Two-party government tested to the limit in latest controversy

19 August 2016 - by Matthew Coyle

Throughout its 18-year existence, the Northern Ireland Assembly has proved surprisingly robust in the face of the controversies that tend to harass it from time to time. Aside from the suspension of the early 2000s, Stormont’s ability to weather its existential crises is undeniable.

In the immediate wake of a new farrago, questions abound about the integrity of the democratic ideal itself, questions particular to any functioning governmental arrangements, though coloured, of course, by the rivalries inherent to Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions. 

The present context is striking enough. Sinn Féin’s Daithí McKay, an MLA widely considered both capable and bound for the upper echelons of the party, was responsible, claimed The Irish News on Thursday, for ‘coaching’ loyalist flag protestor Jamie Bryson in the approach and wording he should adopt when appearing before the Assembly’s Finance Committee in September 2015. Bryson had claimed to be in possession of evidence proving that senior politicians had received financial gains linked to the sale of the NAMA portfolio and was thus due to expand on these assertions.

McKay was, at the time, serving as chair of the very committee to which Bryson was to submit his testimony and the revelation that he had facilitated lengthier, more detailed communications with another Sinn Féin member seemed especially controversial given that Bryson named then First Minister Peter Robinson just before the conclusion of his statement to the Committee, as per the advice in private Twitter exchanges.

McKay’s resignation as an MLA for North Antrim had been received and accepted before lunchtime on the day the story broke, a swift, inauspicious conclusion to a career in elected office.

Sinn Féin’s assertion that McKay’s actions were born of his own initiative (it has stated its support for full scrutiny of events) was promptly queried by many observers – including the SDLP, UUP and Alliance – who pointed to the party’s discipline, as well as its penchant for centralisation. However, it undoubtedly represented an attempt to distance itself from any hint of arch political point scoring. Whatever the internal tensions between Sinn Féin and Robinson’s DUP, the prevailing outward message is one of cooperation between the two halves of our consociational Executive. It is entirely arguable that McKay has paid the price for his party’s commitment to the new coalition.

The DUP, too, while expressing obvious concern, offered a relatively restrained reaction. Party chairman Lord Morrow may have confirmed that the matter is to be referred to the PSNI (he cited ‘malfeasance in public office’ as the root of any complaint) yet there appears to be little interest in a broader stand-off around the Executive table.

That being said, the scandal may well induce a renewed focus on the importance of transparent institutional processes. That those from within Sinn Féin’s ranks would work to embarrass the DUP is one thing; that one of the actors should turn out to be a well-regarded MLA and the chair of a high-profile statutory committee is quite another. 

The impartiality of the Finance Committee’s inquiry into the NAMA matter is likely to be questioned, as is the crucial role played by committees themselves, their presence as watchdogs being central to the way in which government is held to account by the public’s representatives.

With the heavy work of a new mandate only weeks away, this is a challenge many at Stormont will not welcome.