This was the message that Mark Durkan delivered at the British Irish Association conference at New College, Oxford over the weekend. He called for compulsory power-sharing between nationalists and unionists at Stormont to be scrapped, and the rules requiring cross community support for legislation to be removed. For him these mechanisms were the "ugly scaffolding needed during the construction of the new edifice." The assumption is that such mechanisms, which were supposedly designed to protect nationalists from the abuse of power by unionists, are no longer needed in this new era because the peace process has been so successful in promoting reconciliation and stability.
However, any examination of the current political situation exposes such assumption to be baseless. The north is more sectarian and polarised than ever, and the political institutions increasingly unstable. The Executive has not met for months due to disagreements between Sinn Fein and the DUP.
It is this current instability and deadlock, rather than optimistic for the future, that has prompted Durkan’s comments. This is revealed in his appeal for nationalists "to reflect on the dangers of the decision-making protections acting as decision making prevention on more and more important issues". It is recognition that a power sharing government between nationalists and unionists is unworkable. The corollary of this position, and what is being implied by Durkan’s proposed changes to the Agreement, is that nationalist parties give up their right to be in government in order to have a functioning government at all. The fig leaf for this abandonment of power sharing is his call for a 'strong and robust' bill of rights to protect minorities. What this amounts to is an acceptance of a return to unionist majority rule for the sake of stability.
Mark Durkan’s speech is a signal of the desperation of nationalists for the settlement to work no matter how diminished. It is also a reflection of the elitist approach of the SDLP which looks to the law as a counter to sectarianism. But such faith in the law is misplaced. It completely ignores the fact that there was a formal equality before the law under the old Stormont regime that existed alongside rampant discrimination. For unionists the point of being in power is to have the power to discriminate. This is also why the unionists are totally against a Bill of Rights. Sinn Fein strongly attacked Durkan’s comments, but their own strategy, of hanging unto their places in the Executive at all costs, isn’t anymore successful success. Even the minimal gestures in the St Andrew’s Agreement - an Irish Language Act and the devolution of policing and justice powers – are being blocked by the DUP.
Sinn Fein has been reduced to issuing empty threats to bring down the Executive - threats which are immediately withdrawn when challenged. If Sinn Fein wants the Executive to function it will have to subordinate itself the the DUP agenda. Whether nationalists are in of out of the executive unionist will still be ion a dominant position. The comments by Mark Durkan indicate that a section of nationalist population is prepared to accept this as the price of stability. However, is this any different to what existed during the 50 years of the old Stormont regime?