It’s hard to know what to believe when dealing with the Stormont Executive.
It is a barely functional disaster of an animal, coughing and wheezing from pretended crisis to staged mockery. We could have said, before 2014, that at least the process was working but the last few months and a stupid decision by Sinn Fein have left the government in an untenable place with neither SF nor the DUP willing to change their minds and Westminster getting the flak for being what they are (a wealthy uncle who’s cutting the allowance). There are no solutions any more, just the dragging effects of political friction.
The problem is that the Welfare Reform cuts are what Sinn Fein wants. Speaking to some of their more ardent supporters it is clear they consider Northern Ireland to be a “failed state” and the evidence of this is that we can’t pay for ourselves. The cuts are designed to further foment dissatisfaction in the region and swell their supporters. We are enduring more cuts, families are facing more poverty and people are losing their jobs because of political machinations.
My own political experimentation and the solid refusal of the Northern Ireland voting public to change their ways has now left me convinced that to a degree Sinn Fein is right. Northern Ireland is a failed state – but only in its political leadership. We hear more about heretical plays and George Galloway than we do about any progress. We have a programme for government that thinks investing heavily in companies that pay minimum wage is a viable way out of recession.
Meanwhile three of the coalition parties in the Executive might as well not be there. Flailing around like a crash dummy in a car accident, they can neither forward the agenda one iota nor force any sort of resolution. They’re just ballast. We’re paying the same amount of taxes and rates and yet our services are being cut further and further.
My desire for an opposition does not come from a belief that it will miraculously destroy any stalemate. My desire for it comes because I know we need some sort of change and an Opposition Bill would, like other post-1998 agreements, subtly change the function of the government.
Imagine if an Opposition was required. It is possible to have a government that doesn’t have 90% of the politicians all within the same coalition.
Imagine if that Opposition was mandated to have representatives from the nationalist and unionist communities. It doesn’t matter how many and there can only be one opposition grouping but it would give the SDLP and the UUP something to hang their hats onto.
Going into opposition is not about sacrificing yourself, it’s about forcing change. An opposition could have SF, SDLP and an independent Unionist (presumably one who was in favour of a referendum) and fulfil my imagined criteria. And that could be a strategy that grows the power base of all three. I’m an economic unionist, I don’t fear a referendum at all (though cynically I believe that Sinn Fein actually does)
Now it might not work, that’s a given. But the current stalemate is also not working. Things haven’t moved forward since 1998. The feelings of hope from the Good Friday Agreement are long gone and replaced with a cynical acceptance of the stalemate by the old and by a rejection of all it stands for by the young (which is why the brain drain doesn’t get talked about in Northern Ireland any more).
My desire for an opposition is a rejection of the current farce. The fines from welfare Reform are mostly not hurting government agencies, but rather their external spend. This means the private sector, which took hits of 25% during austerity cuts due to reductions in government contract spending, will receive further cuts. We heard doom and gloom from the Environment Minister about gully cleaning and street light replacements but what was missing from the journalistic commentary was these contracts were all operated by private sector companies. These companies, unlike government departments, cannot run at a deficit; they just go out of business. We’re now seeing the reportage of cuts to the Arts and while everyone is impotently outraged, they will do nothing. It will only be a matter of time before every private sector organisation that relies on government for procurement contracts will feel the same sort of pinch. It is a relief that we still have an NHS (though a private medical supplier is cutting their headcount which indicates that lucrative external spend has just been cut). These cuts will hit us, the public, in the cuts in services but also in the decimation of our private sector which will make us even more dependent on the block grant. We are playing further in to the failed state rhetoric and no-one has the power to stop it. Or do they?
Maybe a party could impose a temporary direct rule and restore public funding? How? By forcing the collapse of the current executive. It’s been said time and time again that the Alliance could do this by embracing their own principles for once (the non-acceptance of sectarian politics, the rejection of a coalition based on sectarian politics) but really this is something that could in theory be forced by any party. None of them will be brave enough to do it but it is the only way to halt the excruciating decline of our civic infrastructure.
When stuck between a rock and hard place, the only way to go is sideways. I see collapse as the only way out of the stalemate because Sinn Fein are never, ever going to back down. They’ve invested too much into this gamble to change their minds and the disintegration of our public services fits their failed state rhetoric.