Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

No sign of harmony on the hill after summer of strife

Controversial: wreath-laying at an IRA commemoration in Castlederg

This summer, just like the last one, has been a political mess. Politicians squabbled over parades and commemorations. Tourists were treated to sights of rioting and unrest and all the wrong pictures have been flashed around the world.

Orangefest – billed by Visit Belfast as an unmissable showcase for "aspects of Ulster's rich heritage and culture" – turned out to be another blow to hard-pressed city-centre traders, as shoppers steered clear to avoid trouble.

A total of 600 police officers were drafted in from elsewhere to maintain order and the cost ran at close to £1m a day.

Our botched summer raises three questions. The most immediate is whether the political system can dust itself down and behave civilly enough to do some business, as Stormont reopens for business on Monday.

In the medium term, we need to focus on the prospects for the planned G8-branded investment conference in October.

Longer term, the challenge for politicians is to use the Haass talks, which open on Tuesday, to provide a template to allow next summer to pass less eventfully.

There are mixed signs. Belfast City Council showed leadership when the DUP, Sinn Fein and the other parties agreed a motion which condemned the attacks on the Lord Mayor.

It took a little textual tinkering, but it was good work by people like Lee Reynolds of the DUP, and Conor Maskey of Sinn Fein.

Similar political skills would come in handy at Stormont next week. On Monday, a DUP motion seeks to reaffirm the ministerial pledge of office and the MLAs' code of conduct "in particular the commitment to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means".

Everyone could agree this, but a final clause homes in on comments by Gerry Kelly at an IRA commemoration in Castlederg.

Mr Kelly, a former prisoner himself, praised "comrades who gave their lives in the struggle for Irish freedom and equality".

Mr Kelly's comments are under investigation by the Standards Commissioner and it might be best to await the outcome.

One thing is for sure: the motion, as it stands, will not produce any meeting of minds in the Assembly. Instead, there is the potential for an unproductive shouting-match, conducted at the taxpayers' expense.

The next day, a Sinn Fein motion, signed by Mr Kelly, "notes with grave concern the violence and disorder over the summer months; deplores the activities of all those engaged in acts of violence against local communities, elected representatives, and the PSNI". It will be seen as a reference to loyalist unrest.

The best result for Northern Ireland would be if the whips could get together and combine the two motions into something that could command cross-community support.

That would send a message of serious intent to move forward.

Next week in New York, and after they return on Friday, the First and Deputy First Ministers will rightly try to accentuate the positive.

They will talk of tremendous strides being made and a province that is open for business.

We need to make sure that all future strides are forward to a better, shared future and not backwards to a divided past.

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