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Alban Maginness: Voters must consider if DUP and SF should be punished for the crises in public services

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As we come up to almost three years since the Assembly was scuttled by Sinn Fein in January 2017, perhaps they should carefully reflect on the immense political damage that disastrous decision has caused to our public services and to the political process at large.

They might also reflect on whether their sabotage of the Assembly and Executive was in any sense a proportionate action, as it has solved nothing – including RHI and an Irish Language Act – and simply resulted in bringing politics and the political institutions under the Good Friday Agreement into further damaging disrepute.

Clearly the decision by the late Martin McGuinness to resign over the RHI affair as Deputy First Minister, was taken by a very ill man under extreme pressure from his party and party supporters, anxious to distance themselves from a DUP that had behaved ineptly and clumsily.

They also feared further battering from the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists, who had established an increasingly very effective opposition within the Assembly.

Sinn Fein’s street credibility was at a low ebb, if the infamous ‘Felons Club’ meeting was anything to go by.

If McGuinness had been in good health and had the political strength to continue in office as the leader of Sinn Fein in the north, it is doubtful whether the affair over RHI would have meant a prolonged refusal by him and SF to remain outside the institutions.

McGuinness probably intended a short absence from office in order to teach the DUP a lesson and recover his party’s reputation as a tough partner in government.

He had been clearly wedded since 2007 to building some sort of positive working relationship between his party and the DUP, as he had come to realise, like his fellow Derryman and SDLP leader John Hume, that the only way forward politically was through partnership between unionism and nationalism.

To the belated credit of both Martin McGuinness and the late Ian Paisley, they had worked together positively, as First and Deputy First Ministers, earning them the nickname, the Chuckle Brothers.

While his relationship with Ian Paisley was surprisingly affectionate, his relationship with Peter Robinson was different, but nonetheless seemed to be friendly.

Peter Robinson wisely understood the need for both unionism and nationalism to work together at the very heart of government.

Unfortunately many in his Democratic Unionist Party did not see it that way.

That is not to say – with some form of misplaced nostalgia – that all was well between the two men in government.

There were many difficulties and much more should and could have been achieved together in the Executive. But as the great English writer GK Chesterton wittily said: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”

With the accession of Arlene Foster, as DUP First Minister, the relationship changed and could hardly have been characterised as being either affectionate or even friendly.

At least there still was a working relationship that held the Executive together, that is until the long fuse of the RHI crisis, that grew exponentially and then erupted into an unexpected and mega crisis of confidence.

If the personal relationship between Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness had been closer, then the crisis that transpired might have been handled better by both sides.

But as a consequence of all that wasteful political hubris, we are left with a moribund Assembly and a non-existent Executive at a critical moment in our history, given the huge challenges of Brexit, whatever your point of view, be it Remain or Leave.

Would it not be a better thing at this moment to have a working, albeit imperfect, Executive addressing some of the issues that Brexit will undoubtedly raise in the near future?

Leaving Brexit aside, we are faced with increasing crises in our public services.

Not least is the crisis in the health service, which announced lately that it has plunged into an unprecedented waiting list of over 300,000 patients.

Last week we also learnt from Belfast City councillor Paul McCusker the disturbing news that there have been five suspected heroin deaths in Belfast in the space of a weekend. Again this impacts very seriously on our over-stretched statutory services that deal with addiction and mental health, particularly among young males.

If we had a functioning Assembly these matters could be properly addressed by a local Minister of Health. But we don’t have an Assembly, because Sinn Fein and the DUP have squandered the bright opportunity of the Good Friday Agreement, for their own selfish political interests.

Therefore, it is time that the electorate steps back and thinks carefully about how to punish and not to reward these culprits on December 12 for their persistently bad behaviour?

Belfast Telegraph

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