, 21 years since the Good Friday Agreement and 16 years since the St Andrews Agreement we are, if truth be told, more entrenched and divided than ever. There’s either a genuine desire (and it is something which requires support from both the leadership of the parties and their voting bases) to work together in common cause for a collective good: or there isn’t. And if there isn’t then we need to call it, accept it and look elsewhere.

The notion that we can continue to chatter and chunter for another few years is absurd. The notion that the present process remains ‘too big to fail’ is absurd. The notion that we should just go on and on giving it ‘one more try’ is absurd. The notion that successive secretaries of state should, every few months, threaten elections or further salary cuts is absurd. The notion that there’s a turquoise rabbit waiting to be pulled from a turquoise top hat is absurd.

Subtlety doesn’t always help in politics. Sometimes you just have to cut the crap, cut to the chase and face up to the fact that the process you have is incapable of delivering.