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OPINION: No NI Assembly two years on from election

Sunday, 3rd March, 2019 5:05pm
OPINION: No NI Assembly two years on from election

ONE has to wonder whether the politicians in the North are serious about gettting the Northern Ireland Assembly up and running again any time soon given their lack of effort in the past 12 months. It is two years ago this weekend since 90 members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) were elected and they still haven’t started doing what Northern Ireland’s voters elected them to do, which is nothing short of a disgrace.

As the area likely to be most seriously affected by Britain’s departure from the European Union, it is absolutely ludicrous that Northern Ireland does not have an assembly to look after its interests properly in the withdrawal negotiations between the UK and the EU. The only input is from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is propping up Theresa May’s lame-duck minority British government and pushing for a ‘hard Brexit,’ notwithstanding the fact that the majority of voters in Northern Ireland in the 2016 referendum wanted to remain in the EU.

One could also argue that the second-biggest party in the North, Sinn Féin, has let its voters down by not having its elected members of parliament take their seats in Westminster and, therefore, not articulating the voices of the people of Northern Ireland who want to remain in the EU. However, its ideological abstentionist policy is consistent with its core goal of achieving a united Ireland and its MPs were elected on that basis.

It is over a year since the parties’ previous attempt to broker a deal to get the devolved power-sharing administration in Northern Ireland up and running again and make MLAs earn their pay. They were being paid in full for a year and a half after being elected, but not earning it by doing what they were supposed to be doing.

It was only last September that Northern Ireland secretary of state Karen Bradley moved to cut their £49,500 annual salaries by almost £14,000 pending restoration of the NI executive. She could have called for fresh elections, but declined to do so on the basis that ‘holding an election during this time of significant change and political uncertainty would be helpful or would increase the prospects of restoring the executive’ – a decision tinged with some irony.

When she replaced James Brokenshire as secretary of state at the start of last year, she initiated talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin to try to restore the assembly at Stormont, but the big sticking point that prevented agreement being reached was the latter’s continuing insistence on a standalone Irish Language Act for Northern Ireland. The DUP seems to have got comfortable propping up Theresa May’s government at Westminster and being the tail wagging the dog whenever the Prime Minister shows signs of softening her stance on Brexit.

However, by not having an assembly in Northern Ireland, the region is losing out on £1bn worth of extra capital investment promised in return for the hardline unionist party’s support of the Conservative-led British government, which may not last too much longer and with it would go the billion pounds.

In the meantime, Northern Ireland continues to be run by civil servants – not elected by the people – with just enough money being provided by Westminster to keep basic services ticking over. However, they have stopped just short of imposing direct rule by the British government.

When the talks this time last year broke down, DUP leader Arlene Foster stated that she was happy enough for Her Majesty’s government to step in and set budgets and make policy decisions for Northern Ireland in the short term, but that her preference is for devolved government, saying ‘Northern Ireland is best governed by local ministers who are accountable to local people.’ However, the blame game continues between her party and Sinn Féin over who is responsible for the current political vacuum in the North.

The only thing one can say with certainty about it is that both parties are badly letting down the people who elected them and are doing them no favours with their selfish intransigence. They have frustrated the best efforts of both the British and Irish governments to get them to agree on forming a new NI executive and, as Tánaiste Simon Coveney said this time last year, as co-guarantors of Good Friday Agreement, the UK and Irish governments have an obligation to uphold and protect the letter and spirit of that Agreement.’

Now, that very Agreement is under threat from the very real possibility of a no-deal Brexit that currently exists.