Sam McBride: Alliance tells its members it wants to end mandatory coalition (and four other things we learned this week)

In a week when Stormont is still reeling from the gross incompetence of last week, our political editor Sam McBride examines five developments at the Northern Ireland Assembly this week.

Thursday, 19th November 2020, 7:14 am
Naomi Long is keen to end mandatory coalition

Long pushing reform

Throughout history, some of the most sweeping political developments have flowed from unintended consequences of decisions which political leaders believed to be limited in scope.

Last week’s shambolic indecision by the Executive could be one such moment.

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Sinn Féin is attempting to wash its hands of what happened and claim it was all the fault of the DUP.

But in truth last week only happened because of a joint DUP-Sinn Féin decision the previous week not to accept the chief medical officer’s request for an extension of restrictions, and then their classic behind the scenes attempt to strike their own deal to relax restrictions before Sinn Féin abandoned that, having wasted crucial days on the venture.

The impact on the credibility of the Executive is obvious, but what appears to not have been considered by Arlene Foster or Michelle O’Neill is the impact on the smaller parties in the Executive – and particularly Alliance.

The general dithering, carve-up between the two big parties and then DUP deployment of its veto have now put on the table not just reform of the veto system, but something even more sweeping – reform of mandatory coalition itself.

On Saturday, Alliance leader Naomi Long sent an email to party members in which the Justice Minister bemoaned “continued dysfunction at the Executive”.

Emphasising that last year saw Alliance emerge as Northern Ireland’s third party, she said: “Let’s be clear: the only way to overcome the failures of leadership we have witnessed at the Executive in recent days is by ending mandatory coalition and breaking the governance structures that have held Northern Ireland back for far too long.

“Only Alliance is in a position to do that, but we need your help to make it happen.”

Voluntary coalition has long been Alliance policy – but even many people who follow politics closely would not realise that, so rarely has the issue been raised, and would instead associate the policy with TUV leader Jim Allister.

Alliance is a party of real ambition and Naomi Long is a formidable opponent for the larger parties, providing a credible alternative for those from either side of the communal divide who are sufficiently angered by their leaders’ incompetence to no longer simply vote along tribal lines.

If Mrs Long resigned, as she says she considered doing last week, it would create an immediate crisis of attempting to replace her in the sensitive post of Justice Minister.

But it would also place her at the head of the Opposition against an Executive whose gross incompetence now cannot be denied – even by itself.

Lucrative Lough work

Former DUP MLA Ian McCrea has received around £6,000 a year to be a member of the board of a North-South body while not attending any of its board meetings for the last two years, TUV leader Jim Allister told the Assembly on Monday.

Referring to the Loughs Agency, the eagle-eyed North Antrim MLA asked DUP minister Edwin Poots: “Is there a problem in the agency with absentee board members? I refer to the fact that the minutes of the Loughs Agency suggest that Mr Ian McCrea, formerly of this parish, who receives something like £6,000 a year to be a member of the Loughs Agency board, has not bothered to attend a board meeting since October 2018. What action is being taken to deal with absentee board members?”

Mr Poots replied to the question – but he didn’t answer the question about his DUP colleague.

Temporary border posts

The Irish Sea border work will not be finished until mid-2021, Edwin Poots has said – but temporary facilities will be in place within weeks.

Questioned by Alliance MLA John Blair in the Assembly on Tuesday, the DUP minister – whose officials are helping to build the border – said that the government had “given some money for the development of temporary facilities, which will be available from the middle of December”.

80% haven’t repaid cash

Last month there was huge publicity around covid business grants which had been paid to people in error – including three Sinn Féin offices which got £30,000 between them and did not pay it back for months until it was revealed.

But yesterday the chief executive of the Land and Property Services told the Assembly’s Finance Committee that out of 450 erroneous payments, just 73 people had repaid the money voluntarily before the Nolan Show broke the story and since then just 17 more people have paid up – meaning that 80% have not repaid the cash.

He stressed that some people “will not be aware that they shouldn’t have received it” and they are being written to now.

The worms and the bees

DUP environment minister Edwin Poots has asked his officials about developing a strategy to protect bees and worms.

Answering a question from party colleague Paula Bradley, Mr Poots said: “I have spoken to officials about developing a strategy on honeybees and worms, as both species make a massively important contribution.

“Some people perceive them as just tiny insects, but they have a vital role in the successful production of our food...America has lost about a third of its honeybee population through the production of almonds, because people think that they are helping the environment by drinking almond milk. However, the consequences of doing that are devastating.”

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