Time for normal politics in Northern Ireland?

Ed Jacobs looks at the aftermath of the first ever 'everyday' elction in Northern Ireland and asks what the future holds for the Stormont Assembly.

Following his election to Stormont for the North Antrim constituency, Jim Allister, leader of the anti-Good Friday agreement Traditional Unionist Voice party vowed to continue his long standing campaign to make life uncomfortable for the executive.

He explained following his election:

“I look forward to being a very active thorn in the flesh of the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition.

“I look forward to being a scourge of IRA/Sinn Fein, and I look forward to being a rebuke to the wanton daily abuse and squalor of money in this province.”

And yet, despite his long running hostility to the DUP/Sinn Fein partnership, could it instead be the Tories’ former electoral allies, the Ulster Unionists, who are about to attempt to claim the mantra of the thorn in the Executive’s side – despite being part of that same Executive?

Speaking at his count over the weekend in Omagah, Tom Elliott, the party’s leader, used the sight of Irish tricolour flags to launch a full fronted attack on Sinn Fein. He argued:

“I see many people here with flags today, some of them with flags from a foreign nation.  I would expect nothing better from the scum of Sinn Féin.

“Their counterparts in the IRA have murdered the citizens of this province for years and decades and now all they want to do is shout down political representatives. That is how they want to run this province but I can tell you, as unionists, we will not allow them to do that.

“They tried to bomb and murder us out of Northern Ireland for generations and it didn’t succeed and they will not succeed now.”

Despite anger at the remarks, including from the brother of the murdered police officer, Ronan Kerr, who dubbed Elliott’s views as “prehistoric” and “prejudiced”, Elliott has told the Newsletter that he stands by the remarks.

But what lies behind his outburst, from the leader of a party that was supposedly the moderate voice of unionism in Northern Ireland?

Perhaps first and foremost is desperation. Having not all that long ago been the majority voice of the unionist community, led by David Trimble, one of the architects of the Good Friday agreement, they are a party which, as a result of the 2010 election and their misguided partnership with the Conservatives have no MPs in Westminster, and following the consolidation of the DUP’s position as the largest unionist voice following the election just been weakened still further.

Indeed, writing on his blog, the BBC’s Northern Ireland political editor, Mark Davenport, has outlined a scenario in which the UUP could lose one of the two ministerial seats it held in the last executive.

But Elliott’s comments form part of a wider trend in which the UUP have become more rebellious and prepared to rock the boat. As Left Foot Forward has previously reported, it was the UUP which, together with the SDLP, led the fight against the Executive’s budget cuts and it was the UUP health minister, Michael McGimpsey, who spent so much of his time distancing himself from his ministerial colleagues with outspoken attacks on the lack of funding for the health service being provided by finance minister, Sammy Wilson.

Such attacks are likely, in part, to be used by Elliott to boost his argument made prior to the election that it was time for changes to be made, to end the system of mandatory coalitions and to provide for a properly resourced opposition to hold the Executive to account, rather than ministers being forced to split in public when differences of opinion arise.

Whilst his tactics might be a little bizarre, Elliott’s point remains valid. Following what Peter Robinson himself dubbed Northern Ireland’s first normal “everyday” election, it remains an anomaly that voters have no opportunity to throw out unpopular governments in favour of an alternative. It also makes manifestos a waste of time since no party in Northern Ireland is ever able to fulfil everything it promises.

With the UK government having concluded that it was safe to bring to an end the policy of 50/50 recruitment in the police service, if Stormont is to look and sound like a proper Assembly and Executive then perhaps now is the time to consider if political leaders can move to a system of government and opposition without tearing chunks out of each other and dividing the community.

That would be a sign of real progress.

As I wrote recently for Nottingham University’s politics politics blog during the election:

“As the 2011 election campaign goes on, we can expect to hear yet more from all parties about the progress made in Northern Ireland, with an emphasis on the ‘normal politics’ of the economy, health or education. However, as with all things, ‘normality’ in Northern Ireland should be compared not to the rest of the UK but to the province’s past.

“Whilst the issues discussed may be similar to those debated elsewhere in the UK, the litmus test now will be whether the next Assembly and Executive are prepared to reform the way it does its politics.”

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