Patrick Murphy: Stormont needs major surgery, not another sticking plaster

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy is an Irish News columnist and former director of Belfast Institute for Further and Higher Education.

Should MLAs be allowed to return to Stormont if talks produce only a sticking plaster rather than major surgery? Picture by Justin Kernoghan.
Should MLAs be allowed to return to Stormont if talks produce only a sticking plaster rather than major surgery? Picture by Justin Kernoghan.

TELL the truth: do you miss Stormont? I mean do you really miss it so much that you lie awake at night pining for its return? If you do, you are either an MLA or you need to get out more.

The rest of us appear to be getting along fine without it. That does not mean that we are making wonderful social and economic progress.

But apart from some issues, such as the new bowel cancer test - which civil servants could be empowered to implement - society here does not appear significantly disadvantaged by the absence of an ineffective Assembly.

That is not to suggest that we do not need a regional parliament. We do. We just do not need the one we have, particularly since all 90 MLAs are still being paid, although they have not worked since March.

You may wish to tell your MLA that doing TV interviews is not work. It is just political posing. Oh, and you might ask if he/she will sign a declaration before the next election promising not to accept a salary until Stormont begins to function.

Perhaps you believe that Stormont is wonderful and that we need it 'up and running'. But it has been 'up and running' in its present form for 10 years.

A popular test for its success, especially in Dublin, is that Sinn Féin and the DUP are 'working together'. But this evaluates process rather than product. So what has Stormont produced?

In fairness, quite a lot: scandals over Nama, Red Sky, Charter NI and RHI; secretly appointed special advisers; subsidised food and some dodgy expenses claims.

It reduced funding for social welfare, health, education and housing, gerrymandered the entire local government system in a DUP/SF carve-up and left the £60 million social investment fund largely unspent.

It often compensated for failure with an aggressive public relations campaign - one of its final acts was to appoint a highly experienced press officer - and it complained about media criticism.

You might remember that this column was regularly criticised by Sinn Féin for often being a lone voice in arguing that Stormont was not delivering. "A diatribe of negativity" was the criticism I enjoyed most, although "anti-Agreement element" will always be close to my heart.

Now Sinn Féin tells us that, after 10 years, it discovered that Stormont was not working. The problem was initially identified by the party membership, which pushed the leadership to end its declining electoral fortunes.

But instead of advocating an end to Stormont's institutionalised sectarianism, the leadership claimed that only Sinn Féin was getting a raw deal and demanded "equality".

Thus it missed the opportunity to recognise - as republicans might be expected to - that Stormont also failed to deliver for unionists, particularly the working class. But there was no demand for equality for the poor, the marginalised, the under-educated and those on hospital waiting lists.

It was not just that Stormont did not work - it cannot work, for at least three reasons.

Firstly, it was primarily designed to accommodate sectarianism, rather than deliver services, using the ridiculous argument that sectarian war could be resolved by sectarian politics. As a result, something as simple as academic selection became a sectarian issue.

Britain helped to foster the sectarian war with agents and informers on both sides. Today its support for a sectarian peace - gratefully agreed by the locals - gives it power in Ireland, particularly over Brexit, while the Irish revel in sectarian division. We never learned much from our own history.

Secondly, Stormont just aimed to exist, not to achieve. It had no agreed ideology, no common economic values, no concept of social policy and no idea of whether it was a temporary or permanent model of government.

It also lacked necessary economic support, similar to the USA's Marshall Plan in 1945, which gave $130 billion at current values to rebuild war-ravaged Europe.

Finally, with due respect to everyone involved, Stormont had a scarcity of talent. It hardly mattered, because sectarianism requires little ability.

The programmes for government, for example, showed limited understanding of policy formulation and delivery.

So there is little point in trying to revive the Assembly in its present format. We do not need talks about the current Stormont.

We need a new one - a Stormont which tackles rather than encourages sectarianism and is designed for people, not politicians.

The current model requires major surgery, not another sticking plaster. This is unlikely, because it is not in the electoral interests of the major parties to move towards normal politics.

However, without a new approach, Stormont will die. Would you really miss it?