Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Leaders must realise that it's good to talk

Angry feet: contentious marches threatened to get out of control during the summer while Peter Robinson was on holiday

Declan Kearney's recent Westminster speech did indeed, feed 'uncomfortable conversations' between republicans and unionists. Unfortunately, these conversations haven't been particularly productive and were conducted through megaphones.

The Sinn Fein chairman baited Peter Robinson, accusing the DUP leader of speaking out of both sides of his mouth and living in a timewarp. His speech was peppered with references to the Orange state, unionist sectarianism and British colonial interests underlying the conflict.

If it had been given as the republican perspective during a discussion it would have been seen as challenging by unionists. Issued as a Press statement and fired across the media, it was likely to provoke a furious retort and Peter Robinson didn't disappoint.

Mr Robinson raised the megaphone to his lips and hit out with images of kneecapping. He brought up the Northern Bank robbery and reminded Mr Kearney of his role in debriefing the informer Denis Donaldson.

It is disappointing that, six years after the St Andrew's Agreement and five years into power-sharing, Sinn Fein and the DUP haven't worked out a shared language, or got to know each other a little better.

Listening to this debate, you would think that this history of power-sharing had never occurred. The dialogue Mr Kearney opened with Protestant clergy and leaders of civil society is presented as something new, but it seems more like a throwback to an earlier era before the parties were partners at Stormont.

Unfortunately, the DUP and Sinn Fein have practically no contact at branch or personal level. Bouts of megaphone invective often blow up between lower-level figures, but now Mr Robinson has been dragged into it. So far, the DUP has avoided involving Martin McGuinness, concentrating their fire on Declan Kearney and Gerry Adams. Hopefully, that will continue.

Good, functioning relationships between the First and Deputy First Ministers are essential to political stability. Cordial unity will also be needed when they travel to China later this month to promote investment in the province.

Hopefully, they can use the trip to unravel some of their recent differences. The current spat has deep historical roots, but the proximate cause lay in the end of the summer marching season, when Mr Robinson was on holiday.

Then, his lieutenants, like Nelson McCausland and Nigel Dodds, took the initiative.

It ended with the DUP and UUP lining up behind the loyal orders and the situation looked like spinning out of control. The Protestant church leaders and the police were alarmed and blamed unionist politicians. The storm only subsided when Mr Robinson came back and took charge, making it clear that, in the absence of an alternative, Parades Commission determinations had to be obeyed.

Next year, Mr Robinson might consider a staycation to keep an eye on the situation. Alternatively, if he fancies Florida again, he will need to promote more contact between DUP politicians and their Sinn Fein counterparts, so that conflicts can be avoided.

Party management is something he and Martin McGuinness could usefully discuss on that long flight to Beijing.

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