In all the talk about the restoration of a Stormont Assembly it is assumed that it is essential for the DUP to share power with Sinn Fein, the Alliance Party and the UUP. The SDLP are no longer in the mix.
Sinn Fein wants the First Minister role, desperately. Alliance wants to be relevant and be able to blame everyone else for why things don’t work.
The UUP believes that Stormont is needed to provide ‘leadership and governance’ – though leadership and governance this past twenty-five years has been in short supply, with few achievements of note (and none that spring to mind).
The DUP give every impression of wanting to return to Stormont, while also being hard to persuade that the time is right for that move.
The choice for the DUP is forever stated in simple terms – enter Stormont or something bad will happen; fear uncertainty, because uncertainty is surely failure and instability.
Other than that, the reasons given as to why it is essential for Stormont to return aren’t that great.
Nothing would be done by Stormont that would make one jot of difference about the cost of living – a free something here and there, and virtuous, expensive and pointless gestures elsewhere.
Stormont can do nothing about bank rates except write a few impotent letters expressing blah-de-blah.
Nothing on food prices. In fact nothing that is not already thought through and paid for by Westminster, such as the price of energy.
Costs will continue to rise as the NI Protocol is fully implemented – albeit with the heavy costs postponed until 2025 with Sunak long gone. The costs of doing business with Northern Ireland will increase, or goods will simply disappear from the shelves or as an option to buy online.
In any case, the solution, offered by all the Parties, is that Westminster needs to increase the NI budget. Less clear are the plans that would be implemented to both salve the cost of living and set on a road to recovery the health service, schools, infrastructure and all the things about which little has been done beyond consultation and ‘strategy’ papers for decades.
The DUP have talked about changing how Westminster funds the NI budget – moving away from the long-standing Barnett formula for matching, proportionately, spending announced at Westminster.
Does the DUP believe it would gain any political return on a claim to having secured extra funding? Every other Party is making a pitch for more cash for Stormont, ergo every other Party will claim success for securing the extra cash. The DUP should know there is zero political gain for securing that extra cash.
The DUP ‘secured’ £1 billion additional funding for Stormont arising from the 2017 Confidence & Supply arrangement with May’s Conservative Government, albeit with no Stormont existing for most of the period of the arrangement. Something health, something broadband network, something infrastructure?
Health cash was swallowed into the money pit that is the five Health Trusts and the rest.
Yes, all eleven local government areas are now in the top twenty areas for UK superfast broadband coverage. Few voters will recall how, where or when, or care, or understand the benefit.
One item though, yet unspent, stands out. The 2017 arrangement assured £140million for the long-awaited York Street Interchange – essential to reduce congestion and smooth traffic flow between motorway systems.
The money was available, but the SDLP Minister found there was a need for further consultation: for ‘placemaking’. Indeed. More likely, delay enabled the SDLP to prevent the DUP making political capital out of securing the funding as a positive outcome of its deal with the Conservative Government – particularly as the 2022 election loomed.
This should tell the DUP that unless there is a very specific agreed programme for government any resumed Stormont will continue with business as usual and spaff the cash.
The DUP has another choice, however. It could accept that being in the Executive does little but diminish any politician who wants to get things done. It could accept that the other parties mostly make decisions on how to delay or frustrate the DUP; that there will be no credit for the DUP in any delivery and all the blame for everything else.
Other than the titles and extra money, the DUP will achieve very little inside the Executive, because the Executive will achieve very little. There will be constant opposition to anything the DUP suggests, and a majority in the chamber to make sure the DUP is neutered.
The best choice might be to simply step back from the Executive and let the UUP share the top office with Sinn Fein, with Alliance in the choir stalls.
There are benefits for the DUP being the Assembly’s principal and principled Opposition.
The DUP would not have to make the Protocol work, in opposition – it will be outvoted at the end of 2024 on its continuance, and to be in Government would leave it with the responsibility and political fallout of having utterly failed to stop it being implemented rigorously by sometime in 2025 and beyond.
The DUP would be able to question and challenge delivery by the other three parties – it won’t be short of material. The Committee system could be used more astutely. Numbers in the Assembly assure nothing would pass without cross-community consent; no less power than being inside the Executive.
However the DUP might tell itself that a return to Stormont is justified, that should not mean a return to the Executive. Opposition is noble and has the potential to be reinvigorating.
Taking a step back is sometimes necessary before being able to leap forward.
A version of this post appeared in the News Letter