Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Malachi O'Doherty: As Assembly Members take a break, can they look back with pride?

Stormont Parliament Buildings
Stormont Parliament Buildings

If life is what happens while you're making other plans, then politics is something similar.

And when our political leaders reflect at the beach or by the pool this summer on their achievements in the past year, few will be unreservedly proud of their work or confident that they have solid achievements to build on when they come back.

Some things looked straightforward a year ago. Like the A5 which would link Derry to the border round the far side of Lough Neagh. The Irish government was pulling back in its commitment to the southern part, but the money was secured for our part.

Danny Kennedy, as Roads Minister, has seen that plan crash on him and he may at least be relieved that he got a few new cycle and bus lanes through Belfast without the resultant chaos breaking out into popular revolt.

Alex Attwood, looking after commerce in the city, scuppered the John Lewis store for Sprucefield that he said would draw business away from the city centre.

By the end of the year he had lost much of his planning power to the First and Deputy First Ministers, who can be expected to give John Lewis a fresh hearing.

And the DUP brought similar bullish thrust to their agreement with Sinn Fein on a Peace and Reconciliation Centre at the Maze Prison site.

Some unionists will be using the summer to reflect on what more they can do to scupper that plan, fearful as they are that the Maze site will be, effectively, a memorial to the IRA.

In the trade-off that politics is, the DUP must be assumed to have secured a recompense in their deal with Sinn Fein. Perhaps it was their compliance with the appropriation of planning powers; but then what party declines more clout?

Jim Allister of the TUV might be feeling more pleased with himself. Having failed to capitalise much on the flag protests at the start of the year, an issue you'd have thought would have worked well for him, he scored his biggest hit with the Spads Bill, which barred long-term former prisoners from working as ministerial advisers.

What that may have taught him is that he can look more widely than the political culture he speaks for when trawling for allies. He would have failed had he not worked with Ann Travers and had she not pulled the SDLP back by the tail.

This wasn't the only hint of scope for real political imagination. The Ulster Unionist Party split again. Mike Nesbitt, the leader, was last year thought to be inching his party into the DUP camp, and now wants to outflank them as the sternest critic of Sinn Fein. Defectors Basil McCrea and John McCallister offer an opposition and hope to attract Catholics and secular-minded voters who are content with the Union but would rather argue other political issues.

That pair can feel pleased that they have registered their intention to change things, but if they don't come back with a dynamic vision and a road map towards it they might squander the opportunity to scoop up a lot of disillusioned voters.

Others face challenges just as great. Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have to show quick progress on a shared future. They do have one advantage – public expectations are low.

But all have to be alert to the possibility that a growing disaffection with Stormont will find coherent expression around something or someone.

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