Belfast Telegraph

Monday 20 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Where is the political statesmanship we so desperately need?

A car on fire in North Street as loyalists counter protest against republicans taking part in the anti-internment march as it passes Royal Avenue in Belfast city centre
A car on fire in North Street as loyalists counter protest against republicans taking part in the anti-internment march as it passes Royal Avenue in Belfast city centre

Let me break the news to you. It is official – Peter Robinson is on holiday stateside and Martin McGuinness is in Donegal tweeting pictures of his dog Buttons as he dips in and out of the fleadh in Stroke City.

Our leaders' next planned meeting is due on September 9 in New York when they will, hopefully, act like old pals united for the common good. Mr Robinson will most likely fly directly to New York without even returning here first – that is the plan.

That is OK as far as it goes. Everyone deserves a break and, fingers crossed, the rest of the summer may not go too badly. The main outstanding parade is Last Saturday, the Black Institution's big day out at the end of this month.

The Black will be doing their best to minimise the potential for trouble.

So this is a suitable juncture for a little downtime. Both leaders stuck around for the worst of the summer. Anyway, Mr McGuinness is still near enough the Stormont shop to drive back at short notice.

He is having something of a busman's holiday, and in Florida Mr Robinson will, on past form, keep a close eye via the internet.

The problem is the lack of a collective message when they were still here or from their lieutenants when they weren't. We can all remember 2009 when their common resolve injected calm and confidence after dissident republicans murdered two soldiers and a police officer. When Mr McGuinness described the perpetrators as "traitors to Ireland" it made a difference and united people.

In contrast, the lack of something equally statesmanlike last week risks damaging brand Robinson/McGuinness and dents the confidence of voters in the ability of the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition to deliver if the going gets tough.

Mr Robinson has a number of established positions which should have been drilled into any DUP politician who wished to speak. Mr Robinson has said before that he didn't like the Parades Commission – and is working to replace it – but he accepts that it is a legally constituted body whose determinations must be accepted in the meantime.

That is something he could have said on his own, or in concert with Mr McGuinness. They might have called for proper stewarding of both the republican anti-internment march and the loyalist counter-protests. There might have been a warning that those who break the law face harsh penalties and an appeal to think again could have been issued.

Instead, his most recent words to us came on Thursday, just as Belfast prepared for the next evening's chaos. They came in a joint statement, not with Mr McGuinness, but with Mike Nesbitt, the Ulster Unionist leader.

The statement criticised the PSNI for failing to adequately protect previous loyal order marches. It went on to call for "the Apprentice Boys of Derry to be allowed to enjoy a peaceful, respectful day out this Saturday."

"It is incumbent upon the PSNI to ensure those peacefully celebrating culture are protected," the two leaders said, calling for a seminar on the issue next month.

These were legitimate concerns, but is a restatement of loyal order concerns really the best parting message that the First Minister could have left us at a moment of danger and communal conflict?

Next evening, when violence erupted and 56 PSNI officers were injured, the field was left to more junior party members with no adequate script. The shocking images and recriminatory soundbites that went around the world were a PR disaster.

Leadership is not all down to Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness, those further down the party hierarchy who did grab the microphone could have spoken more helpfully.

"Anyone who knows Belfast and knows Belfast politics could see, tragically, this was coming down the line," Christopher Stalford, the DUP deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast, said of Friday's rioting. His fatalistic, hopeless words, and his decision to put all the blame on the legally constituted Parades Commission rather than the law breakers, didn't just go out to a UK-wide audience on Radio 4, they were picked up in America and elsewhere.

In the end it fell to Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State, and Matt Baggott, the Chief Constable, to try and halt the drift.

Both spoke strongly and unequivocally against the violence and warned of consequences for those involved.

They filled a vacuum, but they shouldn't have had to. Neither of them was elected here. The fact that they had to hold the ring will make many question the overall value of the devolved settlement which is now in place.

The failure of those further down the line didn't end there. North Belfast DUP representatives didn't give an adequate response to the attack on the Lord Mayor in Woodvale Park. Instead, they basically said "we told you so" and presented the violence as inevitable. It fell to Simon Hamilton, the Finance Minister, to see the wider context and defend the mayor's right to go where his duties took him in the city.

Mr Robinson would have spoken most effectively if he had done so in concert with Mr McGuinness. That isn't easy, given the history of their two parties, but it would have set the tone for those further down the line.

Anyway, they weren't elected or paid just to do the easy bits. It is at difficult and dangerous moments that politicians can show leadership, earn respect and define their place in the history books.

Next month in New York will be an easy bit when we can expect congratulatory speeches. We will hear of a society in transition, of political stability and of hopes for a bright, shared future. G8 will be mentioned as will the high hopes that the Haass process, starting the following Monday, September 16, can sort out any remaining difficulties.

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