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The flatpack Stormont Assembly has been glued back together. I don’t expect it to last

It’s hard to believe that neither the DUP nor Sinn Féin will collapse Stormont without explanation

Flatpack assembly can be a bit of a nightmare. No matter how good you think you are at it, it is often the case that when you’re “finished”, you’ve a few screws, some metal bits and a few lengths of wood left over. So, you give the structure a bit of a kick to make sure it’s going to stand up, and then nudge it towards a wall or a corner. You might even invite the children or a neighbour to admire your handiwork, along with a self-congratulatory “oh look what I’ve managed to build” tweet or post on social media.

A couple of weeks later though, you notice that the drawers have come off their runners and realised that the wood and metal bits (that you chucked into the recycling along with the cardboard packaging) were actually meant to prevent internal collapse by securing the unit firmly to the wall. At that moment, you pull everything slightly forward from the wall and then lean it back and shove coins under the front for stability. What had been hailed as a triumph has morphed into a wobbly grotesquerie, liable to fall apart at any time.

For 25 years, Northern Ireland has had what might be described as the Ikea approach to peace-process institutions: a flatpack Assembly. No one is entirely sure what has kept it upright at key moments of stress, since many of the essential parts, along with the original instruction manual, seem to have been thrown out along the way. But every time it lurches wildly and dangerously, or the doors and windows refuse to open for a while, we simply invite people from different parties to do a bit of walloping, shuffling, shoving and whitewashing, until they agree that it’s as good as it’s ever been and fit for purpose again.

But there comes a point – the tipping point if you like – when the whole thing actually crashes and smashes to the ground, and no amount of tinkering or supergluing is going to get it on its feet again. My gut feeling is that we are very close to that tipping point with the latest refit of the Assembly. And there are four specific reasons for thinking that.


After two years, Stormont is back in business without – as was the case in previous crises – dealing with the factors which facilitated easy collapse in the first place; especially the need to reform the rules. Since December 2016, the parties have had two lengthy periods of inactivity in which it would have been possible to have below-the-radar discussions about the reform they all claim to want. They chose not to have those discussions, meaning that the power to veto anything and the power to collapse the Assembly without explanation or particular consequence remains with both the DUP and Sinn Féin. It’s hard to believe those powers won’t be used.

Powersharing is mandatory. Trust isn’t. Fair enough, the DUP and Sinn Féin SF don’t have to like each other

One thing has been very clear since the first Executive was formed in November 1999. For so long as the parties remain content, indeed determined, to run their departments as silos, it will be impossible to develop a collectively agreed programme for government in which priorities are jointly agreed and for which responsibility is jointly shared. Relations between the DUP and Sinn Féin have often been so tetchy and standoffish that the Executive has resembled two mutually contradictory governments at the very heart of the Assembly. This is an arrangement a comfortable majority of the electorate has endorsed again and again.

It has been clear, too, that the parties have found it impossible to underpin the Executive with the sort of genuine trust, consensus and co-operation that is necessary to govern Northern Ireland in the best interests of everyone. There is still a tendency to look over their shoulder at the needs of their own voter base, rather than the collective needs of everyone. Powersharing is mandatory. Trust isn’t. Fair enough, the DUP and Sinn Féin don’t have to like each other, but if governance is to be stable and collapse-free then, at the very least, the act of agreeing to govern together must look like a compromise rather than an ourselves together hostage arrangement.

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Of course, the shadow of the constitutional question continues to hang over every single aspect of political business. The Command Paper (Securing the Union), issued on January 31st by the UK government, was required to bring the DUP over the line and back into the Assembly. Yet the language of safeguarding and securing the union and the legislation which the DUP has been promised has spooked nationalists and encouraged a narrative that the British government is both interfering and trying to prevent a Border poll anytime soon.

On the long-standing principle that each political action in Northern Ireland has to be met with an equal and opposite reaction, Sinn Féin on both sides of the Border is talking up the necessity for a Border poll. Again, we’ll spend a lot of time talking at each other rather than with each other.

Over 25 years, no lessons seem to have been learned about fixing the furniture. This means it will continue to shake and break

Over 25 years, no lessons seem to have been learned about fixing the furniture. This means it will continue to shake and break, until that point when it is too broken to fix. At that stage, the relationship between most of unionism and most of nationalism may also be beyond repair.

There is a tendency for the parties to get extremely excited when the doors are reopened and makeshift repairs give the impression of stability and permanence. It’s an excitement which doesn’t last for long, though. Within a few weeks they note the creaking floorboards and crumbling masonry. Is it too much to hope that they also note the immediate need to fix the foundations and actually bring in some proper builders?