The election in the north of Ireland has produced the most polarized assembly there has been since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998
There was a lot of talk during the North’s election campaign about ‘bread and butter’ issues, claims that for the first time so-called ‘real politics’ were occupying people’s minds and exercising the candidates.
As the results show, such claims were far from the truth.
The facts are that the election has produced the most polarised assembly there has been since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
This is the third election following the two held in 1998 and 2003.
the first, David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and John Hume’s Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) dominated with per cent and 21 per cent of the vote respectively.
The Democratic Unionist Party DUP) and Sinn Fein (SF) followed with 18 per cent and 17 per cent.
Seats in the executive when it was eventually established, divided fortuitously five unionist and five nationalist. Five years later in 2003, Ian Paisley’s DUP had overtaken the UUP with 25 per cent of the vote to the UUP’s 22 per cent.
On the other side of the fence the SDLP had slumped to 17 per cent, while Sinn Fein had risen to 23.5 cent. That assembly never sat and therefore no executive was ever created.
The results of Wednesday’s poll gave the DUP 30 per cent of the vote, Sinn Fein 26 per cent, the SDLP 15 per cent with the UUP bringing up the rear at 14.9 per cent. The DUP and SF now have the lion’s share of ministries in the executive: the First and Deputy First Minister offices and seven of the ten ministries, with four going to the DUP. As you read here last week, the DUP has already expressed its intention to hold the purse strings with the Ministry of Finance.
That leaves three ministries between the once dominant SDLP and UUP: the UUP will have two, and the SDLP one. How the mighty are fallen.
The d’Hondt system, which governs the allocation of ministries, favours the big battalions. Not only will the DUP and Sinn Fein take the majority of ministries, they will bag the big money-spending departments such as education and health and leave the crumbs such as culture, arts and leisure to the defeated UUP and SDLP.
The DUP’s deputy leader Peter Robinson, obviously looking forward to being Minister of Finance, pointed to a rare item of agreement between himself and Gerry Adams.
He agreed with Adams that if an executive were established it would be ‘‘a battle a day’’.
When David Trimble and Seamus Mallon were First and Deputy First Ministers it was difficult enough to get them to agree on anything, even down to the design of number plates for Northern registered cars.
They operated from opposite ends of the huge Stormont building and communicated as little as possible.
How much more improbable will communication, let alone agreement be between the putative First and Deputy First Ministers, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness? The assembly operates on cross-community consensus. However, the election results mean that the DUP and Sinn Fein control their respective community assent.
Either of them can veto any important matter affecting society in the North. In the first assembly in 1998 the SDLP needed the cooperation of Sinn Fein to exercise that power. Back then the UUP also fell short of complete control of unionist assent. It’s all different now with the DUP and SF ruling the roost. How will an assembly work with two parties, whose leaders do not speak to each other, controlling its business?
The two governments are adamant that there must be a working executive established in 15 days’ time. Peter Hain, Northern Secretary, wrote to all newly elected assembly members on Friday reminding them that the legislation requires the assembly to be dissolved if no executive is elected by March 26.
Under the governments’ timetable, by Wednesday, parties are expected to beg in discussing nominations for ministries.
Publicly at least Ian Paisley is having none of it. He insists the British government must cough up major financial concessions, including reducing corporation tax to the Republic’s level of 12.5 per cent, if the DUP is to agree to share power.
Jeffrey Donaldson has said this financial package is a deal-breaker.
Sinn Fein’s position is diametrically opposed: there can be no financial package until an executive is established and that it is the executive which should negotiate it.
Underlying the demand for a financial package is the opposition to increased domestic rates and the imposition of water charges by Hain. It is as plain as a pikestaff that these unpopular measures were introduced and timed to come into operation in April to try to blackmail Paisley into sharing power.
Only a working assembly can repeal these charges. However, without the charges, some way has to be found to fund water and rates and a raft of expenditure on infrastructure, especially roads and rail.
Hence the demand for a package from the British Treasury, a peace dividend, the DUP now calls it, conveniently forgetting there was a peace dividend nine years ago after the Good Friday Agreement which the DUP then opposed.
There will be frenetic negotiations beginning tomorrow on all these matters as both governments try to bring the DUP over the line.
However, the very fact that Paisley is concentrating on the financial aspect of a power-sharing executive and no longer objecting to sharing power in principle is a fair indication of where he’s heading.
At present the betting is that, having seen off his own dissidents on Wednesday, his increased mandate will give him the confidence to press on to a deal, though not to the full deal by March 26.
Even so, any sort of a deal is only a first step on a long journey. It took David Trimble years before he even shook hands with Gerry Adams.
The North’s divided society has thrown up a sharply divided assembly in which the daily battles will be a wonder to behold.
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