Sam McBride: Stormont has returned with less internal scrutiny and with weaker leaders

Even marriages which fail tend to involve a happy wedding day.

Monday, 13th January 2020, 7:00 am
Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill putting on a united front on Saturday afternoon after being appointed first minister and deputy first minister

At Stormont on Saturday there was the levity and relief of a chamber where MLAs were finally being allowed to do their jobs after almost three years.

But as the DUP and Sinn Fein came together to retake their vows, it was in the knowledge that this is a loveless political arrangement; a shotgun marriage enforced by the circumstances of an electoral backlash and the absence of alternatives.

There was none of the euphoria of 2007 when Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness first entered government on a wave of goodwill and toured America recounting how old enemies became reconciled.

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It is clear that at best Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill have a frosty relationship; at worst over the last three years the DUP and Sinn Fein have demonstrated something little short of hatred for each other.

Having shackled themselves together again because they had nowhere else to go, the expectations of this latest incarnation of devolution are far more modest than in 2007.

In comparison to Paisley, Peter Robinson and McGuinness, Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill are diminished leaders both within their parties and within their communities. A section of DUP members believe that Mrs Foster’s leadership has been disastrous for unionism and a third of Sinn Fein ard fheis delegates recently voted to remove Ms O’Neill.

Therefore, they are more constrained in their ability to make the sort of magnanimous gestures necessary to persuade the other side that they are genuine about reaching out and working together.

Even their compromise has done little to convince each other’s supporters. Mrs Foster’s concessions on the Irish language have been made grudgingly while Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald said on Friday that she did not even accept some elements of the deal which involve more Britishness, claiming that they were some form of side deal between the DUP and the NIO.

In their comments on Saturday, Stormont’s new leaders tried to reach out, aware that this new Executive will only survive if it exists on a wide base of public support. Both leaders, whose tone is often disastrous when heard from the other side of the divide, spoke with the sort of optimism which has become foreign to Northern Irish politics over the last three years.

On their side they have many of the public wearied by three years without a government and willing them to make it work. But it will be difficult for this pair to so swiftly move from years of rancour and convince even their own voters that this is a new dawn.

With the DUP and Sinn Fein having been confronted with the implications of their past secrecy, rule-breaking and in some cases law-breaking, it is possible that they have genuinely repented and will operate to higher standards.

In defence of that hypothesis, the new deal involves some reforms – such as a strengthened requirement for civil servants to take minutes of meetings – which if implemented will curb the room for bad behaviour.

But in the last Stormont many of the worst practices involved simply ignoring rules, while officials looked the other way. In part, that was because civil servants, in some cases for the noblest of reasons, wanted devolution to work and believed that bending the rules to help their political masters may help the process.

Amid the relief at the restoration of Stormont, it is easy to see how civil servants and others could be tempted to sweep uncomfortable truths under the rug if they think they might destabilise the new regime.

Yet it is now clear that such short-term willingness to accept indefensible behaviour allowed that behaviour to flourish to the extent that it toppled not individual ministers or spads but the entire edifice of Stormont.

It is therefore striking that there will now be less internal scrutiny of the Stormont system than at the point when it fell over the cash for ash scandal. The decisions of the UUP, SDLP and Alliance to re-enter the Executive means that there are now only five of the 90 MLAs who are not members of governing parties.

That restricts the potential for flaws to be spotted at an earlier stage. On Saturday that point was made by a minister in the last Executive, independent MLA Claire Sugden.

Although as a former minister she had faced the discomfort of facing an opposition in the Assembly chamber, she said: “Opposition improves legislation. If policy cannot [face] the challenge which other members provide to it, then it’s not good policy and no one benefits from that.”

In 2016, the creation of the first official opposition at Stormont since 1972 breathed life into the Assembly, forcing ministers to treat it with respect rather than as a rubber stamp, and sharpening scrutiny of the notoriously secretive Executive.

Without that in place, and with the public now aware through the RHI scandal of the grisly innards of past Executives, there is a danger that the entire Stormont system will now be seen as unable to hold itself to account.

While that might be more comfortable for the DUP and Sinn Fein in the short term, it would ultimately be strategically damaging for the whole idea of devolution.