The fuss made in the world media about the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive has overshadowed a simple but important detail. The Executive is only a caretaker government until it produces, and implements, its own Programme for Government (PfG).
Since May this year the Executive has been taking fairly minor house-keeping decisions, and Ministers have been making decisions within their areas of responsibility, but there is no agreed framework, and no comprehensive approach to the key issues. Already other parties are starting to notice this inactivity. At some point the big question is going to have to be answered: how does the money get divided up?
The recent hype about a possible Westminster election has encouraged some unionist politicians to retreat to positions of tribal posturing:
- Nigel Dodds (DUP) took the low moral ground (and here) vis-à-vis Margaret Ritchie's cutting-off of funding for UDA-linked 'community group', thus giving them cover and giving the world the impression that he cares less about UDA guns and thuggishness than he does about getting one over on the taigs. The UUP joined in with a 'warning' to Ritchie that she "will not escape accountability" if efforts to end UDA activity implode over her threat to axe funding for a loyalist project.
- Peter Robinson (DUP) reacted predictably to the recommendation by the Chairman on Ulster Bank that the northern and southern industrial development bodies should effectively merge. Despite the overwhelming support of most northern businesspeople, unionist and nationalist, for such a move, the Minister for Finance said that it would be "moving along an agenda that is very much a united Ireland agenda". His colleague Jim Shannon stated that "we do not believe that merging INI and the IDA will be beneficial for Northern Ireland Plc". Nigel Dodds (DUP) had been initially less sceptical, calling it an "interesting contribution" but had clearly been pulled back into line, and released two further press releases back-tracking on that mild approach, saying that "as the Minister responsible that there is absolutely no prospect whatsoever of any merger".
- David McNarry (UUP) wants to table a motion in Stormont to stop Ministers speaking in Irish, because he is "tired of listening to Irish".
- Nigel Dodds (DUP) and Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP) on the issue of the devolution of policing powers – despite everyone supporting it (including a majority of the public, apparently), the DUP say that they will block it, simply to stop Sinn Féin from having co-control.
All of this tribal negativity bodes ill for the prospect of an agreed Programme for Government. The PfG, remember, will have to be fully endorsed by all parties in the Executive – including the DUP. So the sections in it that reflect nationalist positions will have to be endorsed and defended by exactly the same parties and ministers who have spent months attacking those positions!
Can it work? Can the DUP change their tune so completely and quickly? Endorsement of a PfG that will contain pro-nationalist positions and policies is going to cause the DUP to eat a lot of humble pie, and that is certainly not their favourite dish.
So is this why we still have no PfG? Is this why we might never have a PfG? And if we never have a PfG, then what will happen?
Plan B hasn't gone away, you know.
Entry into the Executive was presumed to be a reaction to the possibility of the much-feared (by unionists) Plan B. But what would have been the point of entering the power-sharing Executive to avoid Plan B, and then refusing to implement power-sharing, thereby resurrecting Plan B?