A stately pile in the countryside, prime ministers dancing attendance, talks late in to the night. The only thing missing is a telephone call from the American President. So far. Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen left Northern Ireland, assuring its people that our politicians have embarked upon a “pathway to agreement”. By sleight of hand, sequencing, choreography and other mysterious arts they still hope that a date to devolve policing and justice will eventually be set and the power-sharing institutions will lurch unsteadily on, having surmounted another crisis.
With a resolution to the impasse now supposedly in sight the Northern Ireland public could be forgiven if it is a little sceptical. Even if the remaining difficulties between the parties are overcome, it is still unlikely that the architecture of power-sharing will be altered to prevent the same thing happening again. There is, built into the devolved institutions at Stormont, the potential for a near endless sequence of mini-crises.
Should an accommodation be reached on justice there will remain, to employ a word which Ulster’s politicians hold dear, the potential for ‘modalities’ to create a further snag. And even if all the practicalities are put in place, and a Justice Minister is appointed, the arrangements set to operate over the next two years will be subject to a ‘sunset clause’. The potential for further instability in 2012 is likely to hang like a cloud over the Assembly. Theoretically, of course, the parties simply have time to iron out further disagreements, but when, in practice, has that last happened?
In truth, the template for any breakthrough in Northern Ireland is now wearily familiar. There is, unfortunately, little sign that our politicians are ready to move beyond their addiction to attention grabbing set pieces. Issues which elsewhere form the content of everyday political debate, here become touchstones of the so-called ‘peace process’. Education and the ongoing wrangle over selection, minority language provision, any passionately contended area of policy can become a deal-breaker for one particular party and jeopardise the whole apparatus of power-sharing.
Contrast the workings of the Northern Ireland Assembly to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. There very profound differences exist between the unionist parties and a minority SNP Executive. Only frantic last minute negotiations have enabled the Scottish government to pass its budget during the last two years. Yet it is unthinkable that any party which does not get its way might collapse the Parliament or that the Prime Minister might be called upon to intervene.
In Northern Ireland the mechanism is tried and tested. Sinn Féin is attempting to perfect it. Whenever the party senses that it has made promises to its support which it cannot deliver it can threaten to collapse the Executive or fail to operate some aspect of power-sharing. The DUP, for its part, is compelled to be as obdurate as possible in order to emphasise its status as the near immovable bulwark of unionism. A crisis is brought to a head, there are frenzied hothouse negotiations, the British, Irish and perhaps the American governments are required to intercede.
It is tempting to conclude from this dependence on mediation that Northern Ireland’s politics are simply incurably immature. But there are real structural problems within our institutions which underlie this pervading infantilism. Until a way is found to build durable cross community coalitions which do not creak every time there is a difference between parties, then power-sharing will remain vulnerable. Locking implacable foes into mandatory coalition is a potent symbol for a divided society, but it is not effective as a mechanism to channel interests and policy in a non-sectarian direction.
Ultimately, until sufficient voices are raised to demand a system of voluntary coalition in Northern Ireland, the Assembly is likely to remain frail. If we’re content for power-sharing to operate primarily as an emblem of overcome division, we simply need to keep the existing show somehow on the road. If, however we want effective, responsive and accountable government in Northern Ireland then voluntary coalition, with strong cross community safeguards, is the logical direction to travel.