More Equal than Others?

Doug Beattie’s predicted on Radio Ulster that the DUP will return to Stormont after September. I think his prediction is correct, the DUP gain an electoral advantage by appearing to stand firm during the May elections and certainly will not want to concede anything during the marching season. There will be no change before September but no-one will be surprised if one final concession from the UK government in the autumn is used to allow the DUP to return ‘victorious’ to Stormont.

Before we all rush to celebrate and encourage the DUP, can I suggest we take on board the message that has come from both Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Emma Little-Pengelly who have warned against short term fixes when it comes to restoring Stormont. Jeffrey cautions us, ‘We must get the foundations right. Short term fixes will lead to short term devolution.’

Is it possible that on this, the DUP are correct – but not in the way they believe?

Stormont has been suspended for 36% of its time in existence (9 out of the 25 years). In recent years Sinn Fein ensured that Stormont could not run for 3 years, and the DUP has now kept Stormont closed for the past 13 months. Something is clearly wrong with the way the system is set up.

Amidst all the clamour to bring back Stormont immediately we need to accept that Stormont does not belong to the SDLP, the UUP or the Alliance Party – as currently constituted under the St Andrews modification to the GFA, Stormont belongs jointly to the DUP and to Sinn Fein. To paraphrase Napolean, the pig from Animal Farm, ‘Some parties are more equal than others’. The current arrangements ensure equality between the DUP and Sinn Fein, but less so for the other parties.

The original Good Friday Agreement allowed for a review and potential amendments to the GFA. I suggest that before any political party agrees to a return to Stormont, we need to extract a commitment from all parties that they will take part in a review to ensure that no single political party could bring down Stormont again.

If that means a slightly longer delay before returning Stormont, so be it. There might even be an advantage in that a Direct Rule minister might be able to quickly take difficult decisions that local politicians fear to take. They could implement the Bengoa Report and appoint a Health Board with a Chief Executive with similar independence to the PSNI Chief Constable.

I realise that Sinn Fein and their partners in the DUP might struggle to accept such a change because it ends their privileged position, but I think we must remind them of Sir Jeffrey’s words:

‘We must get the foundations right. Short term fixes will lead to short term devolution.’

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