The DUP’s actual problem is everybody’s actual problem?

To answer my own rhetorical question, it is simply because they cannot bear to be in government (because it loses them votes, rather than grows them). For most of their fifty plus years they were oppositionist.

The elder Paisley he made a good fist of at least looking like they enjoyed the trappings of power. But according to insiders at the time, although the atmosphere was good, nothing was getting done.

Back in 2008, I gave a presentation in NICVA on how things were going after the first four years of the duopoly of the DUP and Sinn Féin First and deputy First Ministers.

I started with David McKee’s Two Monsters in which the eponymous characters destroy their island in a scrap over whether the sun was setting or rising, who end the story by chuckling together.

Certainly none of the DUP’s successors  are chuckling now, and some of the reasons they’re not (and nor, by the way is anyone else) is the fruit of their oh too clever renegotiation of the Belfast Agreement.

Rather than making the inclusive Executive more accountable to voters, the St Andrews’ Agreement invested ultimate power in The Executive Office that they supposed would be held by just two parties.

This permanent government arrangement was used to hold minor parties in check, notably Margaret Ritchie’s attempt to cut CTI money going to paramilitaries which the Executive Office quashed.

This was my analysis at the time (and not much has changed in the 15 years since). Like the old Wilhelmine Period in pre WWI Germany where some ministers were accountable to the king rather than to other members of the parliamentary chamber.

The difference being that under the St Andrews’ Agreement, ALL Executive ministers were made accountable to the joint offices of First and deputy First Minister. Even the committee system, the last bulwark of accountability has struggled in some important cases where vital information just wasn’t provided.

You can see this in the RHI scandal of 2016. The NIAO report was handed to the PAC in July 2016, nearly six months before. In the preparations for evidence sessions no red flags were raised.

The media went into overdrive when the nub of the matter was discovered. No one, not either of the two DUP ministers who’d had charge, nor the PAC, seemed to understand what when wrong.

As a result, the seven month long experiment of letting the Duopoly govern alone (the ultimate centralisation of unopposed power) the whole thing collapsed spectacularly.

Consociation as designed by boffins for the Belfast Agreement was  enough to secure a longitudinal peace, but has been spectacularly unable to provide stable government for Northern Ireland.

Indeed this upward accountability left the press firmly without a clue what was going on inside. Even after limited reform having an opposition did not enable the public to punish bad performance.

Unable to ‘kick the bums out’, problems festered. Since 2015 under two SF finance minsters there has been no budget. So Heaton Harris’ 3.3 billion must fill an eight year fiscal gap as well as inflation.

It’s the ugly scaffolding that Mark Durkan mentioned might have to come down at some point under Chatham House Rules (which someone thoughtfully leaked to the press) and was shot down for it.

As Durkan said then:

‘One man-one vote’ was the start of a journey – made longer and harder than it needed to be. ‘One side- one vote’ should not be the final destination of that journey.

His successor in the job of leading the SDLP seems to have little interest in such reforms these days, perhaps the outcry at the time when Durkan made his visionary remarks has made him afraid to say it out loud.

But 26 years in we have almost tested the current rules to destruction. This long trek into a extreme political desert hasn’t worked for anyone with a modicum of ambition. Northern Ireland deserves better.


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