Yesterday it was the turn of Northern Ireland’s pensioners to demand that Executive ministers get back around the table and start tackling the economic crisis.
They marched on Stormont in their hundreds to spell out to the politicians the reality of life on the breadline. Soaring heating and power costs and rising prices in the shops mean that many pensioners who rely on state benefits face major financial problems this winter. It used to be said that many elderly people faced a choice between heating or eating; now some argue that they can afford neither.
Like business leaders before them and a series of other pressure groups, the pensioners were demanding that the DUP and Sinn Fein put their political differences behind them, or, at least, to one side and address the everyday issues which are affecting everyone’s life in Northern Ireland. The politicians may believe that the timing of a return of policing and justice powers to local hands and the identity of the new minister in charge is of vital political im
port, but the pensioners, like most other people, believe that the economy is a much more urgent issue.
And, it seems that the pressure on the politicians to end, or shelve, the deadlock is paying off. Today the First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness will address the Assembly committee working on the details of the devolution of policing and justice powers. That meeting will be behind closed doors and follows behind-the-scenes talks between the parties. The DUP’s executive committee and Sinn Fein’s ard comhairle were both briefed on the progress, lead
ing to speculation of a possible breakthrough.
It is suggested that the Executive could meet as soon as Thursday, 154 days since Ministers last gathered around the table. It is shocking that it has taken so long for the deadlock to be broken given the economic crisis facing the province, and it is difficult to think of any other democracy where such dereliction of duty would have been tolerated by the electorate. Indeed, it has got to the stage where some people are beginning to openly question whether the establishment of a power-sharing administration was indeed an improvement on Direct Rule.
However, it is not just purely political matters that make a meeting of the Executive imperative. There are growing fears that the political void is encouraging dissident republicans to maintain their senseless, but potentially deadly, campaign. The head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, was moved to urge dissidents to end their attacks on the police and said anyone with information about violence has “a clear moral duty” to give that information to the PSNI or Gardai. He pointed out that the failure of politicians to meet and perform their duties gave space to those who promote the idea that violence has something to offer.
It is accepted that parties like the DUP and Sinn Fein have difficulties in working together. But they signed up to the principle of a power-sharing administration and it is their duty to make that administration work. Finding ways of alleviating the hardship being suffered by pensioners and others in society provide the politicians with a non-controversial agenda for their return to work.