Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Amidst mayhem, normality almost broke out at Stormont

DUP MLA Edwin Poots

A semblance of normality broke out in Northern Ireland last week. Arguments over abortion, gay blood donations and primary school budgets dominated the political agenda, instead of the usual argy-bargy about flags and parades.

Surely that is how it should be in a civilised European society, but, unfortunately, it is rarely the case here. Obsession with the symbols and slogans of unionism and nationalism means the real social and economic concerns of everyday life are brushed aside.

Of course, total normality remains too much to ask for. The murders of two men in Belfast and Londonderry, the traffic gridlock caused by repeated bomb hoaxes and the painting of a new paramilitary mural were reminders, if we needed them, that Northern Ireland still has a real-life Hole in the Wall gang.

The Red Hand Lukes of this world haven't gone away you know and are still skulking with their paint brushes in the shadows.

As I spent two hours one morning last week at the wheel of my car trying to reach Belfast and viewed the thousands of stranded motorists around me who were attempting to do the same, a sense of powerlessness to do anything about the disruption seemed to escape from every car exhaust.

Memories of the awful days and nights of the Troubles came flooding back, when people used to sit for hours on end in seemingly interminable traffic jams on their way to and from work.

The public accepted such delays as a regular and inevitable consequence of living in Northern Ireland, but times have changed irreversibly.

People on all sides today see no justification whatsoever for such disrupting of daily life.

The motorway bomb hoaxes and the renewed painting of paramilitary murals in east Belfast suggest republican and loyalist dissidents are desperate for attention and influence in the new Northern Ireland.

The public reaction across Belfast suggests emphatically that they will not succeed.

Medical appointments were missed, children were late for school and tens of thousands of people sat in their cars when they should have been productively at work.

As if that were not enough, there is the added frustration for the general public of not knowing who is causing the chaos.

Is this the work of latter-day, ageing Provisionals, caught in a time-warp from the days of their youth, trying to hold back a surging tide which is threatening to submerge them totally?

Or is the public the casualty of a bunch of renegade joyriders getting some twisted kick out of hitting the media headlines, keeping the police on their toes and annoying the populace at large?

More worryingly, are the bomb hoaxes a taste of worse to come? A thought which we wish to dismiss from our minds, but cannot rule out so long as the political relationships at Stormont remains so fragile.

What made last week so special was the fact that even the worst excesses of bomb-hoaxing and mural painting could not overshadow the heartbreaking stories of mothers who opened a hugely important debate on abortion.

I suspect not a lot of people have given much thought until recently as to what the Health Minister, Edwin Poots (below), thinks about abortion, or gay men giving blood, but now we know he has decided views on both and that no less than a High Court judge considers he has behaved "irrationally".

Can ministers such as Mr Poots, or his education counterpart, John O'Dowd, take unilateral decisions on contentious issues? To what extent are the religious fundamentalism of unionism and the radical socialism of republicanism impinging on political decision-making in health, or education?

Is the public comfortable with ministers deciding for themselves whether the 11-plus should go, or granting planning approval for a new supermarket, or upholding a law on abortion, or gay blood donations which is different from the rest of the UK?

In coming to terms with devolution, Northern Ireland does not seem entirely happy with the consequences. A broad consensus appears to accept that the current coalition is not working as effectively and efficiently as it could, but yet no agreement exists for change.

At least the arguments in the past week were about more than flags and parades.

That, in itself, is telling – and in defiance of bomb hoaxes, murders and murals.

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