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Sunday 19 October 2014


Poisonous atmosphere means no hope for Stormont without reform

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness

The memorial service for Ian Paisley will be held today. As First Minister for a year from 2007, the old bigot and the retired IRA boss Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness were poster boys for power-sharing and peace. It was this image that was, and still is, burnished by people like Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's one-time top fixer, who makes a good living out of explaining why everyone should talk to terrorists, a process which in the case of Northern Ireland involved the appeasement of extremes, the institutionalisation of sectarianism and the destruction of the centrist SDLP and UUP, who had done the heavy lifting of the peace process.

Now the majority of Northern Ireland politicians are back in their kindergarten comfort zone shouting about the iniquities of "Them 'uns" in the opposing tribe.

Every time I saw Paisley and McGuinness doing their Chuckle Brothers routine, I recalled that song from Oklahoma in which Aunt Eller pleads with the farmer and the cowman to be friends. ("One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a cow,/But that's no reason why they can't be friends.") Yet as the song revealed, there was no escaping the fact that cowboys thought the farmers ruthless and farmers thought the cowboys dangerous.

But as far as the world was concerned, Northern Ireland was sorted and everyone could now mercifully forget about it. At 81, Paisley spent his year in office lapping up international adulation and letting McGuinness do what he liked until the Robinson majority in his party managed to dump him.

Life with Peter Robinson was more difficult, for he was as able and focused as McGuinness, but they put on a good public face and were happy to exploit a political arrangement that prohibited a formal opposition by splitting rather than sharing power and building up their separate sectarian fiefdoms. They were rewarded in 2011 by the 55pc of the electorate who returned an assembly in which the DUP won 38 seats, SF 29 and the middle ground of Alliance, UUP and SDLP had 38 between them. The ministerial carve-up was one each for the SDLP and the UUP, two for Alliance, and four (and a junior) and five (and a junior) respectively for SF and the DUP.

There have been innumerable developing tensions over flags, parades and dealing with the past, but it is money that is threatens to bring down Stormont. Times are hard, and the British Treasury is no longer prepared to lavish money on Northern Ireland just to keep it quiet, so it's required to implement spending reductions. Sinn Fein initially played ball to keep the show on the road, until it realised that it was in trouble if it endorsed fiscal responsibility up north while opposing it down south.

Exchequer fines for failure to implement national benefit changes have horrific implications for the rest of the public service. The understaffed PSNI, for instance, has suspended recruiting. More than any other issue, this has turned the DUP and Sinn Fein into the partners from hell, and Aunt Eller, in her forbidding incarnation as Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, has been forced to convene and chair talks to address that and other contentious issues. All those parties holding executive positions are invited.

Nonsensically, as commentator Eamonn McCann pointed out, this means delegates representing almost all the assembly seats are discussing about 80pc of the issues the Assembly exists to discuss, thus perhaps "being the first occasion anywhere of an institution outsourcing the bulk of its business to itself."

The DUP and Sinn Fein hope for help from London and Dublin respectively, even though both governments are being carefully neutral. Sinn Fein has been desperately lobbying for US involvement, but Washington is reluctant to expend any more time and effort on a tiny bit of the world that seems insatiably needy.

In advance of the talks, Robinson has written that "Sinn Fein alone" had caused the crisis "and only Sinn Fein is stopping us from moving forward".

Infuriated that the DUP is refusing to honour a side-deal to give Sinn Fein the speakership until the budget problems are resolved, McGuinness has countered that the DUP is pandering to extreme elements and is no longer to be trusted. Although they will tolerate Irish involvement in non-internal matters, the DUP boycotted the first day in protest at the presence of Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan. The atmosphere is poisonous.

I see no hope for Stormont until the system is reformed. An administration without an opposition is inherently corrupt. Aunt Eller - who has no desire to suspend Stormont - probably knows this, but has no idea what to do about it.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards