Weakness of Northern Ireland Executive exposed amidst COVID-19
Updated: Oct 6, 2020
Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly has confronted the propriety of Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill’s attendance at the funeral of veteran Republican and prominent Sinn Fein member Bobby Storey on 30 June. Initially the media showed glimpses of TV footage depicting an abundance of mourners, but there was room for hostility to be heightened further when a selfie displaying a noticeable lack of social distancing involving O’Neill came to light. The third bone of contention came when it was noticed the selfie had been taken in a cemetery on the opposite side of Belfast to Storey’s place of burial. The situation was condemned by UUP MLA Steve Aiken, commenting that in a ‘normal democracy’ a minister would have ‘done the decent thing and resigned’, and with each of the 4 main parties - including fellow nationalists the SDLP - seeking the Sinn Fein leader’s exeunt of office, a debate was set in motion for the 7th July. Despite the two-hour onslaught of criticism to the tune of ‘the Deputy First Minister’s credibility is shot to bits’, in its wake the process can be recorded as a somewhat pointless formality, seemingly having little effect on her ultimate decision. Notwithstanding countless examples of ruthless Cabinet sackings on the part of the British Prime Minister in response to stepping out of line, such as the swift exit of Chancellor Sajid Javid upon refusal to sack his senior staff under Johnson, it mustn’t come as a surprise that the cogs in Northern Ireland just don’t revolve in that manner. The primary explanation for the loophole being that each Ministerial position on the Executive is allocated via the D’Hondt formula according to party share of the vote making each seat the property of one party or another. Instead of a figurehead like the Prime Minister or the influence of tricky questions in a debate deciding a Minister’s fate, it’s their own party that wields power. The fact remains that tribal loyalty is embedded into each and every discussion, rendering dissent from within the party an impossibility. Take Northern Ireland’s 3-year period of stalemate without an Executive throughout which all members of the DUP and Sinn Fein conveniently supported their party’s lack of compromise on contentious issues such as Irish Language legislation and LGBT rights. Stripped back to a sole candidate’s verdict on stepping aside - O’Neill herself – the predictable outcome looms large.
Moreover, the inaccessibility of politics in Northern Ireland expands despite a devolved government supposedly bringing a more regional, less centralised approach to political decision-making. Regulations formulated by the Deputy First Minister herself, a citizen of the North whose rules regarding 2m distancing or mass gatherings are said to benefit and be specifically targeted at, were unable to be strictly followed - and yet it’s the ‘representatives’ on Stormont’s hill left to construct the do’s and don’ts, being paid £123,000 for the privilege. Blind obedience from the majority is mandatory, that’s excluding themselves of course. The moral-high-ground-claiming promise from First Minister Arlene Foster awaits us. Her party, the DUP will not collapse the Executive and ‘punish the people of Northern Ireland’ during a pandemic despite strained relations between her and O’Neill. Although, when other types of crisis became apparent such as on average 13 homeless deaths in Northern Ireland per month between October 2017 and August 2018 or the suicide surge because of only 5% of Northern Ireland’s budget being spent on mental health services compared with 13% in England it was deemed acceptable for leadership and a functioning Executive to remain a far off proposal. Now casting our minds back, the ticket Foster’s party initially rose to power on was to dismantle the power-sharing set up under the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 from the inside and not go into government with Sinn Fein. Perhaps it’s the system then, comprised of opposing forces called upon to work together rather than scrutinise each other as practiced at Westminster that has, in this instance, demonstrated its limits.