This is a letter which I sent to the Impartial Reporter this week. Unfortunately the version which appears in today’s paper has been edited and in the process has lost the main point – that we should explore the possibility of voluntary coalition for the Northern Ireland Executive.
As last week’s Impartial Reporter so vividly chronicled, our local services, especially the vital healthcare that we depend upon throughout our lives, are under severe threat. Many of us, from a range of political parties, are campaigning as individuals to save them. But without Ministers, without an Assembly and without access to our full budget (never mind the elusive extra billion plus) it is an uphill struggle.
As Green Party leader Steven Agnew has pointed out, next year will mark the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and we could reach that anniversary without the Assembly institutions back up and running. After witnessing nine months where the DUP and Sinn Fein seem to be practicing the art of the impossible, a dull, throbbing pessimism has taken over. The tragedy is that this disaster is playing out in the homes of families right across Northern Ireland. The sense is growing that Sinn Fein has no intention of going back into government, deeming it better to be sitting outside and throwing stones than being accountable when Tory austerity and the realities of Brexit begin to bite. Unfortunately, such an approach offers nothing for patients on waiting lists, schools with shrinking budgets or border businesses facing an unknown fate.
We have been served well by the Good Friday Agreement, but our devolved institutions must adapt to survive. It’s time to practice the art of the possible and look for another way. We believe in local democracy and oppose Direct Rule in principle, but also because it would result in unmitigated Tory rule. And another election will achieve nothing unless we change the institutions to which we are electing representatives. Steven is often asked these days why he, his Green Party colleague Clare Bailey, and others who want to see Stormont work cannot form a coalition of the willing. Currently the law does not allow for that as it requires the two largest parties to take up power. However, just as we have had a voluntary opposition – parties who chose not to take up Ministerial positions, we should now move to voluntary coalition.
My experience of campaigning in Fermanagh, on issues from fracking to Brexit and public services, is that individuals from across the political spectrum are ready and willing to work together to protect those in need, our environment and our children’s future. If Sinn Fein have no intention of going back into government, let them step aside, and let those of us who want Northern Ireland to work get on with the job of making that happen. Or, if they are truly committed to a rights based society, let them produce a programme for government around which they can form a cross party coalition.
As the late Labour MP Jo Cox famously reminded us, we have more in common than that which separates us. It is time that our institutions reflected that reality, and provided a framework in which we can work together to end political gamesmanship and put people first.
Fermanagh & South Tyrone Green Party