By Connal Parr
As Stormont enters its annual summer recess and our MLAs head away on their holidays we pause as the dust begins to settle over the new chamber. Whilst the dust is very real, ‘new chamber’ is something of an oxymoron: very little from 2007 changed following the May Assembly election. Jim Allister, sporting a newly acquired sense of humour (and capable of landing the occasional blow), has re–entered the house and early exchanges indicate he will make good his promise to be the pain on the Hill over the next four years. But essentially the DUP–Sinn Féin carve–up continues to prosper while the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists remain stranded in debilitating limbo over their participation in the Executive. Both had the chance to register as a serious oppositional force on Stormont’s benches following the election but passed it up.
Tom Elliott ended as he presumably means to go on, kicking up yet another dispute over the appointment of Sinn Féin’s Francie Molloy as Principal Deputy Speaker (Irish News, 25 June 2011). This latest flash point concerned Molloy’s comments over the behaviour of the Linfield football manager – a highly important political debate, of course – causing Elliott to suspend the committee where they were made. The DUP’s mild–mannered Willie Hay has proven an accomplished Speaker but the Molloy appointment signals a Sinn Féin figurehead when Hay does step aside. The situation is highly symbolic and reflective of the Stormont arrangement generally. Most parties are content to designate based on numerical strength and not get through very much work at all: hamper rather than create.
Legislatively, one of Stormont’s few success stories occurred in March of this year in the form of the Dominic Bradley’s Autism Bill. The legislation was passed with nary much recognition at all in the Northern Irish press – who like the parties are often more taken with projecting animated, virtually meaningless constitutional wrangling – but the bill is one of the first of its kind in any region of the UK and was achieved through inter–party discussion over an issue which cuts across all boundaries of class and race. As the rest of his party (the SDLP) paced rather less steadily around the Executive, Bradley cultivated cross– party support to move the bill past and beyond elephantine Stormont procedures. In his own words the bill ‘brings autism out from the cold’ (SDLP Press Release, 15 March 2011), establishing the condition as a disability and compelling departments to share relevant data with each other. Just as significantly the political conciliation and spirit of working together which characterized its formulation are reflected in the language, tone and stipulations of the bill itself, building cross–departmental consultation into its tenets. By law it forces committees and departments throughout Stormont to work consensually to tackle the problems raised by the condition. Thus the Autism Bill is a microcosmic glimpse into what can be achieved through Stormont structures if time and approach is properly conceived.
However this remains the exception. Workings at Stormont are largely subdued in comparison, for instance, to the devolved Scottish Parliament. With its partial authority on health and full leverage over tuition fees, the devolved legislature at Holyrood is often invoked as a model by Northern Irish parties and politicians. The difference is there is a genuine hankering in Scotland within its Executive not only to legislate actively and dynamically but to push for even greater powers over areas of taxation and defence. Alex Salmond’s Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) is committed to this ideologically, but with the exception of a possible alteration in the level of corporation tax it is hard to imagine any party in the Northern Ireland Executive requesting more autonomy when the current stagnancy suits the current duopoly so well. Simultaneously, right up until the end of this parliamentary session accusations of fiscal waste continued to dog the Assembly, as the £370,000 granted to the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister ‘without competitive tendering processes’ testifies (Belfast Telegraph, 23 June 2011).
From the Ardoyne to the Newtownards Road, places far removed from the Stormont village, more violence in urban working class areas will recur through the summer at the same time as Peter Robinson is talking about reaching out to the Catholic middle class. He asserts the latter’s socially conservative political impulses are closer to the centre–right, pro–business DUP than Sinn Féin’s Left wing rhetoric (Belfast Telegraph, 24 June 2011). But while Robinson might be playing the long game – to the detriment perhaps of what was once his most natural constituency – as Stormont closes many MLAs are satisfied to perpetuate the old political patterns and easy options reconstituted since 2007. Why worry about health, education and the economy when you can trade wind–ups over Irish tricolours and UDR statues?