Robinson’s absurd and incoherent strategy is damaging the DUP and democracy

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

It’s just over 15 years ago – May 2000 – that the DUP came up with its first cunning plan to be, as I put it at the time, “of the Executive while pretending not to be in the Executive”.

The argument for taking their ministerial positions – they were entitled to two – was the same as it is now: “we will not allow our absence to be filled by SDLP or Sinn Fein ministers with their anti-unionist agenda.” No mention of rogues and renegades at that stage, but you get the general point.

Had Peter Robinson been able to persuade the Prime Minister to suspend the Assembly a few weeks ago then he wouldn’t have had to return to ‘cunning plan’ territory. Robinson is not a stupid man and he knows only too well that this orchestrated novelty dance is one step short of a full-blown farce. Indeed, if someone bought the television rights they could just call it Strictly Stupid and allow voters to choose which ministers would go every week and who would replace them. It really is that absurd.

And I love the fact that Robinson thinks he can cover this nonsense with the mangled logic that, “we said it wouldn’t be business as usual”. Seriously! It has never been ‘business as usual’ in the Assembly. We have endured more crises and bumping into the scenery than you’d get in a whole month of Coronation Street ‘live’ specials. Our Executive has been more dysfunctional for years now than a Dalek with porridge in its system and yet Robinson’s latest masterstroke is to make matters worse. Yep –go figure.

To be honest I don’t see the coherence of the strategy. Robinson doesn’t want to be in government with Sinn Fein until there has been some sort of resolution to the ‘status of the IRA’ question. But the DUP is, in fact, in government with Sinn Fein because the DUP still holds the positions of First Minister and Finance Minister and reappoints its other ministers so that they can sign off on some of their own ministerial decisions.

You can dress that up any way you like but it still boils down to the fact that the DUP remains in government with Sinn Fein.

Meanwhile, the DUP is also meeting with Sinn Fein in a talks process to see if they can agree on a way of implementing existing agreements and improve the structures of government. So, it’s ok to be pretending not to be in government with Sinn Fein in one room because of ‘IRA activity,’ and its also ok to be not pretending you’re talking to them about ‘IRA activity’ in a separate room? The coherent position would be to refuse to talk to them at all until the new paramilitary assessment panel – the IMC in a wig – had delivered its report.

Anyway, according to the most up-to-date figures DUP ministers have resigned and been replaced 18 times in the last three weeks: including four times by Health Minister Simon Hamilton. At the moment 373,000 patients are waiting for a first outpatient appointment, a diagnostic test or inpatient treatment. Almost 86,000 patients have been waiting more than four months for their first appointment with a specialist. As Janice Smyth, director of the Royal College of Nursing in NI, noted: “We have a health and social care service that does not have an agreed budget or commissioning plan and a department with no minister that is failing to provide the strategic leadership and direction to bring about the reform and modernisation that is required.”

If Peter Robinson concluded that it was important to keep the Finance Minister in place then I’ve no idea how he failed to conclude that it was even more important to keep the Health Minister in place. His absurd and incoherent strategy is damaging the DUP and it’s also damaging Hamilton – who has long been regarded as one of the DUP’s most able ministers.

The strategy is also bad for the Assembly, bad for democracy and extraordinarily damaging for public confidence in the whole political/institutional process. For once in his life Robinson needs to get it into his head that not every decision and calculation comes down to what he thinks is in the best electoral interests of the DUP: cancer, for instance, is no respecter of party affiliation. Hamilton needs to be back in his post – today.

In fairness to him Hamilton does not have a magic wand to wave over his department. Nobody does; which is one of the reasons Enoch Powell – himself a former minister of health – observed that the health department often proved to be a graveyard for political careers. Bairbre de Brún, Michael McGimpsey, Edwin Poots and Jim Wells tended to tinker and spout rather than follow the advice from the experts they had asked for reports and advice. None of them made the big, difficult, unpopular decisions required. Our health system is worse today than it was in 1998 and getting worse and it will continue that downward spiral until the Executive – collectively and unanimously – agrees a strategy for radical reform and structural surgery.

And finally: a very bored looking David Cameron said that everything had to be sorted by the end of October. Sadly, he didn’t add, “or else I’ll just pull the plug, appoint Boris Johnson as Secretary of State and stop opening the door when DUP/SF leaders wander into Downing Street with a begging bowl and a life support trolley”.