Before addressing political issues I would like on my own behalf and on behalf of the Fianna Fáil party to extend our best wishes to Martin McGuinness and our hope that he is able to overcome what is a very serious health situation. I will not pretend to agree with many of the positions which he has taken over the last forty years, but I believe he has sought to be a constructive force in trying to make the post-Belfast Agreement institutions work.
As I have no doubt he would agree, during our time as education ministers we had a very positive and active working relationship which was absolutely focused on delivering for all communities. Most of this work was done far away from the spotlight, with my then department’s officials providing a lot of expertise in the early stages of the review of the deeply unfair 11-Plus exams.
If we are to believe even a fraction of reports it would appear that this political mess is one where he advocated a different policy but others have intervened to impose their will. It has not been said whether we are now seeing his final withdrawal from politics, but if it is we can only wish him well and hope that those assuming leadership roles have a yet unrevealed strategy which goes beyond pulling everything down.
Earlier today the British Prime Minister outlined her government’s core objectives for the Brexit negotiations. It is now clear that the UK will not be in the Single Market, will not be in the Customs Union and will not accept arrangements which require freedom of movement or the jurisdiction of the independent European Court of Justice. It is laced with the threat that if Britain is not given what it wants it will launch an immediate trade war and a race to the bottom in regulation and employment conditions.
Even more significant is that whatever arrangements are finalised are to be applied unilaterally to all jurisdictions subject to Westminster irrespective of how they voted in last year’s referendum. They are not seeking, and therefore they will not get, special treatment for Northern Ireland.
This car-crash Brexit is the worst possible news for Northern Ireland. It has the highest unemployment, highest poverty rates and weakest budget of any part of these islands. It is also the most exposed to the impact of the UK exiting the Single Market and Customs Union. The only independent study into the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland has shown a major reduction in growth and employment combined with pressure on already struggling public finances.
By any definition this is a critical moment in shaping the future for everybody who lives on this island – and none more so than people in Northern Ireland. Fundamental decisions about the economy and society are being taken now and in the weeks ahead.
And yet for at very least the next ten weeks the people of Northern Ireland will have no one working for them. They will have no presence at the already too weak consultative committee established in Downing Street. They will have no one to challenge the dismissive attitude of the Tory government to Northern Ireland. They will have no one demanding that the full and continued rights of EU citizens in Northern Ireland be respected.
Let no one be in any doubt, the decision to cause an election at this moment has dramatically increased the risk of Northern Ireland, and by extension the rest of this island, suffering due to the Brexit decisions being taken now.
The decision to reject any further discussions or to find a means of at least delaying the collapse of the Executive until after this critical period is deeply damaging. The absence of an Assembly or Executive for an extended period delays rather than brings forward any inquiry into the heating scheme or the introduction of any measure to reduce its cost.
It also means that there is no Budget for 2017 and the urgently needed plan for tackling a crisis in A&E departments has been shelved.
The fact that the DUP and Sinn Fein have caused the collapse of the Executive and the need for Assembly elections should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following politics in Northern Ireland in recent years. Unfortunately much of the Dublin media has adopted an approach of ignoring the North unless there is a crisis. Because of this the long procession of events and bad behaviour which led to this break down has received almost no attention.
Fianna Fáil has repeatedly said over the last five years that the dysfunctional behaviour of the DUP/Sinn Fein tandem was causing real damage. There has been a clear and consistent growth in public detachment from politics in the North and a falling belief that the institutions were focused on the concerns of real people. The rising dominance of the DUP and Sinn Fein has not been based on a rising tide of support, but falling turnout driven by communities losing hope that their interests will be heard in the Executive.
The RHI scheme is not the first scandal, it is the latest of many. The BBC Spotlight Programme has played a particularly important role in exposing the regular partisan abuse of public funding in the North. Those with the votes at the Executive and Assembly have combined to ensure that nothing has been done. We’ve seen a whitewash when an MLA who cannot drive received £5,000 in a claim for petrol which he says he didn’t sign. No cause for concern was raised when £700,000 was given by Sinn Fein ministers to a company in return for no identifiable service. Crass sectarian abuse by senior DUP personnel has been met with a shrug and, on occasion, applause but never censure. Public outrage in relation to Project Eagle and other controversies has been met with the mantra of ‘do as little as possible’.
At the same time a long list of solemn agreements has been ignored by the parties. They have worked together to prevent the reestablishment of the civic forum because it might lessen their influence. They have allowed many policy areas to stagnate. They have also allowed our government to be frozen out of basic discussions about the future of the North.
For example, the DUP and Sinn Fein went to Downing Street to launch a development plan that made no mention of any cross-border dimension and about which our government was not informed. This was a clear breach of accepted principles and previous practice.
