And here’s something else – the Big Plan for getting policing and justice devolved to Stormont. The most interesting thing about the DUP-PSF deal (the outcome of which was predictable even if the timing was a bit up in the air) was not the deal itself so much as the spin around it.
Here’s the thing. The two biggest parties agreed that there would be a single justice minister, which is sensible after the debacle of appointing four victims’ commissioners in a futile effort to please every constituency. And they agreed that neither one of them would take on the job. So far so good.
So it was suggested, repeatedly, that the job would go to the Alliance Party. This greatly upset the SDLP, who pointed out that under the d’Hondt system they were next in line for a ministry. (Which is true, if you assume the justice minister to be of a piece with the Executive instead of a standalone post.) But everybody else seemed to think it a good idea.
Or so it seemed. The other day, the Radio Ulster midday news carried a report on the deal, and the probability of Alliance taking the job. Immediately afterwards, Alliance leader David Ford was on Talk Back. It is no exaggeration to say that Fordy was hopping mad. Not only did he not propose that his party would take the justice ministry, he demanded to know how this story had got about. Apparently none of the journalists who assumed Alliance would take justice had bothered to ask Alliance. This, Fordy gave out, was just a lot of spin from the Northern Ireland Office that the media had accepted uncritically.
You know, that has the ring of truth about it. But it’s quite funny to hear this from the party who were the willing instrument of the NIO for decades. By the way, the spin now is that the SDLP’s Alban Maginness, a man who everyone can do business with, is being lined up for the big job. But that’s just speculation. I expect the Green Party’s Brian Wilson will find his name being touted about next if he’s not careful.
In any case, Fordy underlined that Alliance would continue to carve out a role as Stormont’s opposition. This makes sense for them, and flags up a little conundrum for Alliance’s main rivals, the Official Unionists. On the one hand, Alliance’s position outside the big tent pissing in means that they can throw some populist shapes about Executive decisions. Granted that even the parties in the Executive pretend to be the opposition, to the point that you would think the government consisted solely of Peter Robinson, but it doesn’t carry much conviction if you’re on the inside. And granted too that Alliance aren’t very good at populism – just look at the motions on a typical conference clár for a flavour – but then neither are the Unionist Party these days.
On the other hand, there was the possibility being talked up of Alliance’s strongest electoral performer, the redoubtable Naomi Long, becoming the minister. I must confess, I quite like Naomi – despite her talking nineteen to the dozen, and having that great female talent of being able to go twenty minutes before she has to draw breath, she’s a very useful public representative. But Sir Reggie, as an East Belfast rep whose own seat isn’t entirely safe, must have been more than a little disquieted at the thought of Naomi gaining an even higher profile than she already enjoys.