Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

There's neither warmth nor animosity between Robinson and McGuinness

Political Correspondent Noel McAdam outlines the |relationship between Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness and argues an overlap between two community relations blueprints could still help salvage the Shared Future initiative

They spend their working days only feet apart and formally meet up on most of them. The length and tone of their almost daily meetings varies, but there are no tantrums or walk-outs. Officials say the atmosphere is “businesslike”.





They don’t do small talk but will acknowledge each other should they pass in a corridor of power.

They come together to meet visitors, such as the new American economic envoy earlier this week, or hear from deputations. There is no warmth between them but neither is there any sense of huge animosity.

Since the new administration moved early on into Stormont Castle, Peter Robinson’s office is on the ground floor, right next to the Executive’s room. Martin McGuinness’ office is almost exactly directly above. Contact, at some level, is constant, with an army of advisers and officials bigger than Downing Street.

Generally the atmosphere is better than when the offices were located in the long ground corridor of Parliament Buildings and David Trimble and Seamus Mallon, who had no personal liking for each other, glowered at each other from opposite ends of it.

One episode late last year, when the Stormont ‘top two’ were caught in the Christmas crowds in central Belfast, seems in retrospect to have been a pivotal experience which helped cement their workmanlike relationship.

Shoulder-to-shoulder shoppers meant the First and Deputy First Ministers could not be brought right to the door of a yuletide event in the offices of the Press Association.

As McGuinness recalls: “Normally we are driven right up to the door, but the streets were thronged and I couldn’t get up to the door with people coming up and telling me they were from the Shankill, Rathcoole or Lambeg and saying ‘can I shake your hand?’ and ’youse are doing a great job’. “These were not people who had converted to republicanism, but that clearly showed me, yes, there is diminishing opposition, but the overwhelming majority want to see these institutions working, though working better.”

It is a sentiment with which the DUP leader would concur which is why, he would argue, he launched his proposals last week to attempt to expedite Assembly and Executive business with less hiatus and hold-ups. Mr McGuinness was livid when he heard Robinson’s Ulster Hall speech, which he was not given sight of in advance.

Relations between the two seasoned, veteran politicians are said to remain “personable” despite the growing tensions across a range of policies. Mr McGuinness’ attack on his power-sharing partner as “spending too long in Disneyland”, which Mr Robinson described as “cheap and nasty”, was the first time, in private or in public, things between FM and DFM got personal.

They are both big enough and old enough to put it behind them, and Mr McGuinness seeks today, in an article for the Belfast Telegraph, to ‘park’ any bad blood. Mr Robinson is also known to be keen to move on.

Yet the irony and rich symbolism of the latest clashes over the central strategy on Cohesion, Strategy and Inclusion are lost on no-one.

The two main political parties both tasked with helping to heal Northern Ireland’s divided society are once again at loggerheads — over plans to bring the communities closer together.

Sinn Fein decided to go ‘themselves alone’ and issue their own proposals on community relations and cohesion because, they say, the DUP repeatedly refused to agree.

Then the DUP countered yesterday by ignoring protocols to finally allow the public to see the work-in-progress which they say was the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy last autumn.

Surprisingly, perhaps, there is a huge degree of overlap between both, which could yet provide a credible way out of stalemate and prevent both documents joining all their various predecessors gathering dust on Stormont shelves.

The draft document from last year unveiled by the DUP yesterday, to which individual departments had yet to contribute, talked of a new ministerially-led Good Relations Panel “with the support” of the head of the civil service, other departments, local government and key stakeholders with a role and responsibilities in tackling sectarianism, racism and racial inequalities and statutory bodies such as the Equality Commission, the Community Relations Council and PSNI.

This is not a million miles from the Sinn Fein document which says a ministerial panel would also include people from various sections of society “facing discrimination, prejudice and hate crime”.

The draft paper also talks of working with communities to remove divisive symbols “such as parliamentary flags, racist and sectarian graffiti and paramilitary murals” and also tackle the issue of territorial markers, such as flags, where they are being used to intimidate. This would be high on any nationalist priority list.

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