Sinn Fein is absolutely correct that the DUP’s behaviour in relation to handling of the heating scheme has been arrogant and unacceptable. The DUP has misused the office of First Minister to block and delay further entirely justified investigations into how the scheme was drafted and left in place at such unacceptable cost to the people of Northern Ireland. Its abuse of the petitions of concern process is a disgrace.
What Sinn Fein has absolutely not done is established why it needed to collapse the Assembly in order to challenge this behaviour by the DUP. More importantly it has failed to set out any serious proposal for reforming how the Executive works or to acknowledge its own role in creating an arrogant and unaccountable joint Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
The complaint about failing to share information or to allow proper discussion at Executive level which we are today hearing from Sinn Fein is nearly word for word what was said by the SDLP, UUP and the Alliance Party when they were in the Executive. For years they pointed out that the DUP and Sinn Fein refused to circulate information, stitched up decisions before Executive meetings and operated towards them what they called the ‘mushroom policy’ of ‘keep them in the dark and cover them with dirt’.
When today we hear Sinn Fein complaining about an arrogant and non-transparent Executive it is impossible not to look back at how these other parties were treated.
This behaviour by the DUP and Sinn Fein led those three parties to leave the Executive and create a functioning opposition in the Assembly. The pressure this has placed on Ministers has been demonstrated by the growing aggression and arrogance with which they respond to tough questions in the Assembly.
And it is worth looking back over the last five years in particular at the angry response from Sinn Fein every time my party and others have called the Executive dysfunctional. On countless occasions their leaders have accused us of undermining the peace process for pointing out that the behaviour of the Executive’s leaders threatened the continued operation of the Executive.
The core facts of the RHI scheme and its disastrous financial implications have been known for over a year. They were known before the last Assembly election and they have been pursued doggedly by the opposition in Stormont.
What exactly is supposed to be changed by this election other than the relative strength of parties? Neither of the two big parties has proposed to make the Executive more open, inclusive or effective. No objective has been offered beyond the short-term one of putting manners on the other side. Instead the only demand is that we have the verdict before the trial is held.
Now that the election is happening we must hope that once we get through the initial bluster we hear some concrete commitments to ending the dysfunction and focusing on the people’s concerns.
Each party needs to be asked what it is willing to do to remove the roadblocks to action on health, employment, poverty and sectarianism. What exactly are they proposing in relation to reducing the potentially disastrous impact of Brexit? How are they going to make ministers and the Executive accountable and reduce the abuse of government by the larger parties?
They must also be challenged on what they are going to do to implement clear agreements to tackle the causes of sectarian conflict.
The equality agenda has become a partisan weapon in the hands of the two largest parties. The DUP has blocked action in order to keep alive the idea of it being a defender of the protestant interest. The petty and often nasty behaviour of DUP politicians to implementing basic equality measures has been corrosive.
For its part Sinn Fein has failed to give it other than rhetorical priority. Deputy Adams caused deep damage when he referred to it, and this is a direct quote, as “the Trojan horse of the entire republican strategy” while also referring to opponents in unionist parties as “these bastards”. At the same time it has sought to project ownership of the relevant measures rather than to join a cross-party consensus.
The equality agenda isn’t a Trojan horse or a political strategy, it is a fundamental pillar of building a society focused on common welfare not partisan manoeuvring. It is also contained in solemn and legally binding agreements.
As we have said many times before, the dysfunction in the Executive and Assembly has been enabled by a policy of disengagement by the governments. “It’s about time you sorted it out by yourselves” has failed as a policy for six years and it continues to fail.
The objective has never been for the governments to be able to step back from engagement – it has always been for the governments to remain active in helping the institutions to work and to support a spirit of effective and inclusive cooperation.
No doubt Sinn Fein has decided that it can gain electorally by having an election now. It perhaps feels that campaigning on this issue will help it push back challenges from the new SDLP leadership and People Before Profit candidates – whose encroachment in West Belfast has obviously destabilised the party establishment in its previous electoral fortress.
Whatever the reasons for the cause of this election we need it to allow some progress rather than just rearranging the chairs.
It has started badly, but hopefully in the next seven weeks there will be a debate on issues which should dominate – on proposals to end the cycle of disputes and deliver an Executive and Assembly which spends more time fighting problems than fighting each other.
And let this be an end to the policy of disengagement. Northern Ireland must not be an issue which returns to our debates and to the media only when there is a deep crisis. We need ministers to step-up their levels of engagement and to understand that building connections with Northern Ireland is part of their jobs.
Most of all we need to move beyond this fight and on to tackling a Brexit process which has gone from Hard Brexit to Destructive Brexit and seems intent on ignoring the special status of Northern Ireland and its EU citizens.