The DUP likes to play up the fact it is responsible for the 2006 Agreement rather than the 1998 version. 2006 was, apparently, a fairer deal, not least because it had more to say about support for… wait for it… the Rule of Law and Policing.
Indeed, after the 2006 Agreement, a Ministerial Code was inserted for all Executive Ministers, whose Pledge of Office requires: “uphold[ing of] the rule of law based as it is on the fundamental principles of fairness, impartiality and democratic accountability, including support for policing“.
Last Summer, DUP Ministers (endorsed by their UUP allies) failed to do this, however. They chose instead to endorse paraders who had breached legally binding Parades Commission determinations, and thus failed the uphold the Rule of Law.
In fact the text of the Agreement goes further, including: “We believe that the essential elements of support for law and order include endorsing fully the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the criminal justice system, actively encouraging everyone in the community to co-operate fully with the PSNI in tackling crime in all areas and actively supporting all the policing and criminal justice institutions, including the Policing Board”.
Angrily confronting police lines on behalf of flags protesters causing disruption is “actively encouraging everyone in the community to co-operate fully with the PSNI“, is it? Directly accusing the PSNI of being “heavy-handed” without providing evidence through the channels of independent investigation available is “supporting all the policing institutions“, is it?
The Rule of Law is fundamental to democracy; and includes support for the Police’s role in upholding and even enforcing that law – whether or not you happen to agree with it. If you wish to change that law, you do so through the democratic institutions, including by election. It is basic stuff – and, in Northern Ireland, it is constitutional stuff. Ministers are prohibited, constitutionally, from opposing the Rule of Law, including from opposing policing.
Which begs an obvious question: why are DUP Ministers still in the Executive?
The practical answer is that, bizarrely, although decisions by Ministers may be subject to Judicial Review, blatant breaches of the Ministerial Code are not (instead, they are determined by the parties themselves). The idea was that Sinn Fein would inevitably be the party to breach them, and that the DUP would then bring the institutions down. With the DUP now actually in breach and thus both the largest parties out of the running (and the UUP safely tucked into the DUP’s bosom), that leaves the Alliance Party and the SDLP – and the latter seems to have fallen asleep.
The Alliance Party is marked out from the other four by two things: firstly and obviously, its cross-community credentials; secondly and equally importantly, its consistent and absolute support for the Rule of Law at all times since 1970. The party cannot and will not collude with a system which blocks or even hinders the Rule of Law, as that is fundamentally undemocratic. No democratic party will tolerate a system which leaves people making the law while also endorsing those who are breaking the law.
The timetable is already clear. The DUP has set in motion chaos in Mid-Ulster, by selection of a joint candidate in a way designed to turn the whole campaign into a bitter re-opening of past wounds; the DUP has set in motion chaos in Belfast, with yet another flags dispute deliberately set in train for early May; the DUP has set in motion chaos around parades, with no support for enforcement of parades determinations or the general public’s right to go about their business (for example, to get home from work or attend a football match). What democrat could then continue to tolerate their presence in government?