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2 January 2017

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DUP must urgently restore public confidence in the political process

The political process has now been dragged recklessly by the DUP – culminating with the RHI crisis – towards an unprecedented tipping point

DUP COMMUNITIES MINISTER Paul Givan and his party advisers may have reached for the spin-doctor’s playbook on how to try and bury a bad news story when his department announced that the Líofa Gaeltacht bursary scheme was being chopped on Friday evening, 23 December.

Or maybe they didn’t bother . . . simply because the DUP didn’t care about the fall-out anyway.

Two months previously, in October, the same DUP minister announced that he hoped to increase funding available to unionist marching bands totalling £300,000.

This DUP minister decided to cut £50,000 from the Irish language, supposedly to make efficiency savings. He did this in the midst of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme crisis, which was presided over by other DUP ministers and which will now result in an actual loss to the Northern Executive’s total budget of approximately £500million (and possibly even more). Ultimately, this project will impose an overall cost to local taxpayers of £1.18billion for up to 20 years.

There was absolutely no hint of irony.

The DUP just don’t get it.

DUP have lost the run of themselves

It is increasingly obvious that the DUP have lost the run of themselves within the Northern political institutions.

That’s a widely-held view not only among republicans, nationalists and other unionists but even among some DUP supporters.

The scenes in the Assembly on 19 December were emblematic of the DUP’s contempt for the integrity of the political institutions. The Speaker compromised the neutrality of his office, and the DUP leader and others showed unvarnished arrogance towards other political parties, the wider community, and the significance of the growing political crisis.

Some have suggested that the Líofa decision four days later was an attempt to distract away from the RHI issue. But that misses the crux of what’s going on. The DUP’s latest act of discrimination against the Irish language has actually worsened the deepening crisis.

DUP figures opposed to power-sharing government 

Senior DUP figures are ideologically, attitudinally and culturally opposed to power-sharing and partnership government with Sinn Féin. The only reason they do so is because it’s the only way they can be in government and enjoy the trappings of political power, as they would see it.

But that doesn’t stop some DUP MLAs behaving as if they are in a single-party government, or deluding themselves that the old days of unionist domination at Stormont are back again.

The Fresh Start Agreement only has meaning if it guarantees a new start for the regional and all-Ireland political institutions in terms of how politics and democratic change are being worked and are seen to be delivering.

There has to be a fundamental break with sectarian mindsets and old politics, and an acceptance that the politics of transformation are paramount for all sections of the community.

The process and principles of the Good Friday Agreement cannot be set to the side at the whim of the DUP.

Political accountability; opposition to austerity; defence of public services; stimulating economic growth; and entrenchment of equality, social justice and democratic rights must be at the heart of the political institutions.

The DUP need to make up their mind and decide whether as a party they are committed to the ongoing transformation of Northern society or not.

This much is clear: it is not acceptable for them to continue opposing parity of esteem for the Irish language and Irish identity; promoting institutionalised bigotry; rejecting and ridiculing the need for reconciliation; and treating the legacy of the past as a new battlefield.

None of these issues is negotiable. They are essential to the restoration of public confidence in the political institutions and the political process. This is at the heart of the RHI crisis.

This why DUP leader Arlene Foster should step aside from the First Minister’s office to allow a time-framed, comprehensive, independent investigation – led by an international jurist – to be established.

Political institutions have to deliver a difference

The Northern regional economy is structurally weak. Partition continues to hold back the growth potential of maximum all-island economic integration. Significant patterns of economic and social inequality remain unchanged. 

British Government economic policy has refused to recognise that the special economic and social circumstances of this place demand exceptional strategic economic interventions and investment. Now Brexit will have catastrophic repercussions for investment, trade, productivity and economic stability in the North.

Against that challenging background, the North’s political institutions have to deliver a qualitative difference for our citizens.

Instead, the political process has been damaged by:-

  • The Red Sky scandal;

  • Trading on ambivalent relationships with unionist paramilitaries;

  • The NAMA corruption revelations, which extend right to the very heart of the Northern business and political establishment;

  • And now the RHI crisis which threatens to destabilise the financial basis of local public services for decades as a result of mismanagement at the top of the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment, alongside allegations of abuse, insider trading and aggressive commercial exploitation.

Political leaders and parties in the North need to be above scandal and corruption. They also need to be publicly accountable and capable of demonstrating and reciprocating respect. They should be above reproach, not continuously reproachful towards political opponents.

These are not optional norms or conventions which can be treated on a take it or leave it basis. They matter because they are core to human decency and good politics.

This is not an Orange or Green issue, though some will attempt to create such a diversion.

This is a defining situation for the overall political process, the implications of which are relevant to all citizens and taxpayers.

The strategic lesson of the political instability characterising the North from 2010 onwards is that the peace and political processes cannot be taken for granted.

The Irish and British governments have never internalised that crucial reality.

The political process has now been dragged recklessly by the DUP – culminating with the RHI crisis – towards an unprecedented tipping point.

Widespread public anger

That reality should not be interpreted only through the cloud of widespread public anger (particularly felt among republicans and nationalists) about how too many in the DUP conduct themselves in government.

There is a much bigger problem at the heart of this tipping point.

Political institutions cease to have value when they do not reflect equality, mutual respect and parity of esteem, and have become detached from the lives of the citizens they are meant to serve.

It is inevitable that political institutions and political power which become degraded to ‘game the system’, to engage in ‘one-upmanship’, or to put others down will lose credibility. Those behaviours just become a proxy for domination by another name – the opposite of the principles upon which the Good Friday and all subsequent agreements are based.

Playing fast and loose with political principles, the political process and the political institutions is unsustainable. Eventually, everything unravels.

All of this is so much bigger than the DUP leader’s fitness for office.

There are big decisions to make – and very little time.

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