When I went on Council I wondered whether or not I should blog about Council issues or not (as well as wondering whether or not I had the time to blog but an inability to sleep has resolved both for this evening at least and BTW thanks for voting me 16th best blog when I hadn't blogged in months).
I've known Belfast city councillors of different parties for the last twenty years or so and was always slightly disturbed by how the often every event in the building was imbued with a significance it often did not have - comments or slights at Council always predicted to have dire electoral consequences when the average voter knew nothing about them. However, the past week of events on the Council have undoubtedly attracted the attention of the public so I will presume there is some interest on a perspective of what is going on.
The first question is have relationships soured in the Council? Generally, yes. I was not there in the old days but it is an overstatement to say they are at those levels.
Why has the situation came about? It is no accident. Sinn Fein made the conscious decision to do this and for reasons to be examined below Alliance and the SDLP have indulged them. (The consciousness of the process is made clear by the Duke of Edinburgh awards incident. It did not come about by an individual or spur of the moment decision by the Lord Mayor but an instruction from further up the hierarchy.)
A number of months before the election there were significant personnel changes among the Sinn Fein team. With some discontent simmering on the ground and the growth of the likes of eirigi beginning to unnerve Sinn Fein it was decided part of the solution was to overhaul the Council group and take more strident positions. The then group leader, Michael Brown, with whom all groups had created a working relationship, quit as leader and councillor following internal pressure. This new intake included individuals like convicted bomber Jim McVeigh and the return of a figure from a time when relationships where poisonous on the Council, Mairtin O'Muilleoir.
In the Council elections their growth in seats hid a drop in their vote plus eirigi came from nowhere to take over 2,000 votes in Upper Falls and the intervention of other republican candidates cost them a seat in Lower Falls. This reinforced their earlier fears and perpetuated them on the path they had commenced. The perspective of the West is particularly crucial as it drives the Sinn Fein group.
So Sinn Fein had decided to wander about City Hall with its little bag of stink bombs. Little surprise there as the lessons from the first years of devolution were that without checks and balances and the willingness to use them Sinn Fein would behave in such ways. However, City Hall has none of those checks and balances (although RPA will change that situation in the next term) but their approach could only be a success if other parties supported it and for their respective reasons they have. Yet Alliance and the SDLP then wander around complaining about the awful smell in City Hall denying that their own actions had any role.
With the SDLP there are a range of issues symptomatic of the party's broader problems with Sinn Fein. It has some problems of factionalism. They have no narrative or strategy of their own, not even a basic counter-strategy, so end up generally as the rabbits in Sinn Fein's headlights. On occasion they try to outgreen Sinn Fein and fail miserably so tend more often to fall into line. They also have the core problem that the main means of communicating with their electorate, newspapers, are in the hands of republicanism. So even if they do score a point of Sinn Fein it doesn't enter the public consciousness. In terms of relationship with others there is much talk but that is where it has so far ended.
With Alliance I will try to err on the side of kindness. So far the only thing that has been consistent is their inconsistency. They appear to approach issues with the atittude of a scoreboard - we've given one to them'uns so we'll have to give the other'uns one too. In this pattern of behaviour there is no consistent vision. Words may be mouthed but it is not backed up by action.
The flags issue and Christmas signs are cases in point. In 2004 Alliance voted to retain the present practice of the Union flag flying every day. Since then the law has not changed neither has there been a employment tribunal challenge to the practice (despite the 2004 advice warning this was a risk) and the practice has become more common in the UK not less. Yet Alliance agreed to repeat the process and now backing a different position of designated days.
On Christmas signage in different languages, they opposed an Irish and Ulster-Scots language signs a few months ago then voted the opposite way for a Irish language sign last Thursday. The only rationale for it seemed to be that earlier in the night they had agreed that the Ormeau Park be used for a Covenant event so were looking to even up the books. This flip flop also did significant damage to an all party deal.
A range of contentious issues had been drafted and agreed that a diversity panel (including all group leaders) to discuss them intensively over the next few months to see if an agreement could be reached. Its first meeting was to be the day after the December Council meeting. Comments in committee made clear that Sinn Fein were somewhat unwilling participants. This seemed driven by their belief they could get more with their existing strategy rather than through an all-party approach. Therefore it was unsurprising that Mairtin O'Muilleior proposal, through its impact on two issues designated for the panel, broke the agreement.
However, the Alliance and SDLP joined in. Consciously or unconsiously they had completely undermined the integrity of the agreement for all-party focus on these issues. It will have also reinforced SF's belief they'll get more outside such a process.
Perhaps this is a sign of a deeper malaise within Alliance. IJP has noted a sense of drift in Alliance since the election. Recent events have also demonstrated a general lack of nerve in Alliance. The first sign of this was when the First Minister made his Castlereagh speech on integrated education. When the fall-out began Alliance were notable for their lack of full throated support for something which was supposed to be a central policy. Lately, the issue of teaching colleges has shown it again. They say they believe in one college but baulk when it comes to actually moving it forward.
Add in Ford's attempts to remove Prison Service symbols to the Alliance council group's attitude to the Union flag and other memorabilia in City Hall and a picture begins to be painted more fitting of Irish republicanism than Ulster liberalism. So perhaps as with the SDLP these issues are a sign of deeper problems in the wider party.
As regards the immediate future of relationships the core issue will be whether the integrity of the all-party agreement to work together on contentious issues can be restored.
(So there is a backgrounder to the current issues on Belfast City Council. This is no doubt where you tell me that despite my attempts otherwise I have been sucked into this mini-universe.)