Sinn Féin greatly dislikes the phrase “problem party” when it is applied to it. At one level, it genuinely does not understand why. The short-term reason, to be clear, is that there are only two parties required to enter the Executive – and Sinn Féin is one of them. The longer term reason is that Sinn Féin is, fundamentally, not a party of government; nor, really, is the DUP.
A lot of energy is being spent by the commentariat on the apparently short-term issues. Allegedly, according to the Greens and others, the whole thing comes down to Irish Language legislation. Believing that is a mistake.
Of course, were the Irish Language issue satisfactorily compromised upon, and the odds remain that it will be (albeit somewhat nearer Christmas than now), then the route would probably be clear for the formation of an all-party Executive. There would be much relief (and slapping of backs). Yet none of the problems would really have been resolved.
There remain three main and fundamental problems. First, there is a lack of respect between the two largest parties (that is, basically, why it needs to be an all-party Executive); and this works both ways. For every “curry my yoghurt” there is a “sunny side of the street”. Neither party can even really begin to see the other party’s point on some of these issues – largely because it does not want to.
Second, there is a structural problem. Let us again remind ourselves that the fundamental issue is not that we do not have an Assembly, but that we do not have an Executive. On this, we should move quickly to clarify that Ministers remain in post on a caretaker basis not until polling day but until the next Ministers are appointed; that would have calmed much of the current crisis in administration. We should then move, perhaps less quickly but nevertheless without delay, to a situation where voluntary coalition at least becomes an option (I have outlined in the past how this may work).
Third, there is a cultural problem which goes right back to the electorate itself. Voters still seem to regard Stormont as a county council, with no serious powers. Right now, as I write, absolutely contrary to what the political bubble commentariat seem to suggest, there is in fact no sense of crisis among the general public whatsoever. That there are no politicians in devolved institutions to manage budgets, push forward health reform or administer changes to the school estate should be seen as a crisis, but in fact it is not. Most people when they went to the polls in March, as would be the case if they had to again in October, fundamentally do not believe they are elected a government which will take decisions affecting their daily lives on all the key domestic issues, from hospitals to schools. Yet they are. As a result, we get parties charged with government who have no interest whatsoever in actually governing – and voters willing to give them a mandate not to govern.
Northern Ireland spent over a generation without a devolved government and thus became used to being governed by outsiders – culturally, this runs very deep and thus government by outsiders, far from being seen as the democratic outrage it is, is still in fact what is expected. That, at our very core, is the problem. It is why the next “talks process” should involve far more than politicians.