I recently took part in a debate, part of the Exchange Mechanism project at Belfast Exposed, which asked whether the current system of power-sharing in Northern Ireland offers a democratic future or peace at any price. Although the panellists had different opinions about the best way forward, there was consensus that the current dispensation, as it is operated by the DUP and Sinn Féin, is not working.
A week later the Platform for Change initiative launched. The faces, at that event, were different, but the sense of frustration with politics here was precisely the same. In Northern Ireland an ever swelling chorus of voices is singing from the same hymn sheet – our politics are a mess and the Assembly needs to work more effectively.
When Sir Reg Empey described the Executive as a “huckster’s shop” he struck a popular chord which the UUP leader had not managed to strike since he urged the DUP and Sinn Féin to stop ‘arsing about’. It is generally acknowledged that the two larger parties form an impenetrable cabal, committed only hazily to notions of sharing power.
Almost every commentator, almost every politically engaged member of the public, is sceptical about the prospects of the Hillsborough Agreement delivering genuine improvement at Stormont. Yet the idea also persists that the institutions need to be protected at all costs and any concerted effort to use the current policing and justice fiasco to change the status quo is branded irresponsible or destabilising.
The way in which the Hillsborough deal has been carved out demonstrates graphically the problems with the current system of power-sharing. Allowing the current situation to continue will simply result in an endless series of crises and an endless series of impasses. We ought to have the backbone to sort things out now.
Yet the hysteria which has attended the UUP’s decision to vote against an untransparent agreement, carved out between two despicable parties, and including innumerable undeclared side-deals, is quite incredible.
In Northern Ireland we have become infected by a ‘peace processing’ mindset which afflicts not only the DUP and Sinn Féin, but has also thoroughly permeated the type of engaged, educated, socially liberal people who most adamantly insist that they want ‘normal politics’. The same people who deplore the ability of the Education Minister to wreak havoc in schools.
If the Hillsborough Agreement falls it will be entirely the responsibility of the parties who negotiated it. If consensus isn’t reached it is not cause for wailing and gnashing of teeth, it will represent a rare case of politics breaking out and a party pushing its own objections and aspirations in the teeth of overwhelming groupthink.