As it happens, I sympathised with the DUP’s call for an Assembly adjournment last week and I do so again today. The Assembly is dysfunctional, and it has reached the end of the road. It should be adjourned until it can function properly.
However, that requires not just a new structure, but a new culture. That new culture will require a new agreement, which will take rather more than four weeks. So be it. It is time to repair our political institutions properly, not just engage in quick fixes.
To repair the political institutions properly, we need to define the fundamental problem – or, to be specific, the fundamental cause of the problems.
I would suggest that the fundamental cause is this: we have not yet become a democracy.
This is a cultural thing, and it is founded upon the basic acceptance that in a democracy you make your case respectfully and peacefully to influence decisions and to be elected to make them. A cornerstone of this is that, on any given decision or in any given election, you may lose.
It remains the case that too many people involved in our current “democracy” do not accept this basic point that you may lose. The abuse of the petition of concern is an obvious example – for example, there is a clear majority in the popularly elected Assembly for moving forward with welfare reform but a Nationalist/Green petition of concern has stopped it; this failure to respect the clear majority is costing us public sector jobs, university places, voluntary sector programmes and so on. There are also more blatant examples – Unionist politicians were only too pleased to join with paramilitary leaders during protests (leading to inevitable mayhem and severe economic damage) against a democratic decision of Belfast City Council. It is absolutely fair and reasonable in a democracy to argue that a particular decision is wrong (including through organised protest), and indeed to pledge to overturn it if given the mandate to do so; however, it is not fair and reasonable in response to abuse the system to block the will of a democratically elected body or to take action which will inevitably lead to mayhem.
Most fundamentally of all, politicians continue to tell their “own side” that they should have preferential treatment; essentially that “democracy” is only for the other side. Thus Sinn Fein claims that “dedicated Republicans and supporters of the peace process” should never be arrested (and they often get their way – Seamus Mallon is quite right to be surprised no one has ever been arrested for cross-border fuel smuggling); and Unionists claim that gangland murders carried out by “Republicans” are a particular problem, whereas those carried out by anyone else are irrelevant (and indeed they are quite happy to make common cause, even as part of a single Assembly or Council group, with representatives of active paramilitary groups as long as they are on the right “side”).
So, what do we do?
But we do not just talk; we have a clear agenda for those talks. That agenda has three items – and here I have some sympathy with the Ulster Unionists (notwithstanding their outrageous hypocrisy and sectarian bias on the issue, noted above), because the first item on that agenda has to be removing paramilitary influence from politics and policing. The second should be reform of the institutions so that decisions of the popularly elected Assembly stand even if some oppose them (most obviously in the form of a proper opposition, but that is by no means the only issue – we need a cultural shift to accepting that sometimes democratic decisions go against you, as well as towards greater general transparency). The third should be a financial and economic agreement – even if the first two options could be delivered, it is impossible for democracy to function if the electorate is not given a clear choice between realistic options about what they need to pay into the pot for public services and how much funding is available for them (put simply, there is a choice between higher public spending and higher taxes on one hand, or lower public spending and lower taxes on the other).
It is disappointing that, 17 years on from the Agreement, we will still need the two Governments to come and hold our hand through this process, but it is obvious we do. Northern Ireland is only nominally a democracy; we have not yet developed a democratic culture where people make the link between those they elect and the quality of policy and services they receive, and where debates are had fairly and decisions are made clearly.
In other words, we still need help to become a democracy – a real democracy. It will take more than four weeks.