The recent political crisis has laid bare the dysfunctional nature of our power-sharing institutions. The DUP have for so long extolled the virtues of the “better deal” they claim to have got for the Unionist people at St Andrews. In reality, it was the Belfast Agreement for slow learners. One ironic moment did arise during the recent political crisis, when the DUP called for the Secretary of State to suspend the institutions, only to be reminded that the power to suspend the institutions was conceded at St Andrews and thus would require fresh legislation.
I have been a long term opponent of the Agreement, for a variety of reasons, but one of the most toxic elements of the agreement is mandatory coalition. An in-built veto of fear, which effectively ensures Sinn Fein a right to a place in the heart of Government, lest they become disenfranchised, and the IRA dog- or butterfly- barks again, or flies back. That is not democracy; that is a perversion of democracy to appease those who would seek to subvert the basic principles that denotes any civilised democratic system of Government.
The Sinn Fein tactic is transparent and to any strategic mind has been laid bare by recent events. The agreement is a method whereby Sinn Fein can use the apparatus contained within the provisions of the Belfast and St Andrews agreement, to agitate against every vestige of British culture and to chip away at the “Unionist state”. They do this under a contrived notion of ‘equality’ whilst running a parallel process of reaching out. They nip at Unionism from behind with one hand cloaked in the glove of equality and “building the process” and extend their other hand in friendship proclaiming reconciliation. The purpose of this is simple – Sinn Fein wants to present themselves as the peace builders, the equality seekers and the pioneers of a new shared future for all people. At the same time they use those themes to justify agitation against every vestige of Britishness and when Unionism becomes resistant to such attacks on traditional and culture expressions, Sinn Fein then denounce Unionists as bigots who are unwilling to share power with Nationalists.
And there lies the crux of the matter- Sinn Fein’s long-term strategy is to present themselves as the peace makers whilst presenting Unionism as sectarian supremacists unwilling to share power with our Nationalist neighbours. Sinn Fein demand trust, yet are unable to embrace the trust that would allow a system of voluntary coalition. Such a system should, of course, contain in-built mechanisms to ensure cross community support. But so too should it contain the basic architecture of democracy – the right to an opposition and the right to vote a party out of Government.
I am opposed to Sinn Fein, but I respect their mandate. If they receive adequate votes to be in Government- a Government that exists without the veto of fear – then they deserve to take their place. Of course they must do so without any threat of violence or coercion and thus they must sever themselves from any current IRA structures. Political leverage cannot be allowed to be gained via the threat of “going back to the bad old days”. The only people surprised to hear that the IRA still existed were the DUP and UUP. The DUP and UUP are at the same fun fair on identical hobby horses. They both put Sinn Fein into Government whilst the IRA remained in existence. The fact they trotted around at different times in the merry-go-round makes little difference.
Within ten years it is likely that Sinn Fein will have little or no MLA’s or Ministers who were actively involved in the IRA.
If there is a genuine desire to build a better future then a system of Government must be put in place that is in line with the basic principles of democracy. Political advantage previously gained by the leverage of IRA violence – such as mandatory coalition – must be rolled back.
The DUP have no clear vision on how to provide a better alternative for Unionism – they are inextricably wedded to the system of Government and apparatus that arose from the Belfast Agreement and St Andrews agreement, which to all intents and purposes rewarded the cessation of IRA violence with political advantage and a place in the heart of Government.
If Republicanism is interested in a real peace and genuine reconciliation then they must be willing to trust in their Unionist neighbours – and vice versa- to enter into a system of Government whereby we have a voluntary coalition for those parties with a large enough mandate to agree on a programme for Government and with the right to an opposition for those not in Government. The onus is then on those in Government to demonstrate fairness and equal treatment for all citizens of Northern Ireland. If they doubt Unionist sincerity then what better way to test it than permitting real democracy without the comfort blanket of mandatory coalition.
If our system of Government is designed to cater for mutual distrust then how can anyone ever expect trust and reconciliation to spring from that Government? Is it any wonder we are stuck in a perpetual cycle of crisis and stalemate?