Almost a year ago this blog drew attention to the apparent unwillingness of the DUP to co-govern with nationalists and republicans. We asked 'Is the DUP capable of governing?', and noted that:
"It is clear that the DUP still sees its role in the Executive as that of a blocker – blocking anything and everything that nationalists want. The party is essentially reactionary, and has no vision of what it wants or where it wants Northern Ireland to go. It merely wants to stop the nationalists from making any progress towards their goals, a role it played so strenuously over the long years of its minority years.
The problem is that it is no longer the minority unionist party, and the rules of the game have changed. Politics in Northern Ireland is no longer about jeering at the Catholics from behind the protective wall of British military and financial support."
This is still the case a year on. On numerous occasions the DUP have acted to block movement on anything that may be part of the nationalist wish-list: devolution of policing and justice, the Irish language, the Maze development, the removal of the 11-plus, and so on. At the same time they are trying to spin the story so that they look reasonable, and Sinn Féin look unreasonable.
In essence, the unionists (both parties) are trying to promote the idea that the things that are of concern to nationalism are 'distractions' that are too divisive, too expensive, or unnecessary. They point to the current economic worries to say that the Executive must devote its attentions to more pressing economic matters.
There are two problems with this approach, however. Firstly, the Executive has no control whatsoever over the economic problems that are facing it. Reallocating money from one priority to another within a department does not require the Executive to meet.
Secondly, and more importantly, the unionist parties are trying to draw Sinn Féin into simple administration of the status quo, without any changes to the structures, symbolism or substance of Northern Ireland. They are trying to use public concerns about the economy to pressurise Sinn Féin into parking their own concerns, and to accept a role as local administrators of an unchanged, 'British' Northern Ireland.
Sinn Féin are right to reject this charade.
The whole basis of the current arrangements is that power is shared, and that both communities see issues of their own concern pursued. Any attempt to block movement of nationalist concerns while leaving the heavily-unionist status quo untouched breaches the very fundaments of the arrangements. Until the DUP understand this, and understand that nationalist concerns must be addressed, Sinn Féin are entirely justified in freezing the operation of the Executive.
Peter Robinson's offer of an 'open agenda' at an Executive meeting is entirely in keeping with the DUP strategy, and Sinn Féin were not slow to see through it. Until there are concrete time-tabled proposals on the agenda, the Executive is not fulfilling its part of the power-sharing arrangements. An 'open' meeting where anything can be discussed (and, of course, vetoed) is worthless except as a signal that Sinn Féin are participating in the administration of a stagnant entity – a signal that is wanted only by unionism.
Power-sharing requires that nationalism gains ground. That is a simple, but for unionists unpalatable, fact. The status quo is so heavily skewed in favour of unionism that it must move towards nationalism in visible ways. However, unionism has been allowed to persuade itself, over the past 90 years, that everything must be done on its terms, and that any compromise is a defeat. The DUP cannot therefore agree to the basic requirements of power-sharing – visible 'nationalist-friendly' decisions – without losing face amongst its own supporters. So it wants to keep everything as it was, in the frozen time warp of the unionist hegemony.
Sinn Féin must continue to be patient. Nobody will go hungry if the Executive does not meet. Schools and hospitals will continue to operate. The world economy will govern how many jobs are gained or lost, not the Executive. The Executive should not meet again until there is a clear commitment towards progress on items of concern to nationalism.