THE last week of August saw the record period in peacetime for being without a government – a dubious distinction heretofore held by Belgium – surpassed in Northern Ireland and the days and weeks continue to pass by, as the politicians who were elected over 18 months ago to form a new Northern Ireland Assembly have failed to do so. In reaction to passing the previous record of 589 days on August 28th last, the two main political parties in the North, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin (SF), did some posturing in public, blaming one another for the impasse but not showing any signs of meaningful engagement on the matter.
This is a time when a functioning Assembly was never more necessary in the North, due to the uncertainty that the Brexit negotiations are causing, with the issue of what type of border there will be between the North and the Republic after Britain leaves the European Union still unresolved. In spite of all the rhetoric to the contrary, the possibility of a hard border has not been definitively ruled out as nothing workable has been agreed yet, therefore the DUP and SF should be redoubling their efforts to form an Assembly.
It is worrying, particularly for Northern Ireland voters, that the 90 MLAs they elected the first week of March last year seem to lack the moral courage to sort things out and form a new Assembly, especially as they are drawing down their salaries and giving nothing in return. Also, by not having a working Assembly, the region is losing out further on the £1bn package that British Prime Minister Theresa May promised the DUP in return for supporting her minority Conservative Party-led government, which could well fall at any time.
The DUP and SF continue to play a futile blame game as to why each has failed to agree a deal on forming a new Assembly, which only smacks of disregard for and arrogance towards the people who elected them more than 18 months ago. They are both guilty of gross intransigence – a term most commonly associated with unionists in the past, but which Sinn Féin have been guilty of too in the failed talks, especially in regard to their insistence on an Irish Language Act.
The big sticking point which brought down the last Northern Ireland Assembly in January 2017 was First Minister Arlene Foster’s refusal to step aside, as demanded by Sinn Féin, while the ‘Cash for Ash’ public inquiry was going on. This investigation is still under way and Ms Foster is due to testify within the next month, so it is unlikely that SF would go into government with the DUP while there is a verdict on her ministerial involvement in the costly Renewable Heat Incentive scheme outstanding.
They did not rise to the provocation by the DUP at a press conference at Stormont, when the shameful record for being without a government was surpassed, during which a banner was displayed, urging ‘Sinn Féin End Your Boycott!’ SF were not impressed, but didn’t take the bait.
Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann, rightly, condemned the DUP and SF for their antics, saying that ‘the politics of protest and placards isn’t serving anybody at this point in time’ and claiming that ‘neither of the two big parties want to come back this side of Brexit’
He was also critical of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, who he said ‘needs to stop being a spectator’ and called on her ‘to either convene immediate talks or move to introduce direct rule without further delay.’
Before thinking about direct rule from Westminster – which neither the DUP or SF want – the British and Irish governments need to make renewed efforts to encourage the two main parties to agree on getting devolved government restored to Northern Ireland. If the politicians cannot compromise, then surely they should not, in conscience, expect to continue to draw down their salaries as MLAs.
There also needs to be more of a public outcry from the Northern Ireland electorate, loudly demanding that the Assembly is got up and running again so that they can have a more direct say in their present and future through the politicians they gave their mandate to over a year and a half ago. They cannot afford to wait until the Brexit negotiations are concluded, given the seriousness of their implications for the North, as local leadership is needed to make sure the region’s interests are catered for.