Flags, parading and now the budget. This is a list of the ongoing crises that have been the hallmark of devolution in Northern Ireland since 1998. Up until now the people of Northern Ireland have accepted this as better than the alternative, namely a return to the violence that once took this small part of the world to the brink.
There is no doubt that the power-sharing arrangement for the governance of Northern Ireland, agreed on that historic Good Friday in 1998, succeeds in its aims. The institutions created have been remarkably successful in bringing as many different factions off the streets and into constitutional politics. Now in 2014, the Northern Ireland executive has representatives from 5 different political parties from across the religious divide. The First Minister Peter Robinson is from a party (the Democratic Unionist Party) that originally refused to sit at the same table of government as the party of the current Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (Sinn Féin). This was largely over the refusal of the IRA to decommission. It is without question that Northern Ireland and its devolved institutions have come a long way. However, 16 years on from Good Friday and 9 years on from St Andrews, is it still enough for their constituents for Sinn Fein and the DUP to simply sit at the same table?
Politics in Northern Ireland is and always has been dominated by the same issue. If we hope to truly close the sectarian divide and live in a normal country then it is up to our politicians to begin to act like normal politicians, and to deal with issues in a normal way. While this may be a bridge too far for highly contentious issues steeped in many years of tension, such as flags and parading, what about the budget?
Setting a budget is arguably the most basic function of any government. Without it, no department can operate and no policy can be implemented. Yet after months of deadlock between the parties in the North it took a deadline imposed by the central British Government for any sort of budgetary arrangement to be reached. Despite this deal the crisis continues, with the issue of welfare still unresolved.
Even with the agreement of a budget Northern Ireland’s finances are in a dire state. To avoid breaching its spending limit by more than £200 million a one-off Westminster loan was required. This will have to be repaid in the next fiscal year, and it represents a fraction of the £870 million in savings necessary for long term financial stability.
As mentioned, welfare reform is fundamental to this issue. London has mandated that Stormont adhere to changes agreed in 2013 at Westminster, meaning the merits of cutting welfare should be nothing to do with this debate. With 93% of Northern Ireland’s budget coming from Britain our politicians should instead be asking how high to jump.
There is a serious cost to failure to make these cuts; as a result the executive will accumulate fines of £87 million this year and a further £114 million next year. This means that it is in the interests of their constituents for the North’s leaders to make such changes to welfare no matter what the effect.
Sinn Féin have led the opposition to welfare reform, but since it is an area that has not been devolved it is fiscally irresponsible to do so. The merits of the changes to welfare are no longer up for debate. A decision has been made and it is the responsibility of the executive to implement the changes in the way that is best for their constituents.
Sinn Féin have maintained that they are opposed to welfare reforms purely on the issue of fairness. However, I would be inclined to agree with the view that it is a position taken for political considerations. In recent years the party has seen its support grow in the Republic of Ireland for a number of reasons, including their opposition to austerity. It would be seen as hypocritical to oppose welfare changes in Dublin but implement them in Belfast. This is Sinn Fein’s fundamental problem: how do they reconcile being a party of protest south of the border with being a party of government north of it?
It is unfair, however, to lay the blame for the current political climate in Northern Ireland solely at the feet of Sinn Féin. The DUP must take their share as well. It is in the interests of the two main parties to hold out in negotiations until the issue reaches a head. This disenfranchises the other parties that make up the executive while making them share the responsibility of the decision reached.
Indeed it is that last point which is crucial. At the executive table, only Sinn Féin and the DUP supported the new budget. Anywhere else this would be completely unacceptable. It is nearly impossible, for example, to imagine Fine Gael and Labour openly disagreeing on the budget in Ireland. This brings us to the crux of the issue, namely the mechanism that establishes the executive’s membership, called D’Hondt. The end result of this mechanism is a mandatory coalition that is representative of the community.
A mandatory coalition was necessary to bring as many people to the table as possible and as mentioned it has been incredibly successful in the regard. However, it also means that there is no true opposition and therefore no alternative for the electorate. There is no mechanism through which we may punish our leaders for their immaturity in dealing with issues and with each other.
While it would be unfair to say this has strengthened sectarian voting, a phenomenon which has always been present, it hasn’t done anything to stop it. With the rise and very quick fall of NI21 the only alternatives at the ballot box are small and extreme parties. All of this has contributed to the culture of crisis that currently exists.
The solution? While I believe that it is of the utmost importance that cross-community government continues, perhaps it is time to establish an official opposition in Stormont. In the current make up it would be a government of the DUP and Sinn Féin with the UUP, Alliance and SDLP making up the opposition. While this would mean the two parties I will never support hold power exclusively, that is a risk in every normal democracy. Why shouldn’t it be so in Northern Ireland?