Sunday, 10 January 2010

Can Northern Irish Devolution Survive Last Week?

Of course currently all eyes are on just one Northern Irish political family. Of course at the start of last month that family consisted of 2 MPs, 2 MLAs and 2 Castlereagh Borough Councillors (yeah Gareth Robinson also represents the East Ward), not forgetting the post of First Minister.

But as Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward said "devolution is bigger than one man", so with the fallout of Northern Ireland's first family can devolution survive? I would say yes.

My reason for this stems from the fact that a few years ago even my jaw scraped the floor. It was the occasion of TV coverage of Ian Paisley sitting down laughing with Gerry Adams, with Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson in attendance at the start of the current partnership. This was for anyone used to Northern Irish politics the sign that the will of the people could overcome the will of the individuals concerned. To have the DUP and Sinn Fein sitting down in the one room, promising to sit together in power was something that many of us only dreamed off and turned off in our waking moments.

Therefore whether Peter is still ensconced office of the First Minister at the end of this week, or the DUP are preparing to select a successor the process will carry on. As I blogged earlier the most talked about alternative is Sammy Wilson which may not be everyone's ideal as a successor, and certainly isn't mine, but other options are of a somewhat similar ilk. The fact is that if the DUP do appoint a replacement First Minister or keep Robinson the politics of Northern Ireland will keep on moving, because the people want it to.

The biggest obstacle, that with hindsight it now appears that Robinson hasn't been 100% focused on, is the devolution of policing and justice. The current diversion may have been putting this on the back burner, but it is indeed one area (after many such) that Northern Ireland parties used to stare across a big divide over. The distance has been cut down somewhat but there are still, as ever, some of the biggest obstacles still outstanding.

Sinn Fein are wanting immediate transfer of these powers but the DUP have been stalling claiming it could only happen on the condition of community confidence. As recently as Thursday the DUP chief whip Maurice Morrow said he didn't expect them to the transferred in the lifetime of this assembly. Sinn Fein are calling for the Secretary of State to act as Guarantor of the St. Andrews' Agreement on this issue.

So whatever the outcome of this week I see Northern Irish devolution carrying on, though we need to see some joint up government starting in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. The fact that Peter Robinson wasn't willing on Friday to meet with Martin McGuinness while this crisis was developing shows that the relationship is still only one of political convenience. It needs to become one of political expediency for the good of the people that the Northern Irish politicians have been elected to serve.

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