Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Stormont: Why the odd couple have to soldier on...

Provocative: The Castlederg IRA parade was cited as one of the reasons for Peter Robinson's U-turn on the Maze

Danny Morrison suspects the Assembly could collapse, but hopes he is wrong. I don't think we are in that territory yet. The more immediate danger is that Stormont limps on as a zombie assembly, where nothing much is done and the big parties veto each other's initiatives, while the small ones nip at their heels.

Let's examine the case for collapse. Things have been deteriorating since April. Back then, Martin McGuinness signalled his discontent in his speech at his party's ard fheis.

He complained of "lack of cohesion between unionist and republican ministers". He said people were telling him "that Sinn Fein ministers are in government with unionist ministers, because we want to be, but that unionist ministers are in government with Sinn Fein, because they have to be." He added: "Speaking frankly, this isn't good enough."

Since then, things have steadily deteriorated. As republicans see it, the DUP has sidled closer to the Orange Order and this has made relations more difficult.

In August, Peter Robinson pulled the plug on the Maze/Long Kesh peace centre, which was part of a carefully worked out deal with Sinn Fein.

Danny Morrison described that as a "letter bomb from America", because Mr Robinson's decision was delivered as a fait accompli in a fairly bellicose 11-page dispatch while he was on holiday in Florida. It put some of the blame on the republican parade in Castlederg, which had left local IRA victims feeling retraumatised.

Mr Robinson had already been under pressure on the issue ever since the RUC widows had told him publicly to think again.

Sinn Fein strategists expected turbulence, but there had been no warning, or consultation, with Mr McGuinness who, as a result, was left looking ineffective and powerless.

Republicans wondered if they could trust the DUP to keep its word and, like many commentators, if Mr Robinson was still in charge.

Gerry Adams voiced concern in the Dail last week. He and Mr McGuinness had previously asked the same questions about David Trimble and decided to let the UUP leader fall, rather than give him the sort of concessions on issues like decommissioning he needed to survive.

There are similarities, but this isn't the same situation. For one thing, Mr Robinson doesn't need concessions from Sinn Fein. He will also remain on as leader at least past the coming elections – provided he hangs tough.

For another, letting David Trimble dangle wasn't as big a risk for republicans as collapsing the Assembly.

Sinn Fein is riding high in the polls south of the border and has its eye on government. If there was a Dail election tomorrow, it would be tricky to construct a coalition without them.

They would, however, become really toxic as potential partners if they just pulled out of government in the north, creating chaos. Anyway, they have other weapons in their armoury besides the nuclear button. Mr McGuinness recently stated that he will hold up all other developments on the Maze/Long Kesh site, with the exception of the Balmoral show.

John O'Dowd has made a more friendly overture, saying that the party will reflect on the Castlederg march and the hurt it had caused, suggesting that such an exercise was unlikely to be repeated.

That leaves the ball in the DUP's court. They may try to smooth things over and both parties will step off the ladder of escalation.

If they don't, we are in for a costly period of blocking tactics and inertia in the Assembly.

In other words, Stormont could die on its feet, but it is unlikely to actually fall over.

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