If Stormont falls we'll all be the worst for it
There is a commonly held perception that our Assembly and Executive do nothing of value and so therefore if they collapse nobody will notice.
In many respects this notion that our politicians are all hopeless and its corollary that the political institutions are not worth fighting for is much more threatening to future political stability than the current row over the existence, operational status and involvement in violence of the IRA.
Democratic institutions depend for their legitimacy on the consent and support of the electorate and there have already been many signs that this has been eroded to a dangerous respect. Scope’s post general election analysis, for example, demonstrated that if there were such a thing as an “Apathy Party” it would have won all but one of the Westminster seats here.
The current impasse is doing nothing to restore confidence and the fact that intra-party electioneering is so manifestly at the heart of it is having the unintended consequence of further alienating politicians from voters. There may come a time when it is not so safe to assume that when election time comes around all they have to do is whistle and we will meekly enter the correct pens for the ritual sectarian head count. Already many of us choose to stay grazing in our fields and as the numbers of those not participating swells, so their mandate is further diminished.
That’s the real crisis in Northern Ireland politics.
Yet the notion that politicians do nothing is untrue. Assembly committees have improved their capacity to hold the Executive to account and are increasingly proving their worth.
And away from the tired, and utterly tedious Punch and Judy rhetoric of the news and chat shows, they knuckle down and deliver legislation much of which is for the public good.
When all is functioning normally few even notice. And much of the punditry around the current crisis has implied that all will still be well because it will be business as normal in all those departments without Ministers because the civil service will step in to ensure everything remains on track.
This is a serious misconception. The withdrawal of the UUP and DUP Ministers from their respective portfolios is already causing considerable damage to the workings of the Assembly, because in the case of government business legislation has to be introduced to the House by the relevant government Minister. If there isn’t one, no civil servant can step in because they have no electoral mandate and no place in the Chamber.
Here’s just one example from this week. On Tuesday the Assembly was set to consider a bill which would allow credit unions to expand their services for the benefit of their hundreds of thousands of members here, and in the context of the withdrawal of the banks from many communities. The Bill has all party support and MLAs shared a collective sense of urgency to see it pass into law before the scheduled elections in May of next year.
However, on Tuesday the Bill was not put before the house because there is no longer a DETI Minister. As to when it will be re-tabled and whether it will pass into law during the current mandate … well nobody knows the answer to that.
We’ll simply have to wait until the impasse is resolved, and there is no sign of that happening any time soon.
Away from the posing and grandstanding politicians are doing good work, important work that improves peoples’ lives. Few voters recognise that.
If our political representatives were to stop playing to their imaginary galleries and concentrate on demonstrating the real value that they do (sometimes) provide, they might just get more votes and, in the process, convince the rest of us that the institutions that took such painstaking work to set up, are worth preserving. There seems little prospect of that.
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