Alex Kane: Even if assembly is rebooted, it will take time to restore government

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is an Irish News columnist and political commentator and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

The latest bid to have the Stormont institutions restored on Wednesday failed as the DUP continued to veto the election of a speaker.
The latest bid to have the Stormont institutions restored on Wednesday failed as the DUP continued to veto the election of a speaker. The latest bid to have the Stormont institutions restored on Wednesday failed as the DUP continued to veto the election of a speaker.

I don’t think there was anyone in the assembly chamber on Wednesday who actually believed—even for a moment—that the DUP would give the nod of approval to the appointment of a speaker and pave the way to the formation of a new executive.

That said, the attempt wasn’t, as the DUP tried to insist, a political stunt. The DUP MLAs are receiving salaries and expenses and it is important that those MLAs are held to account in the only way possible at the moment.

The background to the moment is a grim one. Crisis is piling upon crisis and just about everyone is likely to be hit by the impact of rising inflation, rising food, fuel and energy bills, a potential recession and a reduction in purchasing power. Many will suddenly find themselves meeting the definition of ‘fuel poverty’ and while I think the ‘heating or eating’ line is too carelessly bandied about it is nonetheless true that hardship will be a daily reality for hundreds of thousands. The Just About Managing (JAMs) demographic identified by Theresa May a few years ago is morphing into NAMAs—Not Actually Managing At All.

But, so far, there has been no obvious pressure on the DUP to row back on its manifesto pledge not to ‘return to business as usual’ until the protocol issue had been resolved. The last opinion poll, in early June, suggested that of the unionists who voted in May, 92 per cent DUP, 96 per cent TUV and 33 per cent UUP supported refusing to enter an executive until the protocol had been removed or very significantly amended. Also, not a single unionist MLA has broken ranks and made the case for rebooting the executive.

Another poll is due in a few weeks and it’s possible, if the economic crisis has expanded and increasing numbers of people are beginning to struggle, that there may be some pressure on the DUP to demonstrate flexibility and find a way of allowing at least some assembly business to take place. By then we may also have a clearer idea of what is happening to the protocol bill and how long it could be before it completes its parliamentary journey and in what form it emerges.

At this point it looks like we could be well into 2023 before there’s something resembling clarity, which means, assuming the DUP don’t budge, there won’t be an executive before next spring. The other problem for the DUP is a possible second election towards the end of this year: and another election in which its main pitch is, ‘we’re doing nothing until we get the protocol dumped’ would, I think, be more likely to galvanise Sinn Féin’s electorate rather than the DUP’s.

And even if the protocol bill does succeed and the government shreds the existing rules, it could be quite some time before we have a new set of rules which will bring the clarity, consistency, confidence and certainty which businesses value much more than anything else. Worth noting, too, that the government will want a cast-iron guarantee from the DUP that it will, in fact, appoint a deputy first minister if the protocol issue is resolved. I make that point because there are sections of unionism/loyalism which clearly don’t want to appoint a deputy before a second election—on the back of a successful resolution to the protocol—gives the DUP a chance to sneak a couple of extra seats and bypass Sinn Féin.

Another thing worth bearing in mind is that even if the assembly and executive had been rebooted on Wednesday it wouldn’t mean an immediate resumption of government. We still don’t have a collectively agreed programme for government—and haven’t had one since 2016. Actually, since the 2016 mandate only lasted until January 2017, there’s a good argument to be made that there hasn’t been a programme for government since 2011.

I think the position of both the UUP and Alliance is that they want to discuss and agree a programme before they make a final decision about whether or not they will join the DUP and SF in an executive: or, do what they did in 2016, when Alliance wouldn’t take justice (opening the door to the excellent Claire Sugden) and the UUP and SDLP formed the first officially recognised opposition.

My gut instinct is that the UUP would like to stay if it could keep Robin Swann in situ. But—and I have no inside track on the issue—Naomi Long and Alliance might prove more useful as the leader and lead party of opposition—not least because I think the relationship between the DUP and SF in the next executive could be epically awful.

Anyway, I do hope that the four parties entitled to seats in the next executive will (if it isn’t already happening below the radar—which I don’t think it is) start talking to each other about a programme for government and be ready to move fast when (if) the decision to restore the executive is taken.