It was put to me by one correspondent that the Alliance Party had no mandate even to enter negotiations around the formation of the next Executive with only 7% of the vote.
Which was odd, because as a Nationalist you would think he would have known that the Independent Alliance had just entered government in Dublin with just 4% of the vote.
The confusion? Northern Ireland politics is almost becoming “normal”. This is indeed quite disorientating!
It is quite “normal” for a coalition which wants either to boost its numbers in the legislature or indeed to resolve an internal dispute to seek additional Ministers from smaller parties (or even outside the legislature altogether in many cases). It is also quite “normal” for smaller parties or even individuals to suggest that, if they are to enter government, that government should follow at least some of their policies – getting your policies implemented is the whole point, after all. It is also “normal” for larger parties to speak to a range of smaller parties to establish the best fit, if any. Such is the “normal” flow of any coalition negotiation. (Note that the Executive is now bound by the principles of collective cabinet responsibility, which was not previously the case.)
Some of the talk around Northern Ireland’s process, therefore, has been bizarre. The Ulster Unionists were perfectly entitled, judging that they would not attain the Ministry they wanted as part of the negotiation and that their interests would be better served regrouping and offering a clearer alternative, to announce early that they had no interest in participating. The Alliance Party was perfectly entitled to respond to an invitation, optionally, to join the Executive, and to propose what any Executive it joined might do. The SDLP was perfectly entitled to participate in the policy part of the negotiation and then come to a judgement that it lacked sufficient detail for them to participate and more fully. The DUP and Sinn Féin were perfectly entitled to talk to non-qualifying parties to check if there was enough common ground to justify ceding a bit in return for a larger, more stable coalition.
No one “flounced off”, no one “made demands”, no one “backed out”.
What we saw and are seeing is, of course, very odd. It is called normal politics…