Following on from the discussion on yesterday’s Politics Show – and there is some good discussion of this at Slugger – a few more points are worth making about the big barney at Stormont over Margaret Ritchie defunding the UDA.
The first is the procedural question, which is what Peter “l’état, c’est moi” Robinson has been going hard on. This wasn’t immediately apparent due to the opaque way in which Robbo has made his complaint, but the operative part of St Andrew’s is the modified majority-rule provision which means a minister can’t go on a solo run in defiance of a majority decision of the Executive. But of course, the Procrastination Committee hasn’t made a decision in respect of the CTI, and doesn’t seem in a great hurry to. Not to mention that the advice from the Chuckle Brothers to Ritchie back in July seemed to suggest that the minister was on her own here. So, what we are left with is Robbo generating a great amount of hot air based on the assertion that he understood, after Ritchie had spoken to the Executive on this matter the previous week, that she would speak to the Executive again before announcing her decision. The Official Unionists don’t seem to remember it that way, but there you go.
Again, and this may conceivably run up against the ban on devolved ministers having sight of advice given to their direct rule predecessors, it seems to me that there should be an urgent investigation of whether Hain’s original contract was legal. The minister should bat that back to the DSO or explain why not. And if the contract was indeed illegal, then most of this procedural guff is neither here nor there.
Another thing that shouldn’t really need pointing out, but evidently does, is that the CTI is not a reserved but a devolved matter, and that Stormont has legislative powers. If the rules don’t allow the UDA to be defunded, then it’s perfectly possible for our elected representatives to change the rules.
Now, let’s look at the grubby politics involved, something that has seemed to go by the board. A lot of the heat in this situation, at least on the Provos’ part, has to do with the next Westminster election. This explains a lot about their reaction, and indeed why Ritchie got to be a minister in the first place rather than her party leader Mark Durkan, two things that have had some commentators scratching their heads.
Looking at the intra-nationalist fight in the next Westminster election, both PSF and the SDLP have a huge amount riding on this. PSF, following their disappointing showing in the south, will desperately want to maintain their forward momentum towards becoming the north’s monolithic Catholic party and, while stretching their lead over the SDLP in places like East Derry or North Antrim is all very well, there’s nothing like getting an additional MP, preferably at the SDLP’s expense. Likewise, the SDLP will have to prove its future viability, whether as an independent party or as the six-county section of Fianna Fáil.
This all points towards South Down as the cockpit constituency. We may reckon that Durkan is safe enough in Foyle for the time being. McDonnell is probably a dead man walking in South Belfast, but there isn’t a cat in hell’s chance of Maskey being the beneficiary. Demographic changes in North Belfast may be working in Gerry Kelly’s favour, but he’s a good decade off being within shouting distance. But in South Down, where the SDLP had a narrow lead of around 300 over PSF at the Stormont elections, there’s everything to play for.
Now, assuming the elderly Eddie McGrady finally retires, that means a hard-fought contest between Margaret Ritchie and Caitríona Ruane, which explains why the both of them are ministers. Things are also made a lot more explicable when you consider that, to tip South Down in their favour, PSF will need Ruane to conspicuously shine as a minister and Ritchie to conspicuously fail, while the SDLP will be looking for the opposite outcome. It’s the misfortune of the Stormont Shinners that defunding the UDA is an extremely popular proposition with your average nationalist voter. This is why they have to preface their procedural criticisms of Ritchie with “of course we want to defund the UDA as well”, but parliamentary procedure butters few parsnips on the doorstep, especially when you remember that they’ve been taking pot-shots at Ritchie over this for several months. Memo to Gerry: When you’re in a hole, stop digging. It may have been a smarter move to support scrapping the CTI.
But what is in this for the DUP, I’m still struggling to understand. Unless it’s just Robbo trying to establish himself as the Executive’s Sun King, which I suppose is plausible.
Update 23.10.07: I note the Executive has now come round to the idea of scrapping the CTI with the minimum possible delay. Perhaps they caught on that they were on a hiding to nothing with the public.