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18 September 2008 Edition

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Government through partnership and equality

BY MITCHEL McLAUGHLIN

THE following is an extract from a resolution passed by the DUP Executive in Belfast on 24 March 2007:
“The party officers, having consulted widely, weighed up all the relevant matters and reviewed progress on outstanding matters recommend to the party’s Central Executive Committee that the DUP would support and participate fully in a Northern Ireland Executive if powers were devolved to it on an agreed date in May this year. Moreover, we are willing to bridge the short gap between now and then with preparatory work including departmental pre-briefings and finalising a Programme for Government.
“This firm commitment is offered within an environment where no one, including the Government goes on any advances and commitments made” (my emphasis).
It is obvious that the DUP has not abided by either the content or the spirit of what its own resolution commits it to do. To repeat, the DUP accepts that the “firm commitment is offered within an environment where no one, including the Government goes on any advances and commitments made”. Well, there were advances made by and commitments made to Sinn Féin by parties and governments and we intend to ensure that they are delivered on.
Now some political parties and media commentators would have us believe that the ongoing crisis facing the Northern Assembly revolves solely around the issue of policing and justice. While this is an important issue, the DUP’s inability to cope with sharing responsibility for policing and justice is just the public manifestation of the real problem – unionist fear of equality.
The present political difficulties are not a new phenomenon. Unionists have consistently opposed every move towards building a society of equals in the North. To agree with the need for equality and parity of esteem would be to admit that the Northern state was built on discrimination and sectarianism. Many unionists are not confident enough to admit the need for radical change. But change will happen anyway, primarily because Sinn Féin will not allow the needs and aspirations of our constituency to be subjected to a unionist veto. If the DUP wishes to be in government then it will be in partnership and on the basis of equality for all citizens.
The overriding cause of the difficulties experienced in the political process is the refusal by the DUP to accept the basic principles of partnership and equality in government. An examination of the workings of the Assembly since its restoration in May 2007 will demonstrate that rather than approach issues on their merits the DUP approach has been ‘if it is important to nationalists, we won’t support it’.
This approach cannot continue. The DUP entered the institutions on the basis of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and the St Andrew’s review. That is undeniable. Both these documents are predicated on the principles of equality and parity of esteem. This is also undeniable. Irrespective of the public utterances of DUP spokespersons seeking to placate the rejectionists within their party, the fact that the DUP is in government demonstrates their acceptance of the tenets of the GFA and St Andrew’s even if this was a reluctant and belated acceptance.
Republicans have delivered on every commitment that we entered into over the protracted negotiations in which we participated, however difficult they may have been. But that is the test of leadership. The refusal by the DUP to agree the transfer of policing and justice is not about lack of confidence in society; it is a refusal to accept that nationalism has a right to have a say in how it is policed and how justice is administered. It is an equality issue. Unionists will have to accept that nationalism is no longer willing to allow itself to be policed by unionism.
Unfortunately, the present crisis has coincided with a downturn in economic fortunes on a global scale. Some in the DUP leadership are attempting to use the economic pressure that many people are now experiencing as a smokescreen to hide their inability to deliver on the requirements of the GFA and St Andrew’s. While it is understandable that people direct their demands for solutions at local politicians, it needs to be recognised that the Assembly has very little power to address a global economic recession.  But when Sinn Féin brought forward a motion in the Assembly, shortly after restoration, to seek the transfer to the Assembly of as much economic responsibility as possible (which would have better equipped us to deal with the present economic crisis), unionists and others opposed such a move.
The Assembly, unlike other governments, has no tax-varying powers and the British Treasury determines the amount of finance available to it. Even when the British Exchequer brings in special measures to assist people experiencing difficulties in Britain, they often do not apply to the North.
If the Assembly is to be in a position to develop local solutions to local difficulties then we must have as much fiscal autonomy as possible. It is clear that our economic future lies in creating an all-island economy based on the needs of the people of Ireland.
Not surprisingly, fiscal decisions taken by the British Chancellor are taken on the basis of what is best for the economy of Britain. The North is peripheral to the economic decision making process in Britain and the sooner unionist politicians wake up to that fact the sooner we will be able to take control of our own political and economic futures. Only then will we have the ability to create local solutions to the problems affecting our community.
To date, the only credible economic initiatives that have been put forward to tackle the present situation have been a series of measures proposed by deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. I hope that other parties will consider them as a genuine effort to alleviate the hardship being experienced by so many in our society in this time of economic recession.
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