“We’re in control. We know exactly what we’re doing.”
Those nine words – uttered by Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, as he stood alongside First Minister Arlene Foster on the steps of Stormont Castle yesterday – show precisely why the SDLP had no real option but to follow the Ulster Unionists into Opposition and why the Alliance Party cannot credibly join the next Executive.
This will be a Programme for Government crafted entirely by the two largest parties. They “know exactly” what they’re doing. Nothing the smaller parties said to the ‘big two’ during a two-week negotiation was going to knock them off course. With 53% of the vote and 66 seats between them, they have been given a resounding mandate to do whatever it is they know they’re doing. The rest of us, like the smaller parties, will just have to suck it up.
The DUP and Sinn Féin manifestos for the 2016 Assembly election were so similar in major respects that their leaders might have been yanked out of their chairs by the ear for copying. Clearly, this Programme for Government has been a long time in the cooking, with only a select few allowed into the kitchen.
The charge that the SDLP is “walking away from” power-sharing and the Good Friday Agreement simply doesn’t stack up. This isn’t power-sharing, it’s job-sharing. The clue is in the words, “We’re in control.”
Some are hailing this moment as the arrival of ‘normal’ politics in Stormont. It is transformational, certainly, but there’s nothing ‘normal’ about it (except by Northern Ireland standards). We will still have two parties in control – in this case two parties without the cover provided by the proximity of their closest rivals and which, frankly, still detest each other.
Never mind that there are some in the DUP who still won’t shake the Deputy First Minister’s hand; the First Minister still won’t countenance the idea of Sinn Féin holding the sensitive Justice ministry. Now, it appears, we have the Green Party’s representatives and Independent MLA, Claire Sugden, being tantalised with that poisoned chalice (surely it would prove electorally fatal for the former?).
Ask yourself these questions: do the DUP now trust their partners in government; and do Sinn Féin want to make Northern Ireland work? These two parties find themselves strapped together – dare I use the phrase ‘inextricably linked’? – like sky-divers sharing a single chute, mandated to govern us for the foreseeable future.
Let’s revisit those comments by the Deputy First Minister. “We’re in control. We know exactly what we’re doing.” That's democracy.
In control? Really?
Our budget is allocated for the most part by an administration at Westminster that looks even more riven than ours (we can’t even be sure who’ll be leading it in five weeks’ time) and which is wedded to the idea of austerity. And as for knowing what they’re doing, have the DUP and Sinn Féin now agreed that lower Corporation Tax here is affordable and will be introduced in this mandate? Have they agreed to prioritise job creation in our unemployment blackspots – Foyle, West Belfast and North Belfast? And – all politics being local – have they agreed a ‘Derry deal’?
As they fling themselves from the airplane into the wide blue yonder, strapped together for a perilous descent, supporters will hope they really do know what they’re doing. And I hope that one or other has remembered to check that there’s a parachute in the bag.