Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 31 August 2014

Leaders must bridge divide to calm our turbulent peace

Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson must end hostility between parties, which Speaker Hay has had to admonish
Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson must end hostility between parties, which Speaker Hay has had to admonish

The brutality of the Boston bombs brought back distressing memories for people in Northern Ireland. So many of us can relate to the loss of life and terrible suffering from our personal experience of living through the Troubles.

No-warning bombings shattered so many lives. La Mon House, McGurk's bar, Enniskillen – the list was unending until extremists on all sides began to catch themselves on. Many have come to accept – belatedly – the futility and inhumanity of their actions. But, sadly, not all.

How many potential Boston bombers are there still on this island of Ireland, still planning and lurking in the shadows, still believing that terrorism of the kind which took innocent lives across the Atlantic has a place on their own doorsteps?

I would suggest that the awful answer to that question is far too many. In observing the moat that is in America's eye, we ignore at our peril the plank in our own.

These are worrying times for the political and peace process in Northern Ireland, as evidenced by the fact that the First and Deputy First Minister spent hours behind closed doors last week, presumably trying to resolve major differences.

We have no idea what they said to one another, or what progress – if any – they made to diminish the mountain of distrust now existing between the two major parties at Stormont.

I suspect the prominent Ulster businessman, John Cunningham, spoke for many people when he likened MLAs to children arguing at school and suggested that, if Stormont was a company, it would be bankrupt by now. The net effect of all this squabbling is to strengthen the widely-held view that devolution is proving an unduly costly and cumbersome means of governing Northern Ireland.

Joe Public is tweeting and texting dismissive messages about how Stormont is viewed on the streets. If an Assembly election was held now, probably the biggest winner would be the apathy party.

Only 54% bothered to vote last time. If that figure were to drop below 50%, devolution might not be sustainable.

No one seems capable of breaking the log-jam. Whatever level of agreement Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness can reach in private is not reflected among their ministers and MLAs.

How telling is it that Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness can tour the outside world together, but rarely stand side-by-side, or answer questions from the media, at home?

Watching a Stormont debate recently, I was struck by the lack of respect which members showed across the Assembly floor.

The speeches were punctuated with cheap jibes and interruptions to the extent that the Speaker, William Hay, was constantly warning some MLAs, particularly his own Democratic Unionist Party, about their behaviour.

The atmosphere reminded me of the old, pre-Troubles Stormont, when bitter words and insults were traded regularly between unionist and nationalist benches in the days of majority rule.

If Messrs Robinson and McGuinness were searching for common ground last week, they would have needed eagle eyes to find it, after the Sinn Fein conference speeches and, in particular, the straw-poll conducted by the Belfast Telegraph among the delegates.

A quarter of those polled believed violence was justified while Northern Ireland remained within the UK. Only one-in-eight supported Martin McGuinness in his use of the word "traitors" to describe dissident terrorism.

A majority saw dissidents as political offenders, a third would not shop them to the PSNI, which, in turn, was seen as not impartial by half the delegates polled.

These are shocking statistics on the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Even allowing considerable room for error in the poll does not mitigate the frightening attitudes expressed within a party which is supposed to be signed up unequivocally to the peace process.

The consequences of the DUP digging in its heels at Stormont and Sinn Fein's grassroots growing increasingly restless and even dangerously militant again are simply too dreadful to contemplate.

The parties are travelling in opposite directions on too many important issues.

It will take much more than Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness spending a day talking behind closed doors to sort out a serious crisis in the making and restore public confidence in the working of Stormont.

That must be the bounden duty of both men. It is hardly an overstatement to suggest that the future of the peace process, of devolution, of stability and reconciliation, rests on the shoulders of Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness.

Given the attitudes within their respective parties, they have no mean task ahead.

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