Voters are being asked to let the Assembly resume while major changes have been already wrought in the North without their agreement, writes Pól Ó Muirí
Nothing happens and then everything happens. After a three-year hiatus, Northern Ireland’s regional assembly is back. It had become a running, and sour joke, amongst many that members of the assembly (MLAs) were being paid a salary for doing nothing while everyone else was trying to make ends meet, while the health service, education system and the roads all fell apart at the seams.
Talks about resolving the assembly impasse had been on-going for a number of months but no one expected them to conclude with such haste. Within days of the governments in London and Dublin publishing a document entitled ‘New Decade, New Approach’, the Northern parties had signed up to re-establishing the assembly in Belfast. Think of it in this way, last week when you bought your copy of The Irish Catholic, the assembly was defunct.
This week, Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, is now Northern Ireland’s First Minister while Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill its deputy First Minister. That is some turn around after years of stalemate and shouting. (Had the change happened a couple of weeks earlier we could have spoken of a Christmas miracle.)
Not surprisingly the quick movement has left many heads spinning. The document which has caused the change is very strong on aspiration but it remains to be seen if it can survive the vicious realities of Northern politics.
Money is to be spent on health, teaching and infrastructure – and that investment is badly needed. There are also new, and quite foggy, initiatives for the Irish language and Ulster Scots with the document seemingly offering people the chance to be both more Irish and more British at the same time.
Not surprisingly the main political parties have put a brave face on a political initiative which they did not necessarily want and one which is not significantly different to what was on offer before. Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, said that the agreement delivered “progress in a balanced way” while Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, said “the biggest and most significant challenge will be ensuring we have genuine power-sharing built on equality, respect and integrity”.
The Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, the Catholic Church and the Irish Council of Churches also put their weight behind ‘New Decade, New Approach’, saying, it was “ambitious in its content and reflects a balanced accommodation that is focused on the common good…”
Business and education organisations welcomed the agreement while others have been more cautious. Irish-language groups are not entirely happy about provision for the language but seem to be of the mind that half a loaf is better than no bread at all while the Orange Order has criticised any new provision for Irish; half a loaf being too much.
The Irish News, read mostly by people of a nationalist background, lead with an editorial entitled ‘Relief but little to celebrate’, saying: “There will be relief but few celebrations over yesterday’s announcements and it is now up to all our politicians to demonstrate that they have not only the ability but also the vision required to deliver progress on behalf of the entire community.”
While the News Letter, read mostly by people from a unionist background, had its leader as “There is no pretending that this deal is a great day for unionism” and concluded gloomily: “There are clear benefits from having ministers to run public services, but there is no pretending that this is a fine day. Due to London’s refusal to help unionists, it isn’t.”
It was left to Melanie McDonagh, writing for The Spectator magazine, to be the ghost at the banquet and highlight one aspect of the return that all the parties seemed intent on ignoring. She wrote: “One casualty of the three years of non-functioning devolved government is one unnoticed section of the population: foetuses.
“In an exercise in astonishing legislative overreach, Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn introduced a measure in July to ensure that if Stormont wasn’t reconvened by October, Westminster would legislate to introduce abortion and same sex marriage – two highly controversial and divisive issues – to Northern Ireland. That has now happened. Any chance that a reconvened Stormont could take these issues back under its remit? Thought not.”
What about the poor electorate as they prepare to eat another bowl of Stormont stew?”
Sam McBride, writing in the News Letter, also noted in this regard: “The huge deal and proposed legislation comes to more than 30,000 words. It contains no mention of abortion – something some DUP members wanted addressed in the agreement.”
A cynical person might conclude that the whole brouhaha around the Irish language is a wonderful way of distracting people. It is the perfect piñata, playing on people’s hopes and fears about legislation that might happen while taking minds away from laws that have already been enacted.
Indeed, an even more cynical person might argue that by legislating on these issues, Westminster got local parties off the hook for them and allowed them all to wave their hands in the air and claim it was not their doing.
Still, what potential will other issues – such as language, heritage and commemorations – have to produce other controversies in the weeks and months to come, issues that the local parties will not be able to duck? Neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP are gracious parties and they will do what suits them best – as they have done for many a long year now.
Further, what about the poor electorate as they prepare to eat another bowl of Stormont stew? The voters in Northern Ireland have an assembly back but one which now operates in a vastly changed political landscape. The changes which Westminster brought about to laws in Northern Ireland, laws that were supposed to be devolved, have shown the assembly to be, once again, little more than a glorified county council.
Why should voters trust that anything done in the assembly will actually stay done?
Indeed, voters are being asked to let MLAs resume their work while major changes have been already wrought to Northern Ireland’s laws without their agreement. Ulster did not even get a chance to say ‘no’. Democracy in the North has always been a very strange thing. However, it has become even stranger over the last three years. That wee vote which people have has become even smaller.