NI Assembly resignation: Lone wolf or sacrificial lamb?

Partisan politicking risks undermining use of committee as an independent investigative tool

The government that runs Northern Ireland is not exactly a coalition. Sinn Féin and the DUP are not exactly partners, although they share power and sit together in the Northern Ireland Executive. But the unwritten rules of coalition politics do apply, at least to a degree. Not least the rule that says "thou shalt not do down or undermine one's fellow executive member", no matter how much one dislikes his politics and how much one may have had to do him down in the course of election campaigns.

Of course, it happens. And when caught out, as Sinn Féin’s Daithi McKay has been for “coaching” a witness to the Assembly committee he chairs, there is a predictable storm of righteous indignation and talk of “bad faith”. And in the interests of a facade of harmony an exercise in damage limitation is undertaken – Sinn Féin insists it had no hand or act in anything untoward, and McKay falls on his sword with copious party assurances, however implausible, that he acted alone, a “lone wolf”.

In truth, McKay's insistence that his words of advice to loyalist whistleblower James Bryson were no more than an "inappropriate" means of helping the "truth" get out, have some justification. What we are concerned with here is a political blunder, albeit of some significance, no more. A breakdown in trust between the two ruling parties that is of political, but not legal, concern, and largely to them. Suggestions of criminality and calls for the police to investigate the two men's brief emailed exchanges are nonsensical, as no doubt the DUP is well aware.

In the published correspondence there is no suggestion that McKay, or his party colleague Thomas O'Hara, encouraged Bryson to lie or mislead the committee, though they were clearly keen to have him air any "dirt" he might have on First Minister Peter Robinson and sought to help him avoid potential procedural pitfalls in doing so. And so, Bryson, using the privilege which the committee confers, managed to finger the DUP leader without any supporting evidence.


It is arguable that in advising him how to do that, McKay strayed from his notionally independent role of committee chairman into partisan politicking, an offence for which his fellow committee members feel rightly aggrieved. That he should step aside from the chair was just and appropriate. His resignation from the assembly seems a heavy price to pay, but, as SDLP leader Colm Eastwood put it rather nicely, an embarrassed Sinn Féin "don't do lone wolves, they do scapegoats". And with this act of political ruthlessness, or admirable manifestation of its strict discipline, however one sees it, the party's relationship with the DUP will be restored.

The summer political doldrums have a tendency to whip storms in teacups into full-blown gales, and this squall will pass. But it may well leave MLAs and their committees with a credibility problem over their role as investigative tools. Both the main parties would do well to try to find means of addressing that challenge.