Sam McBride: The paradox at the heart of our broken politics

Stormont has not been the seat of government since January.
Stormont has not been the seat of government since January.

There is a central paradox at the heart of our politics.

People are voting in unprecedented numbers for the DUP and Sinn Féin; yet as their support for those parties has waxed, so those same voters’ support for those parties’ most tangible work – Stormont – appears to have waned.

Even almost nine months without a government has not led to street protests or petitions demanding the return of devolved government.

There is anger at how MLAs continue to be paid while doing none of their legislative work. And there is frustration at the democratic vacuum which this week left civil servants to make key crisis decisions ahead of storm Ophelia and which leaves them operating the extraordinary position where they have no democratically-approved budget.But although there are people who ask “why can’t they just do a deal?”, few of those people seem to be DUP or Sinn Féin voters.

Rather, DUP voters – and many in wider unionism – appear relaxed, at least in the short term, about the prospect of direct rule with significant DUP influence at Westminster.

And many nationalists want – although most realise it is, for now, unachievable – some increased role for Dublin, or full joint authority.

But why is the Good Friday Agreement Stormont, the product of the grand generational compromise of 1998, so unloved?

In part, the answer lies in the fact that the devolved institutions were always a compromise.

Republicans have no emotional attachment to a legislature they long saw as the embodiment of Northern Ireland’s unionist establishment and where they walk past the august stares of a bronze Carson and Craig.

And unionism was always split – and never enthusiastic – about sharing power with Sinn Féin.

The current mood is also partly due to the platform on which the DUP and Sinn Féin stood and for which they received such overwhelming mandates.

While the DUP itself is clearly keen to get back into power, supporters of the DUP don’t want Stormont enough to allow an Irish language act while supporters of Sinn Féin don’t want devolution more than they want an Irish language act – and potentially other tangible gains at the DUP’s expense.

But there is perhaps a more fundamental problem – and one which any new Stormont will have to honestly confront, if it is to be addressed.

While the Belfast Agreement was a remarkable success in ending the Troubles, it was a major failure in providing credible and effective government. In failing to do so, it has undermined the legitimacy of the very principle of devolution.

If the public believe – as most Belfast taxi drivers will tell you they do – that Stormont is quasi-corrupt, riddled with nepotism and a place where the seriously incompetent operate without sanction, it is very easy to decide that it can never work rather than considering ways in which the various failures could be addressed.

Almost invariably, the Executive (and, to a much lesser degree, the Assembly) reacted to an embarrassing revelation with a renewed spin offensive, rather than an admission that what had been uncovered revealed a problem which had to be addressed.

Peter Robinson in particular (although the sentiment pervades many at the top of the DUP and Sinn Féin) frequently complained about how the Executive was the subject of criticism in the media and at one point the two parties instigated a review of their press officers.

In reality, the Executive had a vast multi-million pound spin operation but many of its press officers were being asked to make bricks with no straw.

If Stormont does return, presentation is important. But more important is that it has plenty to present – not just hide.