North of Ireland institutions at a defining point

North of Ireland institutions at a defining point

In March 2007 Ian Paisley and I sat side by side and announced the restoration of the political institutions. It was one of many historic little moments that have marked the peace process since 1994.

It was an image that few ever thought they would see. The leader of the DUP – who, sledgehammer in hand, had pledged to smash Sinn Féin and oppose power sharing – doing a deal with Sinn Féin and agreeing to share power.

In the year that followed the genuine friendship that developed between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness was a constant surprise. However, beneath the surface of the DUP others in the leadership of that party and within its grassroots were far from happy. They felt increasingly disconnected from the new Ian Paisley.

The DUP was a party founded on religious intolerance, sectarianism, a belief in the domination of unionism, and a dogged opposition to ending discrimination and inequality. During the decades of conflict it openly colluded with unionist paramilitaries. More than once the DUP leadership led thousands of masked and marching men through the streets of Belfast and of towns across the North. For a time there was the Third Force. This morphed into Ulster Resistance, with its red berets and smuggled weapons from the apartheid South African regime.

But in March 2007, after long and difficult negotiations, all of that was set aside as Ian Paisley committed his party to ‘support and participate fully in government’. This was he said a ‘binding resolution’ and the DUP is ‘committed to playing a full part in all the institutions and delivering the best future.’

The real politick of the peace process had forced a reluctant DUP leadership into agreeing to engage with the political institutions. Not because it had had a Road to Damascus conversion to power sharing but because Ian Paisley and Co. had come to realise that it was the price the DUP had to pay if it wanted to exercise power.

A year later Ian Paisley was gone – removed as leader by the party he had founded and led for almost four decades. In the years since then the DUP has adopted a negative approach to many important issues facing the Executive. At times there has been a calculated and tactical refusal by it to work the Executive in an inclusive, collective and partnership way. Its attitude in government has often been marked by an arrogance that ignores the rights of others.

Sinn Féin has kept faith with the political institutions because we are mandated to do so. For almost ten years Martin McGuinness and our Assembly team have navigated a way through a number of crises and scandals. A lot of good work has been done by the Executive and the Assembly and significant progress has been made on many issues, including on cross border and all-Ireland matters.

On other issues there has been little or no progress. I’m thinking here of the long standing absence of a Bill of Rights.

There has also been a shameful lack of respect accorded to the Irish language and to those citizens who wish to live their lives through Gaeilge. The DUP refuse to agree the introduction and implementation of an Acht na Gaeilge. In more recent months decisions by the Minister for Education have undermined the progress that has been made. The reprehensible decision on the eve of Christmas to cut funding for the Líofa programme is just one example of this. This so-called efficiency saving of £50,000 from one Irish language programme has to be seen in the context of the DUP decision to increase funding for orange marching bands. This disgraceful decision has caused justifiable outrage.

Among other examples of DUP messing have been the decision to renege on the Programme for Government commitment on the Long Kesh site; the DUP’s resistance to the legacy and truth recovery mechanisms of the Stormont House agreement; and the Project Eagle debacle.

These issues, and the previous Christmas time crises, mean that even before the emergence of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal the behaviour of the DUP had already led to a considerable lack of public confidence in the institutions. The RHI scandal and the manner in which the DUP has handled it, has significantly deepened a crisis that already existed.

In addition, if we are to believe the media spin in recent days from ‘DUP sources,’ it would appear that the First Minister Arlene Foster has no intention of stepping aside, even for the four weeks needed for an investigation to produce a preliminary report.

The First Minister is bound to know how damaging her stance is to public confidence.  Yet the DUP chooses to ignore the public outrage over the RHI affair and the potential loss of over half a billion pounds to the Executive’s budget during the next 20 years. At a time when Brexit will see millions stripped from the local economy this substantial loss of revenue will exacerbate an already difficult situation.

The DUP is so wrapped up in its contempt for others that it was prepared to brazen its way through a charade of a debate in the Assembly before Christmas and to knowingly compromise and significantly damage the authority of the Speaker and the Office of First and Deputy First Minister. If Arlene Foster wanted to make a personal statement she should have sought permission from the Assembly to do so and proceeded accordingly.

When the Assembly resumes in less than two weeks a Sinn Féin motion on the RHI scheme will be debated. It is a common sense proposal which comprehensively addresses the many issues which have given rise to public concern. It calls on the First Minister to stand aside in order to facilitate an independent, time-framed, robust and transparent investigation and until a preliminary report is presented. It will also propose that this investigation would be undertaken by an independent judicial figure from outside this jurisdiction and with the power to compel witnesses and documents.

The investigation would examine how the RHI was established and managed; whether it was done ethically, within the law, and ‘in compliance with the standards established in the Ministerial Code of conduct and principles of public life, and conditions of employment for Special Advisors’.

It would look at who gained from the RHI scheme; look at the role of whistle-blowers; investigate all applications, and when completed the report will be made public and ‘will not require agreement of the First and Deputy First Ministers or the Attorney General’.

Over the Christmas break Sinn Féin took ongoing legal advice on the potential efficacy of our proposals. That advice, and we have accepted it, pointed to the need to address in clear terms the issue of compelling persons and papers in any investigation to make it effective. The Sinn Fein motion scheduled for discussion on 16 January has been brought into line with that advice and will be lodged with the Assembly authorities as soon as possible.

I urge the other parties in the Assembly to support this motion.

But whatever the outcome of that debate the reality is that the political institutions have reached a defining point. Neither the public nor Sinn Féin can continue to countenance the manner in which the DUP conduct business within the Executive and the Assembly.

Can this be sorted out? Of course it can. That would require Arlene Foster to do what Peter Robinson did.  She should step aside to facilitate an independent process which gets to the facts of the RHI scandal effectively and quickly. This is a straight forward case. The First Minister has been in office for a relatively short time. If she wants to continue in that office she needs to do the right thing.

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