A genuinely defining moment for the development of oppositional politics presented itself in the Northern Ireland Assembly yesterday and alas Ulster Unionism appears to have been rather left behind. The Programme for Government was accepted by 60 votes to 24 and the SDLP’s MLAs were numbered among the 24 dissenters (with the exception of Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie). The UUP in contrast voted for the PfG after tabling an amendment proposing that the document be subject to review and revision. It appears that voting on the Draft Budget will divide along similar lines.
The SDLP tabled a more comprehensive amendment which would have reinstated the priorities of a Shared Future, the policy document which has been shelved in the wake of devolution. The Programme for Government has been identified as an imprecise and aspirational document on this blog before and it seems only appropriate that it should be altered to reflect a greater emphasis on sharing, rather than the alternative credo of “separate but equal”. This was surely a perfect opportunity to build an alliance of those who wish to foster a Northern Ireland based on inclusion and integration.
Peter Robinson has attempted to head off criticism of the Programme and the Budget by promising more money to the ministries of Margaret Ritchie and Michael McGimpsey (Social Development and Health respectively). By doing so he may have placated those ministers and stilled the most vehement criticism of his budget from inside the Executive, but there are still grave concerns about many aspects of both the PfG and the Budget. Certainly there was more than enough scope for the UUP to oppose these programmes as have the SDLP and Alliance Party.
Alliance Party leader David Ford immediately called on the SDLP to leave the Executive. Such action from Mark Durkan’s party is unlikely, particularly given the canny fashion in which Margaret Ritchie has voted for the PfG, for the stated reason that she is required to uphold collective responsibility in the ministerial code. Whether Durkan admits it or not this belies a fundamental inconsistency in his party’s policy. The system of government which is in operation encourages this type of inconsistency, Durkan would argue that on this occasion it has necessitated it, but nevertheless it is inconsistent to have one member of a party voting differently merely as a strategy to maintain a ministry.
With two ministers in the government, including leader Sir Reg Empey, this inconsistent line was not available to the UUP. As long as reluctance remains to bring the present Executive to a crisis point, or simply to resign ministerial seats, there will be strong pressure for the Ulster Unionist assembly group to endorse what the Executive set in front of them. Whilst that situation pertains the party will inevitably find it difficult to distance themselves from the Executive’s programme or to hold that body to account.
Critically the episode reinforces once again the unaccountable and paradoxical nature of government in Northern Ireland as it is being promulgated by the current power sharing arrangements. Until voluntary coalition with cross community requirements emerges as an alternative system, such inconsistencies will reoccur. Perhaps the SDLP’s belligerence will prove to be a harbinger of strains which will eventually bring this change to bear.