In January there was a huge push for the parties to form a local government in the wake of pressure from health workers. It seemed that the issues keeping the parties apart were reduced as pressures to have a locally accountable health minister became urgent. In rode then Secretary of State Julien Smith and the ever-present Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney with their fait accompli, the New Decade New Approach document.
The focus of the following hours was on the reaction of the big two parties. This document built less of a bridge between them but more a political ferry that allowed everyone to make necessary journeys of compromise. But for the smaller parties the document probably posed different questions.
During the three years of institutional collapse all three smaller parties repeatedly criticised Sinn Féin and the DUP for not being willing to participate in the Executive, at the same time as not confirming whether they themselves would itself take their seats in that Executive. This allowed them to appeal to people who wanted restoration of the institutions only with reform, and those prepared to accept restoration without reform. So in January, as a vanguard for restoration, Alliance, SdLP and UUP could hardly not take ministerial seats but it was not comfortable as there were real fears about becoming lost in governance.
This tension might inform what we witness coming from the shared Executive. There is a tedious tendency for all parties, but especially the smaller three, to engage in oppositional politics while governing, and that is leading to a lack of political cohesion and undermining good will.
It goes something like this. Minister from one party does/says something. Members of other parties, usually one of their MPs as they are arms-length, criticise said minister. The critical comments get traction, the minister pays little heed, life goes on. It is an unedifying and boring political habit that is politically undermining.
As part of New Decade, New Approach the SDLP secured an important change. Previously a party that joined the Executive could not enter the official opposition until the next election, now a party can join the opposition up to two years after the formation of the Executive. This provision allows the smaller parties to potentially hedge their bets, and to remain in or leave the Executive depending on which is more electorally advantageous. Given that the current mandate was not extended and there is an election in 2022 we can see the game wittingly or unwittingly being played.
One narrative promoted to this end is that “things haven’t changed”, and that the ministers from smaller parties are being badly treated by or not kept informed by Sinn Féin and the DUP.
One such complaint is that the Department of Infrastructure is being starved of cash by Sinn Fein’s Finance Minister Conor Murphy. In fact Infrastructure received a 9% increase for everyday spending and a 19% increase in its Capital budget. The SDLP have in particular criticised funding for Translink. Yet Finance increased Translink’s budget by £20m at the start of the year, and allocated approximately £70m to compensate for Covid losses. Nichola Mallon does not appear to have prioritised additional funding to Translink from within her own budget. In tactical terms this is undoubtedly a clever approach by the party, however, demonstrates a half-hearted approach to the Executive.
The Victims Injured Pension controversy provided Naomi Long with the opportunity to volunteer to administer the scheme while the matters concerning the legislation and funding were subject to judicial review. Now that the scheme has been adopted however these issues of contention have not gone away and indeed are at the heart of why the scheme is unlikely to see daylight before the late spring of next year. There is no longer political capital for Alliance in this contested matter, so all has gone quiet.
Governing is difficult in a transitional society and in the context of a five-party Executive in which many decisions are subject to negotiation. Austerity, Covid, and Brexit add to these difficulties. Rather than seeking electoral advantage from these challenges all parties might take them on with good heart rather than an eye to the next election.