Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

Chuckle Brothers set to get serious

The Executive holds its first meeting since the summer recess tomorrow. Political Correspondent Noel McAdam charts the key pressure points and asks whether the central relationship between First Minister Ian Paisley and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness may change

Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness have been photographed laughing together since taking office in May. Now some politicians say it's time to change the image

Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness are set to visit the Labour and Conservative party conferences in the next few weeks.

Despite concerns that the incessant smiling of the First and Deputy First Ministers has caused unease in both unionist and republican camps, it appears the two men are agreed their joint appearances have set the tone for the Executive, and that bonhomie beats belligerence.

During the first, relatively short bedding-in period for the Executive between May and July, the advice of officials seemed to be that optimism would provide reassurance for their respective grassroots.

Some say now in those early days Mr Paisley and Mr McGuinness perhaps overdid the joking and grinning, earning the unflattering soubriquet of the 'Chuckle Brothers'.

Now their demeanour for future appearances - of which, officials insist, quite a number are being planned - may change, emphasising the seriousness of governance and attempting to send out the signal of getting down to business.

Despite the stop-start experience of the last Executive, all four parties involved remain on a learning curve.

For decades they have been involved in pure opposition rather than the much tougher task of agreeing the detail and implementation of social and economic policies.

The current structures, themselves to be reviewed in time, require that the parties achieve at least outline agreement on any particular strategy or policy before there can be any chance of Executive or Assembly success.

One of the dangers, therefore, already arguably seen in this week's massive row over the proposed Giant's Causeway Centre, is that it may be easier for ministers to act unilaterally and simply side-step intended procedure.

One of the changes, however, between this regime, still finding its feet, and the last, is the role of junior ministers Gerry Kelly and Ian Paisley Jnr, who are allowed to attend Executive meetings, though not allowed to vote and can troubleshoot between departments, as well as between the Office of the First Ministers, London and Dublin.

Yet old contradictons die hard. On the first day of the new administration, Mr Paisley said he believed the Union was stronger than ever, while Mr McGuinness made clear he remained a republican who "absolutely" believed in a united Ireland.

Mr Paisley has also argued that republicanism has "certainly been defeated" and indicated he does not regard McGuinness as his " co-equal".

The points are important, since they indicate neither of the main parties in the Executive has got past the point of viewing the current deal as a stepping stone towards incompatible goals.

On the unionist side, DUP MP Gregory Campbell is among those insisting the chuckling has to stop. The new Assembly term, he said, would usher in the new battleground between unionism and republicanism.

"The republicans that presently promote Sinn Fein policy believe that over a generation or so they can replace their 'war' footing by a charm offensive. This is what is behind much of the dross now being seen," the East Londonderry MP added.

"Unionist outreach programmes and visitations to historic places of unionist interest are all part of this.

"They have failed to forcibly defeat us so now they are trying to get those in our community who have never had to be 'up close and personal' with republicans to believe that they are not really as bad as was thought over the 30 years of their murder campaign."

Misgivings within republican grassroots are felt to centre more on difficulties over policing, with the Government target date for devolution of policing and justice to the Executive by May of next year appearing to fade.

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