Over to the two big beasts
The formation of a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland should be regarded as a positive development, in view of the fact that failure would have triggered fresh elections along with attendant political instability. The absence of the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP and Alliance from the Executive is, however, more problematic as it represents a step away from an inclusive administration towards traditional-style opposition.
The Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin dominate the Executive as never before with the sole outsider, Independent Unionist Claire Sugden, accepting the position of Justice Minister on the nomination of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. Apart from the Executive Office, composed of First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster and Mr McGuinness, eight senior ministries – three fewer than in the previous Executive – were shared out. The DUP took four and and Sinn Féin three.
After years of bickering and crisis-ridden governments that caused the electorate to become disillusioned and frustrated, there is hope the two big beasts of Northern Ireland politics can agree to cooperate on development, taxation and economic matters. That, in turn, could ease social tensions and provide a more benign environment in which to consider issues surrounding flags, emblems and parades. Cooperation would also encourage greater voter engagement as the recent turnout of 55 per cent had fallen from 70 per cent in 1998.
As a response to what they regarded as excessive control and political jobbery by the DUP and Sinn Féin within the Executive, the UUP and the SDLP opted to remain out of government in order to emphasise their distinct identities and to broaden their appeal. They were later joined by the Alliance Party and this new political configuration, with the three smaller parties confronting the two largest ones, is likely to produce lively debate within the Assembly.
Whatever about the impact of opposition-style politics, there is no question about which party leader is in the ascendancy. Having won a comprehensive victory in the Assembly elections, taking 38 seats to Sinn Féin’s 28 and repeating the DUP’s best-ever results six months after taking over from Peter Robinson, Arlene Foster is in an unassailable position. At a time when her critics warned that Mr McGuinness could become First Minister because of Sinn Féin’s dominance, she demolished that threatening spectre and created the space in which progress can be made. Her commitment immediately after the election results became known was “to get things done”. Six months on from what Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers described as “an increasingly dysfunctional Executive” that would represent real progress.