Thursday, 26 May 2016

The Whiff of Change

We were promised a Fresh Start and a fresh start is what we got. Eight new departments, eight new ministers, even five new faces.

If this was meant to be a fresh start, why is there such a bad smell this morning?

The new-look Executive, unveiled yesterday, tantalised us with the prospect of a new era in northern politics, but when it came to Justice it was the ‘same old same old’.

If this was meant to be a fresh start, why is there such a bad smell this morning?

The Good Book warns us that a house divided against itself cannot stand, and the new Justice Minister, Claire Sugden, will be a looming reminder of that division every time the new Executive meets. All the swagger, bravado and chutzpah in the world cannot hide the crack.

Ms Sugden’s presentation in the temple by the First and Deputy First Ministers caught many by surprise. It shouldn’t have. The Justice post had been hawked around Stormont for days – with no other takers.

The previous incumbent, who has spoken of “significant – very significant – challenges ahead” in Justice, would have signed up, but the price he demanded was too exorbitant for the ‘Big Two’ parties.

The East Londonderry MLA’s no-strings-attached acceptance of the poisoned chalice is perplexing. During her short Stormont career she had railed against the previous administration. “This house of cards is falling,” she had warned, “and good will come of that only if the jokers at the top come crashing down too and do not get up again.”

How strange that Ms Sugden is now the keystone holding the house of cards together – the one helping the ‘jokers’ up again. Had she declined the offer, the vacancy would have provided an immediate and searching test of the DUP and Sinn Féin’s real commitment to Fresh Start.

The former politics student, who got them off that hook, will now get an insight into politics that no university education could offer. For the moment Ms Sugden finds herself in a luxurious position: the ‘jokers’ – the two most ruthless parties in Stormont – need her more than she needs them. No wonder they flaunted her so triumphantly – like an It’s A Knock-out joker – before the media yesterday.

But it’s a long and hazardous road. Luckily, ahem, she’ll have two DUP MLAs ‘minding her back’ as chair and deputy-chair of the Justice Committee.

Eventually, of course, there will be a day of reckoning at the polls, when her supporters in East Londonderry – who backed her precisely because of her independence – will decide whether her decision was a judicious one.

In affirming the terms of her Pledge of Office, the new minister promised, among other things, to promote equality and prevent discrimination. Ironically, though, her elevation was only possible because of an elaborate contrivance to keep Sinn Féin at the back of the Justice bus.  

On the most optimistic reading, the fact that the ‘Big Two’ parties are, at least, prepared to hold their noses, do business, and try and tackle the many difficulties which confront us is promising. The problems will come thick and fast, though. Cutbacks. Austerity. Hospital waiting lists. Job losses. Abortion. Academic selection. Corporation Tax. Roads. Universities. Flags. An Irish Language Act. And an Official Opposition dogging the Executive along every tortuous step.

Fresh start or false start? Time will tell. The clock is ticking. The brave new dawn is still a long way off. And the smell lingers.

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