NI Unionist political party differences and the diminishing credibility of power-sharing at Stormont

Dr.Edward Cooke

Master of Philosophy, School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics

One policy area that differentiates the UUP and DUP sitting in the NI Executive at Stormont from the TUV (sitting in ‘opposition’ in the NI Assembly) is their respective positions on the funding, monitoring and regulation of NI third-level education sector.  An examination of how the DUP and UUP administer the third-education sector, not only indicates differences between them as unionist parties sitting in government for two decades from the TUV, it also highlights (as a case study) a growing credibility problem that incrementally, year-after-year, impacts on the declining number of NI unionist voters, voting in Stormont Assembly elections.  Essentially, if a political administration and system of government loses credibility, people cannot be enticed to vote for it.  If the political representatives elected are incapable of satisfying the philosophical foundations and long-established principles of representative government, the democratic system will collapse.  This historical fact is something that all NI political parties appear to have forgotten.  Our inept NI unionist politicians ever dutiful to their party political leaders put at risk what remains of our liberal democracy.

Within GB over the last year, all the political partes have acknowledged that there are existential funding and sustainability problems in the GB university sectors.  The dilemma for all the political parties is how best to tackle historical problems given the political importance of the sector and the rising cost of third-level education.  As yet, no political party is publicly prepared to admit that the UK university sector has grown too-large and needs to be culled in order to allow for public investment in the (badly neglected) UK further education sector.  The recent UK media disclosures of ‘back-door entry routes’, (or in other words, structured discrimination) into UK universities has galvanised Westminster, but not Stormont, into action.  Stormont’s intransigence, or cowardice, to act in this policy matter, is similar to Stormont’s indecision during the 2020 Covid-19 crisis when NI lockdown policy was decided on only after Westminster had acted!

Globally, universities, irrespective of subject disciplines, are de-facto centres of philosophical and ideological training.  If captured by any one demographic, instead of becoming the bastions of democracy, universities have the ability to erode the fundamental principles upon which the historical, liberal foundations of Western states are built upon. The recent upsurge in violence at university campuses throughout the USA arising from pro-Palestinian supporters and their financial backers are evidence of this hypothesis.

Within NI, the eleven DUP and three UUP MLAs sitting on four NI Assembly (Economy, Finance, Public Accounts and Standards and Privileges) Committees have recently agreed with their nationalist and Alliance colleagues that there is no need to review potential areas of concern in the NI higher education sector, such as; entry-level discrimination, funding differentials, recruitment bias, research priorities, and resource allocations.  This puzzling decision by the 14 DUP and UUP MLAs has the support of their party leaders and executive officers, and is all the more surprising given the recent media publications that have galvanised the UK government within the English and Welsh university sectors.  Since January 2024, the flood of UK media articles alleging; discriminatory university entry routes, manipulation of student protests by foreign governments, international security concerns, and the mismanagement of research funding allocations within the UK university sector, cannot be ignored by parliamentary legislators responsible for the funding of higher education provision.  By contrast, the TUV, with only one MLA does not sit on any of the four NI  Assembly Committees who were all informed (in two evidence based reports and subsequent disclosures) that there are systemic monitoring, discriminatory, and regulatory concerns to be addressed within the NI university sector.  What is even more surprising and of concern is that the four NI Assembly Committees and the NI unionist MLAs sitting within them, chose to take no action after they had been informed that the same ‘whistle-blowing’ concerns had been raised over several years with the NI Audit Office and the Equality Commission Northern Ireland and that both regulatory bodies, without denying or rejecting the public disclosure concerns brought to their attention, had chosen to take no monitoring or investigative actions!  In short, the NI Assembly Committees have turned their backs on a tax-paying problem without asking the two key NI regulatory agencies to report if any such problems exists!  This collective governance failure of the; NI political parties, the NI Assembly, Executive Ministers heading-up NI government departments, and external regulatory agencies, suggests that the theory of ‘joined-up government’ is either a meaningless facade, or a means of political self-protection.

Sinn Fein and the DUP, respectively, have both collapsed and walked-out (and then walked back into) the power sharing Executive when they considered it to be politically advantageous.  At other times, all the NI political parties work hard to hide the democratic defects and deficits built into the consociational government that is Stormont.  MLAs from all political parties protect their Executive Ministers rather than addressing the concerns of the respective voters who elect them.  Hiding historical failings of Stormont has become part of the mandate of MLAs as they seek to entice voters to keep voting for this dysfunctional Assembly.  What is becoming increasingly clear is that NI unionist voters are less and less likely to vote for any unionist to sit in an NI Assembly and system of government that is flawed by design, delivers nothing, and is either inept or corrupt.  The RHI Scandal and the subsequent RHI report, the return of Stormont in February 2024 after the failure to achieve success in Donaldson’s ‘Seven Protocol Tests’, and the damning evidence manifesting itself daily from the UK Covid-19 Public Inquiry, indicates that the only DUP / UUP MLA competencies visible to the NI unionist public, is in how they protect their Ministers and the power-sharing Executive.  The fragility of the power-sharing Stormont regime is such that the Covid-19 failures being reported to the NI public today in the media would have remained hidden by  Robin Swann and by the other NI political parties’ refusal to have a NI Covid-19 Public inquiry.  Today, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry only seeks to indicate to the Ni public how dysfunction is Stormont and those who populate it.

The failure of the NI unionist MLAs to monitor, audit and scrutinise the NI higher education sector, is a representative case study that has serious long-term implications for the unionist political parties, parties who fail to understand the disconnect between the NI unionist voting public and themselves.   Quite simply, less and less unionist voters trust the established unionist parties, their political records, or the political institutions that they recommend to the unionist voters.  There is compelling evidence to show that in the higher education system, overseas international students are directly discriminated against by paying excessive university fees, whilst at the same time other UK domicile applicants are indirectly discriminated against by their failure to gain entry to NI university courses arsing from the unfair two-tier university entry-fee system.  Whilst international students and failed UK university entrants may feel aggrieved, so should the UK tax-payers who help fund the inequitable UK university sectors.  However, within Northern Ireland a more serious fundamental problem of democratic sustainability arises!  If NI tax-payers, university consumers (with large student loans) and voters decide that the NI political parties and MLAs are currently failing to monitor and scrutinise this, and other, Executive and departmental policy areas for fear of exposing historical regulatory failures of the power-sharing Stormont Executive, this loss credibility will result in voter diminution.

Increasingly, traditional DUP, UUP and TUV voters, and others such as myself who advocate for a ‘united’ unionist party, understand that we are being encouraged to vote for a political administration that is of itself dysfunctional, self-servicing and one that is populated by limited, egotistic politicians whose main concern is to support their political paymasters and not their unionist voters.  By their omissions and failings, the fourteen DUP and UUP MLAs sitting on the four NI Assembly Committees that in 2024 denied there was a political responsibility to monitor and regulate the NI higher education system, evidenced that the current incredulous power-sharing NI Executive is not a body that any unionist (indeed voter) should vote for.

Dr Edward Cooke

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