Direct Rule or Formal Opposition? The storm that has finally hit Stormont

Ten years have passed since the historic moment when Martin McGuinness, a man who is Republican to his bones and has confessed to being an IRA leader during The Troubles, and the Rev. Ian Paisley, whose phrase of ‘never, never, never’ has secured his place in the history books as one of the most strong-minded unionist leaders, shook hands and sat together on the steps of Belfast’s Stormont buildings at the heart of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Now it appears as though the heart has been well and truly taken from the power-sharing Assembly.

Surprisingly, the two men had a better working relationship than most political analysts and watchers could ever have predicted. They were often referred to as the ‘chuckle brothers’ and appeared to have shared a friendship that eventually transcended the chambers of Stormont. The remarks made by Ian Paisley Jr on the announcement of McGuiness’ retirement from front-line politics is proof of this, “we would not be where we are in Northern Ireland, in terms of having stability, peace and the opportunity to rebuild our country if it hadn’t been for the work that he did put in with my father at the beginning”. The same regard could be given to McGuiness’ relationship with Peter Robinson, who would eventually replace Paisley in 2008. Ultimately, there is no doubt that their relationship was much more pleasant than that shared between McGuiness and Robinson’s eventual successor, Arlene Foster, as the two men spent almost eight years together in the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister.

Arlene Foster’s continued reminders to the public of her childhood experiences with the IRA, their attempt to murder her father and the bomb planted on her school bus, show an inability to set aside the past to work on a power-sharing Executive between the opposing sides of the community in Northern Ireland. In an interview that Foster gave to Sky News only days prior to McGuiness’ resignation, she once again referenced these events and argued that the fact she was a woman would not mean she would “roll over to Sinn Fein”. Her protests against the supposedly misogynistic calls for her to resign have fallen largely on deaf ears when she has prevented women gaining reproductive rights, as well as heading a party that is seen to be preventing the development and progression of women’s rights in Northern Ireland. Even more so when her scandal could cost the taxpayers of Northern Ireland upwards of £400 million.

Concerns have been voiced over recent years as to the stability of the power-sharing assembly, particularly through the continued use of the petition of concern, a mechanism that was introduced to prevent majoritarianism by either side. Now it can be seen as a vehicle standing in the way of progression and equality in Northern Ireland, most notably used by the Democratic Unionist Party over possible votes gay marriage, one of the most notable human rights that remain limited in Northern Ireland.

Due to the nature of the power-sharing Assembly, and the tradition of voters going to the poll with the mentality of ‘only working to keep the other side out’, there is little doubt that the DUP and Sinn Fein would be returned to the OFMDFM with a similar number of seats to what they currently attain, perhaps with a small gain for Sinn Fein, closing the difference between the two heavyweights of Northern Irish politics. Sinn Fein has made it clear that they do not want to cooperate with the DUP, and the response within the DUP and by Arlene Foster herself portray the picture that warm relatives are unlikely to return between the two parties.

The Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic Labour Party, the former giants of Northern Ireland politics at the time of The Good Friday Agreement, joined forces to form what they described as a ‘formal opposition’ in Stormont. In these politically uncertain times, it is clear that a complete rebuild of the Assembly may be the only cure to the instability.

There is no doubt that yet another political agreement must be reached in other to salvage what remains of the Stormont Executive. A pattern continues to occur, with political crises being solved by agreements that are quickly brushed aside by one party or the other. Few of these political agreements have ever attempted to truly redevelop the foundations of Stormont, with one limiting the size of MLAs. It should be considered that an entire rebuild of the foundations and mechanisms of the Stormont Executive might be exactly what is needed to create a lasting cooperation across the political borders. Power sharing cannot be removed completely, but a new form of cooperation, unique to the situation that Northern Ireland currently finds itself in must be established, even more so with Brexit likely to push Northern Ireland even further into the unknown.

A return to direct rule seems inevitable until this political crisis is dealt with. It would allow time for a political agreement to be forged and agreed that would actually bear fruit for Northern Ireland and her citizens. Direct Rule could allow a cooling off period for the DUP and Sinn Fein, as well as allowing time for a proper investigation to be carried out on the Renewable Heat Initiative, which the UUP fear is not going to be properly investigated.

Undoubtedly, the scars of the past must be set aside. The continued fighting over the three thorns in Northern Ireland’s side – the past, parades and flags – must be dealt with once and for all. A new form of government, with tougher scrutiny powers and MLAs with the ability to hold the executive to account, could eventually lead to a progressive Northern Ireland, and bring it forth to the current era, with reproductive rights for women and equal rights for the LGBT+ community of Northern Ireland. The generation gap between those alive during The Troubles, and the Good Friday generation who feel like their political choices are limited to the communities they have been born into, is something that can only be dealt with once young people themselves begin to take elected office in Northern Ireland. The growth of the Alliance party and the fact that the Green Party have MLAs in Northern Ireland suggests that eventually there may be a move away from the ‘identity’ oriented politics in Northern Ireland, but this era is far from breaking through.

Northern Ireland must be brought into the twenty-first century, most likely kicking and screaming, and this change must begin with the Stormont Executive itself, whose heart and soul must be rebuilt in order to prevent a recurring political crisis between the political giants of the small nation.

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