Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 7 October 2015

Obama can reach for the stars, but we can’t get off the ground

Published 11/11/2008

The Executive has not met for five months. Even when it was in session, on and off, the mood of Government was peculiar.

Issues were brokered, not on their merits, but on the basis of a proposed form of barter. “If you do this, we will do that. We do not agree with your doing what you will do, but, if you allow us to do this, then you can do that.” But it has not worked because it has been shown that James Craig's old cry, “Not an inch!”, is the only slogan of cross-party appeal. The only common ground is that there is no common ground.

But the spin at the launch had been so good, with the two partners at the top hamming it for the cameras, that the larger world outside thought the fight was over. Now that it has become very obvious that it is not, they wonder what is going on. A deal of nastiness on both sides is the honest answer. Across the Atlantic, Barack Obama is on his political honeymoon. In the months ahead, when he visits his home base, and the presidential limousine whisks him along South Michigan Avenue to one of the opulent hotels in the Chicago Loop to appear before the sort of glittering assembly US Presidents’ address, and he looks out of the bomb-proof, fish-tank windows of the car at the spreading greensward of Grant Park, he will recall the night — election night, only a week ago today — when that myriad, milling multitude of the unglittering fell at his feet.

His speech, of course, was minutely crafted. He had twin autocues on stage. But his delivery was so professionally paced that the illusion of spontaneity was total. In any case, who is to say that the emotion of that vast assembly, many shedding incredulous tears of rapture, did not have its own effect on his delivery? Obama has shown before that he has an uncanny feel for a big occasion. On this one, the pinnacle of a young politician's ambition — yes, still a stripling in political terms — his magnanimity was striking.

He appealed that the people summon a new spirit of patriotism, that they look after not only themselves but each other; for they would rise or fall as one nation, one people.

He wanted to be done with partisanship and pettiness. He reminded them that Lincoln, the first Republican President, was — like himself — elected from Illinois. He then made a strong cross-party appeal to those in the party of Lincoln who had not voted for him: “I hear your voices. I need your help, and I will be your President too.”

In the far south-west, in the cactus country of Phoenix, Arizona, John McCain congratulated Obama on his success in inspiring the millions whose support he had won. He would serve him as his President. Very much election night stuff, all this; but notable all the same for its generous tone — too generous for some of his disappointed audience.

Obama is in for a bruising baptism when he gets to 1500 Pennsylvania Avenue. But his stress on bridging the party gulf was striking. In parochial terms, the extent of our problem is that neither speech is likely to be made in the same forceful way in Northern Ireland. We should ask ourselves once again — why? In the meantime, we blame our ministers. That may be less than just. In their remit, magnanimity is out. That is our common misfortune. They feel they cannot afford the luxury of being flexible. But the machinery they have been given, untried and untested anywhere, was assumed to be workable without any evidence whatsoever that that was so.

Hence their difficulty. Far from helping to weld the community into Obama's ‘one people’, it strives to set their divisions in concrete!

Obama's own problems remain immense. His political roots are in the most segregated city in the US and he goes to the White House having hoisted high the hopes of his black supporters — 95% of the black community across the US voted for him.

His own people on the Chicago south side and from Watts in Los Angeles to Harlem in New York will judge him harshly if he does not deliver. If he can draw his vast national constituency together in pragmatic alliance, it will be impressive indeed. In Stormont, the problems accumulate. Committees help to fill the yawning constitutional gap left by the absence of an Opposition.

But experience with our sprawling roster of quangos suggests that scrutiny is still disgracefully weak. In a proper parliamentary democracy, ministers whose parties screw up are ejected from office. Ours, fatally, are not.

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