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New moves in the Northern Assembly

Sharing the spoils - a return to pragmatism

29 July 2020

Those celebrating the return of government in the North of Ireland tend to ignore certain weaknesses. Nearly one third of MLAs have not been elected and are simply hoisted into place by their party. Over 90% of MLAs are members of the government parties, so there is almost nothing in the way of opposition. It should also be noted that the quiet whitewash of the Renewable Heating Incentive, where millions were handed out, mainly to DUP supporters but with Sinn Fein in on the action, established impunity for the parties, the army of special advisors and the complicit civil servants who somehow forgot to record meetings.

So it is some sort of tribute that the latest scam, a Bill to reduce ministerial accountability, has provoked some level of protest in the press and among some lawyers.

Firstly, the Bill gives the Infrastructure Minister complete autonomy to take the biggest planning decisions; regardless of the Executive’s views on such a decision, it could do nothing to intervene.

Secondly, the bill would undermine the St Andrews Agreement’s curtailment of individual ministers’ powers - something that the DUP had insisted on.

So what gives?  One strong supporter of the Good Friday Agreement complained that the parties, rather than building a peace dividend, were squabbling over the spoils of war. After decades of trying to force Sinn Fein out of government the DUP have reached the end of the line. Brexit has shown that the British have lost interest and see no need to offer ongoing support to the unionists. They are forced to return to the strategy of pragmatism outlined by Peter Robinson and set up an arrangement for dividing power and patronage. Sinn Fein are happy to get their share and their main aim is to prove that they are a party of government and ready for coalition in the next Dublin coalition.

The division in the DUP was shown by 11 abstentions on the vote by those who imagine that the British will bring back unfettered Unionist rule. This led Sinn Fein to rush to the defence of the DUP leadership, with junior minister Declan Kearney asserting untruthfully that planning issues would not be able to proceed until September.

The bill has passed and MLAs have departed on their holidays. A feeding frenzy of deregulation of planning laws, alongside privatisation of services and full scale sectarian patronage will be unleashed, free even of the minor constraint of a parliamentary discussion.

Opponents decry the absence of an official opposition. That misses the point.  The assembly has no real role in administration of the North. It's main role is the division of resources. All the parties get something.

Out of 90 MLAs, only one – the UUP’s Doug Beattie – has tabled an amendment. Despite the fact that warnings are pouring in, discussion in the Assembly has taken only a few hours, including voting time.

Even though there is no official opposition,  there is one figure we would expect to be in the forefront of exposing corruption. Yet from People before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll there is silence.

Why this is so is a matter of speculation. PbP seem to have joined their trade union sponsors in defining non-sectarianism as silence and neutrality.  In any case their current strategy is for a left government in Dublin led by Sinn Fein. That precludes any sharp critique of their dirty deals in the North.

The main issue is that a pragmatic sharing of the spoils is not a sustainable strategy. In practice it means draining the budget of elements meant to establish the public good and diverting funds to clients of the parties. Public service will decline in a situation where the economy is heading towards a sharp decline and the inbuilt sectarianism will fuel greater conflict.

Building socialism means building opposition to this nasty clientelism and to its patrons in London and Dublin.

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