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Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Glittering vista of devolution takes shape

So, with the elections out of the way, attention now turns to the formation of an Executive. This is due to happen next Monday, and Big Ian is currently involved in a game of chicken with our beautifully groomed proconsul as to whether the 26 March deadline will be met. Paisley says the date isn’t set in stone. Hain says it is, and what’s more the date is enshrined in law.

Actually it matters very little either way. Hain knows that the law can be changed in ten minutes via an Order in Council, and Big Ian will want to push the process past 26 March just to prove that he’s calling the shots. But there likely will be an Executive set up at some point – whether it lasts is another matter.

What, then, will be the shape of the Executive? I’m not talking about personnel here, but about what, if anything, it will do. Some clues are hidden in what the Brits gave the DUP at St Andrew’s, in a significant rewriting of the Good Friday Agreement. Under the GFA, for instance, both “communities” in the Assembly had to vote for the slate of First and Deputy First Minister. That has now changed, so the DUP won’t have to vote for Martin McGuinness. In other words, they won’t have to vote confidence in the very government they will be leading. And this is before you take into account Robbo’s pledge to have a battle a day in the Executive – presumably, if nationalist ministers don’t oblige, the DUP will invent a battle.

The other significant concession at St Andrew’s was that the actions of ministers would be subject to the approval of the Assembly, as opposed to the virtual autonomy ministers had under the GFA. Taken together with the provision for weighted voting, this means the DUP – with 36 of the 108 seats, but the majority of unionist MLAs – can not only veto legislation, but also non-legislative actions of ministers. It doesn’t take a genius to foresee that the DUP would vote against any proposal of a Provo minister, even one they agree with, just out of badness. In other words, we will have the content if not the form of majority rule.

This leads on to the question of what the Executive will do. The proconsul has been holding before the punters a glittering vista of a devolved administration abolishing water charges, putting a hold on the rates revaluation and doing all sorts of wonderful things with the big financial package Gordo is offering us. On closer scrutiny, the water charge and rates revaluation would only be mitigated, not stopped altogether, and on Gordo’s past form, it’s a fair bet that much of the money he announces will be money he’s already announced.

There are incentives, though, for the DUP to get into an Executive, which have less to do with what devolution might achieve and more to do with what it might prevent. First on their list is the Acht Gaeilge. It doesn’t matter that the Brits have already significantly watered down the proposed Language Act – even a symbolic official recognition of Irish is enough to enrage the Prodocracy. But, if devolution is restored, the Acht Gaeilge goes to the Assembly, where the DUP will veto it.

Likewise post-primary selection. Readers will recall that when Martin McGuinness was education minister, just as he was being dragged out the door he signed a directive abolishing the 11+. Ever since, direct rule ministers have faffed about the issue, failing to put into place an alternative system. Now, this school year just going will be the last to have the 11+, so what will a devolved Assembly do? Sammy the Streaker has laid it out starkly – unless the two nationalist parties knuckle under and reverse their opposition to selection, the Assembly will block any proposed non-selective system, thus throwing the secondary sector into chaos and allowing individual grammar schools to set their own selection criteria. This will actually be much worse than the 11+, which is at least a structured system.

So we must ask, what are nationalist ministers, in particular the Provos, going to do in this situation? As I see it, they have two options. One is to join the Executive on the DUP’s terms – at least until Big Ian figures out a way to kick them out – while bumming and blowing about how, by doing so, they are calling the DUP’s bluff. This is what one might term the Andytown News approach. The other option – which could be combined with the first – is to lobby the Brits to impose progressive measures over the head of the devolved administration, because they sure as hell won’t get any through Stormont.

Either way, the argument that a restoration of Stormont will solve all our problems looks thinner by the day.

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