Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 2 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Is Ukraine a frightening mirror-image of what Northern Ireland could become?

Soldiers who were among several hundred that took up positions around a Ukrainian military base stand near the base's periphery in Crimea on March 2, 2014 in Perevalne, Ukraine. Photo Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Soldiers who were among several hundred that took up positions around a Ukrainian military base stand near the base's periphery in Crimea on March 2, 2014 in Perevalne, Ukraine. Photo Sean Gallup/Getty Images

As the waters subside after the latest storm to strike Stormont, political wreckage is strewn everywhere. The credibility of the power-sharing Executive has hit a new low. A bitter sense of injustice is felt across a wide swath of this society.

The crisis over on-the-runs diminishes the standing of Stormont which needed no help towards a downward spiral of public confidence in the institutions of devolution.

Those who can recall the events of exactly 40 years ago may draw worrying parallels in their minds. Then, in the early spring of 1974, the power-sharing executive of Brian Faulkner and Gerry Fitt was coming under increasing pressure and was eventually brought to its knees in May by the Ulster Workers' Council strike.

Thankfully, history should not repeat itself in May 2014, but amid the wreckage of the past week we must be concerned that the Stormont Executive is heading dangerously in the wrong direction unless the political parties get a grip on themselves.

Public respect is ebbing away as it did in 1974, although for very different reasons. Then, the principal parties, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, were able to display some meeting of minds.

Today the failing relationship between the DUP and the Sinn Fein threatens to bring the white Portland stone porticos of Stormont tumbling down around themselves and the rest of us.

Friday's debate in the Assembly chamber was the most worrying evidence to date that political relationships here are taking on a Ukrainian mentality.

We may look at the crowds assembling in the centre of Kiev in support of one side or running up the Russian flag in the Crimea in support of the other, and we may think to ourselves what sadly divided people the Ukrainians are, with their different allegiances and loyalties to cultures east or west of their borders.

The same lack of trust, harbouring of suspicion, and evidence of enmity is increasingly apparent here. In looking at Ukraine are we witnessing a frightening mirror-image of what Northern Ireland could become?

Public confidence is seriously if not terminally damaged. If a referendum was held today, it is quite possible that a majority of unionists if not the wider community would say they are so disillusioned with Stormont that they would choose to oppose its continued existence or would abstain from taking any view on its future.

No one seems able to stop the rot. The British and Irish governments appear oblivious to the problems and unwilling to interfere in any meaningful manner. As the former leader of the SDLP Mark Durkan remarked forcibly at Westminster last week – the dirty war has given way to a dirty peace.

The arguments will continue over what guarantees of immunity were given to on-the-runs but no matter what the conclusions, they are unlikely to change the poisoned atmosphere pervading the local corridors of power.

The First Minister, in threatening his resignation, has demonstrated once again how good he is at stamping his feet. When it comes to being incandescent with anger, Peter Robinson has proved he has no equal.

If he could channel the same level of conviction into promoting a shared future for Northern Ireland, who knows what he might achieve.

Respect for Stormont is withering. The debate last Friday was so despairingly divisive that it seems only a matter of time before another crisis emerges.

Confrontation rather than compromise is what the people of Northern Ireland are getting after supporting the DUP and Sinn Fein.

The 71% who voted for the Good Friday Agreement had reason to hope that as time progressed, a sense of political contriteness might prevail. Those who were given places in government might have been expected to show more remorse, more openness about their actions, more willingness to tell the truth they have demanded of others to reveal.

This hasn't happened. Fifteen years on, we are facing a potential disaster. Sinn Fein lies at the centre of power in Northern Ireland. Nothing but nothing can be done without its approval no matter how out of step it is with majority opinion across this island and the UK. The other major party, the DUP behaves as a political counter-weight, at its most comfortable when demonstrating how equally dogmatic it can be.

We are reaping the divisive dividend inherent in the relationship between these two parties – viewing each other with an unrelenting mistrust.

These are testing times for devolution. As one storm subsides, another is probably lurking over the horizon.

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk