Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 22 November 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

If Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness were in football, one of them would have received the David Moyes treatment

Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson
Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson

The First and Deputy First Ministers are living out the most surreal political relationship. One minute they are publicly at each other's throats, the next shoulder to shoulder, smiling broadly for the cameras as if they hadn't a concern in the world about each other.

How long this bizarre behaviour can continue is anybody's guess, because the relationship between Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness defies logic.

But increasingly, it raises questions about the top management of Northern Ireland and how these two key figures can continue to look each other in the face and actually achieve anything.

If the Executive were a football, rugby, or Gaelic team, it would be facing relegation by now. The constant squabbling between the principal coaches would have sapped morale and drained confidence among the players. Something would have to give and most likely one or other of those in charge would face the David Moyes treatment.

However, the Stormont team is unique in that respect. No matter what insults are hurled across the dressing room, no matter how low the level of team spirit, no matter the absence of decisive direction, no one ever gets sacked, or reprimanded, or suspended.

The fans may feel deeply exasperated as they hear of yet another spat in the dressing room, but they have no alternative but to continue to watch their team struggle on the pitch.

Set the management style of Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, against that of Robinson and McGuinness and there is simply no comparison.

The former is demonstrating formidable leadership, whether one agrees or not with his wish to see Scotland in a different league. The latter are drifting along on a wing and a prayer, publicly acknowledging they share little, or no, mutual trust and confidence.

The example being set to a new generation in Northern Ireland, which wants to move forward from the past, is far from edifying. To use a well-worn Ulsterism, many people might conclude it is time Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness caught themselves on.

Much of the blame rests on the First Minister's own shoulders. He is in a unique position of cross-community leadership which calls for him to rise about the narrow ground of partisan politicking.

Unfortunately, the old Peter Robinson, the abrasive, let-me-tell-you-straight-and-don't-you-forget-it Peter Robinson is never far from the surface. Statesmanlike the First Minister is not when he gets into his hectoring, lecturing zone.

Granted, from time to time, when he addresses dinners with finely-crafted and scripted words, he shows a more balanced stature. The trouble with Mr Robinson is that he has a tendency to undo this image when he shoots from the hip as he did again in his comments about Muslims last week.

In contrast, the Deputy First Minister generally chooses his words more carefully. Martin McGuinness, to use Mr Robinson's Twitter description of his partner in government, is a 'self-confessed former leader of a bloody terrorist organisation'. He has also shown on many occasions a better grasp of what it takes to be Deputy First Minister than Mr Robinson has shown in his position.

But Martin McGuinness also let himself down during the brief detention of the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams. His comments about a "dark side" within the PSNI were ominous and intimidatory, as was his threat to review his party's attitude to the police if Mr Adams was not released.

On the plus side, Mr McGuinness has won wider community recognition for his outspoken condemnation of dissident republicans and his respectful attitude to dining in the Queen's company at Windsor Castle recently.

The election is over and a brief window of opportunity exists to try and mend fences – if not find agreement on some of the very divisive issues still facing Northern Ireland over flags and parades and the past.

Much responsibility rests on the shoulders of the two top political figures. They must set an example before all others and to date they have failed to do so.

Somehow, Europe's oddest political couple can finish a day of exchanging insults, sleep on their bruising differences and wake up the following morning seemingly unfazed, with their wounds miraculously healed overnight.

They may congratulate one another on holding tenuously together, as they have done through spats and crises since 2008. However, surely much more is now required.

Cross-community leadership remains sadly lacking in the Office of the First and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.

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