Belfast Telegraph

No smiles, no optimism, just another fraught day at Stormont

By Ivan Little

She was forcing a smile nearly 10 years ago in the background of the ground-breaking and iconic photograph of Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams as they signalled the birth of their power-sharing Executive. However yesterday, Arlene Foster was the stony-faced woman in the big picture as she acknowledged the death knell for the DUP-Sinn Fein partnership at Stormont.

There were no smiles, no honeyed words of optimism about the possibility of an early return to any semblance of co-operation from the other half of the Stormont double act, Sinn Fein, who did exactly what they said they'd do yesterday - as they effectively brought the Executive to its knees. On a surreal day, where it was often business as unusual in the Assembly chamber with soon-to-be former ministers answering questions from their opponents, the reality was that no one had any idea when power-sharing, which went up in smoke because of too much lucrative profit-sharing in a flawed green energy scheme, could or would, ever be re-kindled.

Bookies were laughing off requests from the early morning for odds about what might unfold in the normally unpredictable environment in Parliament Buildings yesterday.

The only surprise was that there were no surprises as the Stormont runners and riders held on as the clock galloped relentlessly to the 5pm deadline for Secretary of State James Brokenshire to call a new race to a new Assembly.

During the day there were cloud-cuckoo-land calls and expressions of hope from Downing Street that Sinn Fein and the DUP might find an 11th-hour agreement to their long-running disagreements.

But where a decade ago there may have been positive noises coming from Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams at Stormont, yesterday there was only poison in the east Belfast air.

Yes, the place has moved on from the unseemly days of 2001 when rival politicians kicked lumps out of each other in the great hall as David Trimble was returned as First Minister.

However yesterday, no one from the DUP or Sinn Fein was pulling any punches as the blame game over the Assembly's demise was played out in front of the TV cameras. All 14 of them.

News crews had taken up every vantage point in every corner of the great hall which hadn't seen a media frenzy anything quite like it in years.

Outside, the hardest job of the day fell to the guides on the Belfast bus tours who had to try to give visitors an overview of the current political crisis and explain why there were so many satellite trucks beaming pictures around the world. On Prince of Wales Avenue, where parking is normally discouraged, 150 cars stretched almost as far as the Upper Newtownards Road.

Their journalist owners who had waited patiently for something, anything, to happen were rewarded at seven minutes to midday as Arlene Foster led her DUP faithful down the steps for the high noon showdown in the chamber.

It wasn't just the MLAs who walked purposefully behind their besieged leader.

The DUP's heavy-hitters like Nigel Dodds, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Ian Paisley left aside their Westminster MP duties to support Mrs Foster.

Dressed conservatively in a grey jacket and black dress, with no sign of her trademark Union flag scarf, the Fermanagh woman who knew her time as First Minister was almost up, strode to the cameras and said it was "deeply regrettable" that the Assembly would be dissolved in the next couple of days.

Referring to the heating scandal she said: "We all want, and I particularly want, to resolve the Renewable Heat Incentive issue so that we can get back to the issues that really matter to the people of Northern Ireland like fixing our health service."

Her implication that RHI wasn't something that really concerned people here surprised a number of commentators.

But Mrs Foster was on a roll and she added: "The only way to get to the bottom of what really happened is to have a full, frank, open and transparent inquiry and cost controls which would solve the RHI difficulties, not an election."

Mrs Foster said the electorate didn't want or need an election and she accused Sinn Fein of triggering the poll because they didn't like the outcome of last May's vote.

"They have forced an election that risks Northern Ireland's future and stability and which suits nobody apart from themselves," she said. Naomi Long led her Alliance Party MLAs into the chamber without speaking to the media.

But just a minute before the Assembly members were due to meet, Ulster Unionist leader Michael Nesbitt said: "It's referendum time. You can have more of the same or you can have change. We are for change."

Sinn Fein MLAs made their way individually into the chamber and journalists wondered where Martin McGuinness was.

It quickly became clear that Mr McGuinness, who sent shock waves through Stormont last week when he resigned as Deputy First Minister after Arlene Foster refused to stand aside, had entered the house away from the glare of the cameras.

One man who didn't hide away was the DUP's now suspended MLA Jonathan Bell, although he still managed to look like the loneliest man at Stormont as he walked to the chamber. He had a fixed grin for the photographers but no comment for reporters about his verbal clashes with Mrs Foster or about speculation that he might be standing as an Ulster Unionist in the election.

Inside the chamber, the still frail Martin McGuinness appeared despondent and stared straight ahead as the futile process of re-nominating the First and Deputy First Minsters got under way. He didn't say a word.

Mrs Foster's demeanour was almost identical and neither she nor her former Sinn Fein ally directly opposite exchanged as much as a glance.

The anticipated choreography of the renomination of Arlene Foster by Lord Morrow and the refusal of Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill to re-nominate "her friend" Martin McGuinness was completed in just over five minutes.

The former IRA man from Derry didn't hang about afterwards, though there was a hug from Naomi Long and a handshake from her predecessor as Alliance leader, David Ford.

It felt like a farewell of sorts and with Mrs O'Neill and several other Sinn Fein colleagues by his side, Mr McGuinness disappeared through the great hall with the gait of a man who may have reluctantly reached the end of his political road. He stopped briefly to greet a veteran journalist from Dublin with a simple hello, nothing more.

Mr McGuinness is expected to announce within the next few days if he will fight the Foyle seat in the election or if he will devote his energies instead to restoring his health and not the Executive.

Yesterday, with the low-key nominations procedure over, Stormont was treated to the bizarre spectacle of watching the death throes of the power-sharing process. Economy Minister Simon Hamilton outlined plans to a committee for cutting the costs of the RHI scheme and Mrs O'Neill talked about her health brief.

During a debate on the bedroom tax, Communities Minister Paul Givan erroneously referred to yesterday being "the last day of the sitting of this Assembly" only to be corrected by the Speaker Robin Newton who confirmed that the place could limp on for a day or two.

Mr Newton himself faced a no confidence motion from Sinn Fein but the DUP vetoed that with a petition of concern.

Yet all the while at Stormont the elephant in the room was the election, and James Brokenshire finally held a news conference to confirm the date of what is expected to be a bitter poll as Thursday, March 2.

He said no one should underestimate the challenge faced to the political institutions and what was at stake, but he stressed that the Government would do what they could to help all the parties to re-establish a partnership Government.

Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy, who's been tipped as a possible successor to Mr McGuinness, told reporters that there would be no return to the institutions unless there was equality, respect and an end to the corruption of - and within - the institutions.

"There can be no return unless there's fundamental change to the approach of the DUP and how they view power-sharing and how they exercise their ministerial authority within their departments," he said.

And so at the end of yet another fraught day on The Hill, it was Stormont RIP.

It is hard to see that power-sharing will for the foreseeable future be anything other than resting in pieces.

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