Public services in the North are suffering while the Assembly remains in political stasis. Perhaps it’s time to change the rules of engagement
The fundamental problem with our political arrangement here in the North is that we have two big parties which have higher priorities than the smooth running of government.
Both Sinn Féin and the DUP, and the Ulster Unionists before them, have been willing to bring down the Assembly altogether and jeopardise public services to force a political argument. Some things, for them, were more important than reform of the health service, a viable education system, safe roads and hedge trimming.
For Sinn Féin the indispensable issues have been the devolution of justice and an Irish Language Act.
For the Ulster Unionists it was the demand that the IRA decommission its weapons.
For the DUP it has been Sinn Féin endorsement of policing, IRA involvement in a murder and the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement which, by their analysis, erodes the union.
In putting, essentially, their ideological positions and the dignity of their support community over the health service and education they appeal to their electoral bases, their vote banks, and they thrive.
All of this would change if voters had higher priorities themselves but apparently they don’t. Rallying your community against the other community is good electoral strategy, even when the cost of doing so damages essential services.
You might argue that issues like the devolution of justice or the Protocol are not communal issues, yet that’s what the parties have made of them.
It is these same voters, dividing communally, who fill the hospital waiting lists, who send their children to underfunded schools, who drive the unsafe roads and who suffer from deficient government, but they do not, in sufficient numbers put these concerns over their fear that the party they most vehemently oppose will gain some advantage over them.
This is a ghastly situation. It’s what’s wrong with Northern Ireland and the parties which benefit by it have no incentive to fix it.
Currently the party on strike is the DUP. It has pulled out of the Stormont Assembly in protest against the Protocol but previously it was Sinn Féin. Michelle O’Neill as health minister in 2016 was fully aware of the calamitous state of the health service here and had committed herself to implementing painful reforms. Yet she abandoned that project and led her party through a three year strike in a demand for an Irish Language Act which was apparently more important.
And her party’s vote increased when she took that stand, as did the DUP’s when it bullishly resisted.
What are we to do about this vulnerability in the Good Friday Agreement, that a party in a power sharing coalition can pull the whole thing down by walking out, and especially when the issue on which they are walking out is a minority concern within the wider community?
One prospect ahead of us is that the DUP will not come back into the Assembly and that power-sharing will have failed so the opportunity to fix this will have passed.
The majority of DUP voters tell pollsters that that is what they want.
Both parties may be more keen to move on to the next round in the wrangle over the constitutional question.
Sinn Féin in that circumstance will play hard for greater Irish government involvement in Northern Ireland, and may relish that battle over the routine of governing, especially when governing won’t be easy.
The DUP would seem to have the weaker hand to play. What chance has it got of manoeuvring Westminster into more fulsome support for the Union?
Sinn Féin, on the other hand, has a serious prospect of governing in the Republic before long and will agitate for progress towards joint authority - at least - and then Irish unity.
It would be great if we could have a substantial reform of the Good Friday Agreement that denies big parties the right to force everyone else out along with them.
But that would seriously contradict the fundamental principle of the Good Friday Agreement, that power must be shared and exercised in co-operation with the rival community. The unanswered question though is how rival communities can govern or be governed when they are in deep disagreement. Can a polity function if groups which fear and suspect each other have to agree before anything can be done?
And you may ask, what is the point of bringing Stormont back if the two parties compelled to share power with each other both care more about their identity concerns and their constitutional ambitions than about efficient and compassionate governing?
What faith can we have in the system working if both remain willing to pull the whole house down, over and over again, to get their way?
Surely the minimum we must require of these parties before Stormont is restored, in any package of measures to appease them, must be a commitment to staying in office and doing their jobs.
Perhaps a starting point, when and if the DUP come back, would be for all parties to pledge not to use their vetoes again. And they might do that if they can grasp that much of the electorate has already lost faith in a system that routinely falls apart.