Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Big partnership experiment at Stormont faces acrimonious split

The First and Deputy First Minister claim their relationship is "workmanlike"
The First and Deputy First Minister claim their relationship is "workmanlike"

The First and Deputy First Minister claim their relationship is "workmanlike". On the evidence of the past week "unworkable" seems more appropriate.

"I'm in problem-solving mood," Martin McGuinness assures us. "Cool the jets," urges Peter Robinson, but the body language between his party and Sinn Fein sends out a starkly different message.

The current Stormont crisis is a consequence of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. Should we really be surprised by the lack of goodwill between the DUP and Sinn Fein?

Aren't they really doing what they promised on their respective tins at the last and previous Assembly elections?

Exasperated as many people may be about the stagnating state of Stormont, those who voted the two main parties into power have only themselves to blame.

A majority of Protestants backed the DUP in the past decade to hold the line against what they feared was the creeping scourge of republicanism.

They rejected the more moderate voices of the Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance as weak-kneed and unduly compromising.

Instead, they plumped for a party which would defend Protestant interests to the hilt, keep the Union flag flying 365 days a year, stop giving away so many unionist inches here, or there, and support the Orange Order wherever it wished to parade.

To put it equally bluntly, a majority of Catholics – though many must surely have been appalled by the actions of the IRA – voted in their thousands for the Gerry Kellys of this world. They rejected the SDLP and backed the very people like Mr Kelly himself, who had been convicted and jailed for heinous crimes in this society, but who were now walking free and promising to replace a murderous past with a peaceful future.

Should anybody be surprised that the relationship has turned so sour? Not really. If there is a surprise, it lies in the fact that somehow two parties with little, or nothing, in common have managed to hold the Stormont coalition in place for so many years.

The DUP and Sinn Fein were not elected to fawn over one another, but somehow have avoided falling out altogether – in spite of their deep differences.

The First Ministers may say this is down to their personal "workmanlike" relationship. Messrs Robinson and McGuinness (right) are reaching a stage where they appear to see eye-to-eye only when in the presence of potential investors and foreign leaders whom they need to impress.

The presence of US diplomat Richard Haass is really an admission of failure by the DUP and Sinn Fein to resolve so many outstanding issues over flags, parades and dealing with the past.

As time passes, the two main parties are not tempering their differences. On the contrary, the DUP and Sinn Fein seem happy to accentuate them.

The corridors of Stormont have plenty of pigeon-holes. Many appear to exist in the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister, the final resting-place for matters which defy agreement.

To add to all these woes, the parties are starting to play to their respective galleries again. Election time looms next year and it seems both feel the need to demonstrate that the irresistible force is still meeting the immovable object.

Is this what the voters of Northern Ireland really want? If so – as appears to be the case – then the prospects for power-sharing look bleak. The events of the past year suggest hardliners on each side are dictating the political agenda.

The recent Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk opinion poll showed more disaffection with devolution among the general public.

The other parties representing the mainstream, middle-ground of unionism and nationalism might be expected to regain some of the authority and influence which they lost a decade ago.

Where is there any evidence of this happening?

Instead, the community at large seems rendered powerless as the DUP and Sinn Fein display more distrust by the day. All this leads to one very regrettable conclusion: the great experiment in partnership government in Northern Ireland is losing public confidence and is very quickly running out of steam.

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