‘Historic’. Perhaps one of the most overused words to describe the last four years at Stormont. And yet, it is about the only word to describe the period, as voters prepare to elect an Assembly in Northern Ireland that is a very different entity from that which it returned in 2007. An Assembly and Executive more confident, stable and less divided by the sectarian divides of the past.
It is not only that the Assembly, dissolved just a few weeks ago, was the first to complete a full term without any direct rule from London since the Good Friday Agreement but that it was achieved under the leadership of both the DUP and Sinn Fein, once arch enemies, now partners in government.
So too it was historic that despite rancour and recrimination, Northern Ireland’s leaders finally oversaw the devolution of powers over the touchstone issue of policing and justice, dubbed by Gordon Brown as the ‘final end’ of the peace process. And we can look also to the history made as the Treasury began its consultation on letting Stormont set its corporation tax to better compete with the South, and the Northern Ireland Secretary, Owen Paterson’s decision to bring to an end the practice of mandatory 50/50 recruitment to the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
Yet, despite the history made, the Assembly being more confident and secure in itself and First Minister, Peter Robinson’s assertion that 2011 would be the first ‘every day’ election, voters in Northern Ireland remain locked within a system and political culture marked by the abnormal.
The tragic death of Constable Ronan Kerr in Omagh and the recent discovery of a van packed with explosives in Newry were signs that despite being in a minority, dissident republicans maintain the capability to maim and kill, and will do all they can to disrupt the ‘every day’ election Ulster’s parties are looking to achieve.
The Assembly and Executive themselves also remain creatures not of ‘normal politics’ but the overarching imperative to keep the differing sectarian communities together. Dubbed in 2009 by Jim Allister, leader of the anti-agreement Traditional Unionist Voice a ‘cancer at the heart of the Stormont’, the statutory obligation for a cross-community coalition, led by a First and Deputy First Minister as effective equals remains an abnormality and barrier to ‘normal politics’.
We have only to look at the bitterness and divisions that existed within the executive between Sinn Fein and the DUP on the one hand, and the UUP and SDLP on the other over the budget to understand the difficulties that mandatory coalitions face, with Ministers locked into an executive without any properly resourced opposition, able to hold it to account. Indeed, it was UUP and SDLP Ministers who led the opposition to a budget proposed by the very executive of which they formed part.
It is a problem that is now beginning to exercise even pro-peace agreement parties. UUP Leader, Tom Elliott has called for an end to this strange system of governing. Speaking in February, Elliott said:
We have four years to prepare the ground for a change from a mandatory all-party coalition to a system of government and opposition – the system that works around the world.
David Ford, Leader of the non-sectarian Alliance Party, himself a beneficiary of mandatory coalitions, having taken up the reins as Justice Minister following the devolution of policing and justice powers, has also been persuaded of the need for reform. He told Alliance members at the launch of their election campaign:
We need an executive which is formed as a voluntary coalition by a weighted majority. That will only happen when we persuade the people who currently hold a veto over it – the largest nationalist party – that we are doing that for reasons of good governance and it’s not simply a mechanism to exclude them.
As the 2011 election campaign goes on, we can expect to hear yet more from all parties about the progress made in Northern Ireland, with an emphasis on the ‘normal politics’ of the economy, health or education. However, as with all things, ‘normality’ in Northern Ireland should be compared not to the rest of the UK but to the province’s past.
Whilst the issues discussed may be similar to those debated elsewhere in the UK, the litmus test now will be whether the next Assembly and Executive are prepared to reform the way it does its politics.