Ed Curran: Stormont’s not perfect but it’s our only route to peace
We will not know until May 5 whether the general public of Northern Ireland is as satisfied with our politicians as they appeared to be with themselves last week when Stormont was vacated.
Broadly speaking, the electorate falls into four categories: those totally, or generally, supportive of Stormont; those who offer critical qualified approval; those who think it is a waste of time and money; and those who don’t vote at all in elections.
The first and second categories believe the Executive deserves credit for sticking together. The body language of the parties towards one another, most notably the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, has vastly improved.
The second group of voters is disappointed that Stormont has not achieved more. One party or the other bottled out when it came to big issues.
So much has been left undone that the next Assembly will have many a mountain to climb.
It will face more crises over the underfunding of the health service. Someone will have to sort out the 11-plus debacle. The nonsense of 26 district councils must be addressed.
The third group of voters — those who think Stormont is a waste of time — can be heard loudly, morning after morning on the radio phone-in programmes.
They complain that the Executive and Assembly is too costly, inefficient and unnecessary. They have voted in the past but they may not turn up at the polls on May 5.
Finally, there is a fourth group — the out-and-out abstentionists. This growing band of non-voters reflects a total disinterest in politics. They represent the biggest threat to the democratic process because they have become the largest party of all.
May 5 will be more a referendum than an election. Many people may go to the polls — or stay at home — simply on the basis of their overall view of the Stormont Executive's past performance.
A big turn-out will be a seal of approval; a reduced poll will be taken as an expression of frustration that Stormont is not delivering.
A sense of unease appears to be more prevalent within the unionist community. Will the unionist vote continue its decline? Or is that community finally coming to terms with a future in which Martin McGuinness might be First Minister?
Like Ireland's rugby and cricket teams in their recent encounters with England, McGuinness has played a blinder as deputy First Minister.
From the moment he uttered the word “traitors” about dissident republicans, to his support for the First Minister during the Iris Robinson scandal, to his comments this month dissuading protest over the Queen's forthcoming visit to the Republic, he has played the political game with increasingly consummate diplomacy.
In contrast, Peter Robinson has had a more difficult time. His tenure as First Minister was overshadowed by his personal problems.
However, he has since regained composure and looks in the process of re-inventing himself and his party in a more moderate political mode than before. This is bad news for the imploding Ulster Unionists.
Six weeks from now, the judges — the people of Northern Ireland — will have delivered the real verdict.
They will have voted most probably for Sinn Fein and the DUP to remain by far the largest power-blocs. For the SDLP — and, even more so, for the Ulster Unionists — May 5 will be a defining moment.
The mellowing of Robinson and McGuinness and their respective parties does not make vote-catching any easier for the others, whose political apparel Sinn Fein and the DUP continue to steal and wear.
The gaps between formerly extreme and mainstream parties are blurring to such an extent that more voters may plump to support individuals rather than parties in the secrecy of the ballot booth.
In one sense, Northern Ireland has never been so united. In another, that unity of purpose remains an illusion because each side is taking strength from its own power-bloc.
Stormont is far from perfect, but it is better than nothing. Undoubtedly, many people feel promises have not been delivered, and decisions have been put on hold.
Imperfect, inefficient, indecisive — yes.
But worth another throw of the dice on May 5 if only for one good and over-riding reason: the Stormont Executive and Assembly remains Northern Ireland’s only lifeline to peace and stability.
Granted, it must do much better next time around. But we cannot lose faith at this juncture.