Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

2013 and all that: A year in review

The saying 'the more things change, the more they remain the same' was never truer than this year. And don't count on 2014 being any different, writes Malachi O'Doherty

Annus horribilis: Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson have endured difficulties working together this year
Annus horribilis: Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson have endured difficulties working together this year
...a year which has seen a few highs, like the City of Culture coming to Londonderry
...a year which has seen a few highs, like the City of Culture coming to Londonderry

There are three big reasons for reflecting on the year that has gone past. One is to indulge a little nostalgia, remind ourselves that the year in which Pope Benedict stood down was the same year that North Korea threatened war and a meteor struck Russia and injured thousands of people.

Another reason we compile mental records of a year gone by is to help us predict the year to come and that quickly leads on to observing that, in some areas anyway, the more things change the more they stay the same.

It was that kind of year, a year that suggested that dramatic expectations were not going to be fulfilled after all.

Many believed that the war in Syria would have ended; that rebels would have finally exhausted the resistance of President Assad and that a new order would emerge.

On the other hand, it also seemed likely that war in the region might escalate around a predicted Israeli attack on nuclear facilities in Iran. That didn't happen, either.

And those who had thought we were in a season on revolutions, a bit like the late-Sixties, saw the Arab Spring turn to Autumn without an intervening Summer, as Egyptians rallied to demand a military coup – and got one – and factions in Libya squabbled and prevented the establishment of a settled order.

Having inherited the richest plot of land on earth, the small population that could have enjoyed wealth and comfort beyond all imagining, set about arguing over who should be in charge.

The tensions raised abroad by the Syrian war had huge political implications for the US and Europe.

Both having seemed able to robustly intervene against tyrants, and even to have retained that option after the shambles they made of Iraq, now found themselves inept in the face of proof that Assad was using chemical weapons.

The US wanted to wipe Assad's eye with a few missiles, with the support of France and Britain, but without actually entering the war or changing the direction of it, and in the expectation – founded on God knows what – that Syria wouldn't retaliate.

The gruff thug Vladimir Putin (far right) bailed them out, securing a commitment from Syria to dismantle chemical weapons. The end result of that mess was that Russia now looked like a big player and Syria looked genially disposed to decommissioning.

This wasn't the only embarrassment for the US, which had shut down the whole city of Boston to catch one young bomber, would shut down its whole economy for want of agreement in Congress, and would hound whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, who had exposed the extent to which they spy on all of us.

What might we extrapolate from that for the next year? Perhaps that the Syrian war will end or morph into another form of chaos, that Israel will or will not eventually attack Iran and that Obama (right) will pull something out of the hat to make himself a president worthy of an historical mention.

Globally, there were other concerns. The usual quota of natural disasters; some, like the typhoon that ravaged the Philippines, attributable – perhaps – to global warming; others just the usual shifting of tectonic plates.

What can we predict from that? Only that there will probably be hurricanes and typhoons and earthquakes in 2014, as well. The seismic shifting that is currently most worrying is the Pacific Rim, but there are vulnerabilities in Israel, Los Angeles, Ottawa, the Mediterranean; practically everywhere but this curiously stable patch of Europe that we ourselves occupy.

Still, being favoured by nature doesn't incline the population here to merely enjoying how well situated it is. There's always plenty to quarrel over, trite as it seems in contrast to the concerns of those who live in the path of typhoons, major wars and expanding cracks in the earth's crust.

This past year saw the two main communal factions who are bonded together in political office both switching their attentions away from the concerns of the other and back to the petty prejudices of their most truculent and chauvinistic supporters.

This puts both the DUP and Sinn Fein in flagrant breach of the spirit of the agreements that enabled devolution of power, however much they insist they respect the letter of them.

An additional sadness was that four great Ulster people who died were among the best at seeing through the pretensions of these parties: Inez McCormack, Eddie McGrady, John Cole and Seamus Heaney.

There were times when the Executive tried to persuade us that public spectacles and the attention of the world validated great political achievements. But what was garnished, or adorned, by the G8 summit and the Police and Fire Games was exposed as poorly founded by Sinn Fein's celebrations of the IRA at Castlederg and Ardoyne and by Orangemen and their sidekicks trashing the Crumlin Road and Royal Avenue; this in assertion of the right to march without restraint.

One miracle that seemed genuine was Derry being the UK City of Culture. The contrast between Belfast and Derry over the Twelfth was widely remarked on, but there was more to the transformation of the city than the better relations with the loyal orders.

Part of it was, surely, that the tourist potential there is in the centre, the walled city, while in Belfast the tourist attraction of the Titanic Quarter, is some distance away from what is currently the heart of the city.

And the tourism in Derry accepts and incorporates the violent past, while Belfast's attractions ignore it; pretend it never happened.

This past year may come to be seen as the year in which people lost faith in the Agreement and the institutions at Stormont.

With protests on the streets and a new energy among the republican purists, agreement was shown not to have been the comprehensive miracle hoped for.

Worse, the Executive was not achieving much. Several projects seemed to disappear, the A5 road, the light rail system for Belfast, the electricity interconnector, the sports stadium, the Ulster Scots academy, the peace centre at the Maze, and more. What had the Executive produced, people asked, apart from a tax on bags?

And even that seemed to have been botched by extending to paper bags, unlike the system in the Republic.

When the Health Minister tried to introduce plans to reform care for the elderly, shifting it into the private sector, he simply had to withdraw everything under a blast of protest. It seemed Stephen Nolan was doing more to shape society than the Assembly was.

By autumn, he was even driving forward reform on the abortion law; this after another shambles from a local polity that seemed to specialise in messing up everything it touched.

Guidelines issued to hospitals had effectively reversed what rights we already had by putting doctors in fear of going to prison.

In the coming year, if possible, it would be good to see a little more coherence at the heart of government, proper laws being made sensibly, instead of autocratic decisions being taken with greater reference to evangelical religion than to common sense.

And a deeper realisation must reach the main parties themselves that part of the problem is the architecture of the Agreement itself.

We saw in the last year that the DUP and Sinn Fein could veto virtually anything they liked with a petition of concern, when that option was created only for issues of sectarian significance, to protect the sensitivities of one community against the ambitions of the other.

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