Patrick Murphy: Stormont isn’t working because the Good Friday Agreement isn’t working - we need a new system of government

Sinn Féin and the DUP won’t back reform because the current arrangement guarantees them eternal political power

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy

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

Chris Heaton-Harris  speaks to the media after  holding  talks with Stormont parties amid efforts to restore devolved government
The five biggest parties are meeting the secretary of state separately
It follows talks in December in which the UK government offered a £3.3bn financial package.
Picture Colm Lenaghan.
Secretary of state Chris Heaton-Harris is seeking inspiration about what to do next about the Stormont stalemate (Colm Lenaghan)

Oh good, the secretary of state is going to make a decision. Yes, Chris Heaton-Harris (HH) has promised he will decide what to do if the DUP does not return to Stormont. He has not said when he will decide, so that’s another decision-in-waiting for a man who has a fine track record in indecision.

So what are his options? All decision-making begins with two choices: do nothing or do something. Since he arrived here, HH has done nothing and, in fairness, he has done it rather well. He could continue to do nothing until the British general election, which will probably allow him to pass the problem to an incoming Labour government.

Labour will return Britain as close to EU membership as makes no difference and the Windsor Agreement will then become irrelevant. The problem of Stormont’s system of government, however, will still exist.

HH’s alternative to doing nothing is to do something. Einstein said that if he had an hour to solve a problem, he would spend 55 minutes on the problem and five minutes on the solution.

So what exactly is HH’s problem? If he thinks it is the DUP’s boycott of Stormont, he will believe he has a choice between a Stormont election and some type of rule from London.

An election would produce the usual race to be the biggest party. (Here we labour under democracy in its most primitive form). Its outcome would change nothing in terms of the collapse of our public services.

Rule from London could be old-style direct rule, or some form of indirect rule, whereby Stormont becomes a type of citizens’ assembly and advises the British government on policy direction here. Since Stormont’s five main parties have a fine record in implementing Tory policies, that would be little different from how the Assembly has been working.

Despite nationalism’s sabre-rattling, one option not available to HH is some form of joint authority with Dublin. There is no legal provision for that and in any case Dublin, like London, has enough difficulties of its own.

However, if HH analyses the problem further he will find that the real issue is not the DUP’s absence, it is the system of compulsory coalition in which such an absence collapses the government. You can criticise the DUP, but they are merely exploiting Stormont’s self-serving, sectarian system for their own advantage, just as SF has done.

Despite nationalism’s sabre-rattling, one option not available to Chris Heaton-Harris is some form of joint authority with Dublin. There is no legal provision for that and in any case Dublin, like London, has enough difficulties of its own

It is quite clear that we need a new system of government. Margaret Thatcher was elected on the back of the famous Saatchi & Saatchi poster of 1979: “Labour isn’t working”. Thursday’s public sector strikes showed that Stormont is not working (whether it meets or not) because the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is not working.

Yes, it is heresy to suggest that but, like religion, the GFA is based more on faith than reason.

Any proposal to abandon, or even revise it, is met with Paisley-style cries of, “Never, Never, Never”, from SF and the DUP, who are guaranteed eternal political power through the Agreement.

It also allows them to secretly carve up the allocation of ratepayers’ money in their own sectarian interests. (In case you did not know, the SF-DUP stand-off is just a phoney war.)

So HH’s problem is rather like Flann O’Brien’s novel, The Third Policeman, in which a police officer spends his time trying to solve the mystery of stolen bicycles which he himself is stealing. HH’s government, along with Dublin, Washington and Stormont’s main parties, are trying to solve the problem of the GFA which they have all created.

No matter what HH decides, unless the ethos of the GFA is dismantled, he will not solve the problem of how Stormont’s system of cynical, sectarian opportunism has effectively betrayed the people here. If he were to heed Einstein’s advice, he might discover the true nature of the problem facing him.

Alternatively, he could just ask the five main Stormont parties to go off with him and steal another bicycle.