I joked shortly after the referendum that no one would have believed, in mid-2016, that Northern Ireland would have a stable government and opposition and England would have neither.
Northern Ireland’s problem remains, however, that neither the government nor the opposition has worked out it has to function as a single unit. That is how democratic legislatures work. This means not only that the opposition must function as a coherent unit in order to deny the DUP/SF coalition a majority at the next Assembly election (and thus force a change of Executive), but also that the Executive must so function.
What we now have in Northern Ireland is close to normality. As the First Minister kept reminding us, her party won the election alongside Sinn Fein (admittedly she omits that last bit, but she would do well to remember she cannot govern without her coalition partners!) and thus it has a mandate to govern alongside Sinn Fein (whose seats provide it with the majority in the legislature). That means the Executive must function as a single unit, as it has an Assembly majority on that basis. Just as Scotland’s minority government and Wales’ Lib-Lab coalition provide a single government position on every issue, so must Northern Ireland’s.
Quite obviously, that includes the European Union. The Executive’s job now, taking account of the referendum result both across the UK and within Northern Ireland, is to take a collective position on what Northern Ireland wants from the UK-EU negotiations about to take place. It has failed to do this.
Thus far, we have seen a Finance Minister join the Scottish and Welsh Finance Ministers to suggest some form of united front (no one is quite sure for what, however); and we have had the somewhat embarrassing farce of Northern Ireland’s Agriculture Minister going to the EU with a begging bowl saying how vital EU funding is for farmers here despite having advocated a vote to leave. It is an incoherent mess (and there is, at last, some hint of the SDLP and Alliance working together at least to point that out).
The First Minister and deputy First Minister may lead different Assembly teams but they share the same office – an office which has responsibility for European Union affairs as they impact on Northern Ireland. So what is the settled view of that office? It has no entitlement to present more than one view. Its role is to reach consensus on what precisely Northern Ireland wants from the forthcoming negotiations, and then to argue for it using all the channels available. There is no reason, for example, that my own proposals should cause either party any significant problem (after all, even a Sinn Fein Minister has muttered about Corporation Tax now having to go lower than in the rest of the island for it to be worthwhile).
Whatever, a single coherent Executive position is necessary. Now.