Beyond the celebrations at the restarting of the Assembly — ministerial choices at Stormont have the potential for sowing discord
ON THE fringes of a one day conference recently I had an enlightening conversation with a member of the DUP, the Democratic Unionist Party.
At the time, the party was observing a boycott of the Stormont assembly and thereby stopping all business there. No government happens in Northern Ireland unless the two big parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP, representing two sides of the divided community, govern together.
The DUP was staying out of the assembly in protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
The institutions were restored this month because the party had come to an understanding that the Protocol and its reboot in the Windsor Framework had been adapted in such a way that they no longer threatened Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, if it ever did. That point is much argued.
And it is argued still by unionists who think the DUP settled for a cosmetic adaptation rather than a real change.
But back to my conversation with a senior member of the party. This person offered another slant on the boycott.
Sometimes a party just gets tired of governing, of getting the blame for things it can’t really fix. In the British system the big parties take turns about and each gets a rest from governing to refresh itself. In Northern Ireland the same big parties come back again and again, tied together by the need for power-sharing. And that’s dispiriting and exhausting.
I don’t think that I was being told that this was the real motivation behind the boycott but I was certainly hearing a suggestion that the party was enjoying the rest that its holiday from governing was giving it.
Now they are back in and this conversation comes to mind.
In a normal government setting, like the other British parliaments, the DUP might be in opposition now, leaving Sinn Féin in coalition with other parties.
From the comfort of opposition the DUP could do what it most enjoys, snipe at Sinn Féin, accuse the republicans of warped motives, of terrorist and gangster associations and of incompetence.
But you can’t do that when you are sitting at the executive table and taking joint responsibility with Sinn Féin for executive decisions.
So what do you do?
One devious thought might be that you would go into the executive, allowing Stormont to be restored, but leave all the big decisions to Sinn Féin.
And that is what they appear to have done.
When ministerial posts were being allocated Sinn Féin took the Department of the Economy expecting the DUP to take Finance.
Neither apparently wanted Finance because there isn’t enough money in the pot to pay for all the things the executive has to do, like reforming the health service and giving pay rises to public sector workers.
The DUP, instead of taking Finance took Education and the Department of Communities, both of which will now be able to complain that a Sinn Féin minister isn’t giving them enough money.
Now look a little closer at those DUP choices.
Our new Minster of Education Paul Givan is an evangelical Christian who believes that creationism should be taught in schools. He opposed one of the last acts of the previous executive which prioritises integrated education, bringing Protestant and Catholic children together. It will be his job to fund a rapid expansion of integration.
We wouldn’t expect him to be enthusiastic about that.
In a previous post he brought forward a freedom of conscience bill to allow businesses like hotels to refuse service to gays.
And our Communities Minister, Gordon Lyons has an interesting brief on his desk. He must arrange funding for the rebuilding of the Casement Park GAA ground in time for it to be available for games in the Euros in 2028. A GAA ground facilitating soccer is a nice cross community gesture but it will now only happen if the DUP assents to it and the party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has already said there will be no extra money for it.
So, after all the celebration of the historic mending of the partnership between Republicanism and Unionism, we may in fact be looking at the foundations of future conflict between these parties.
The DUP, which one member in private conversation suggested was tired of governing but unqualified for opposition, may have found a way to use the restoration of Stormont as a continuing evasion of responsibility while at the same time exercising an enthusiasm for sectarian culture war.
They are harangued in their own communities by critics who opposed them going back into Stormont at all, but they will be able to show them now that being there enables them to advance their own cultural causes.
This isn’t power-sharing. It isn’t a sharing of responsibility. It isn’t partnership government and it isn’t the great breakthrough in community relations that much of the media has been celebrating.
It is war by other means.
At least that is what it can be, depending on how power is exercised.
We will soon know.