Belfast Telegraph

Despite long history of political deadlocks, DUP and Sinn Fein struggle to manage a crisis

By Tom Kelly

Reading Bertie Ahern's interventions this week on the breakdown of the Northern Ireland Executive office was interesting. Though as a deal maker, he must surely recognise that his suggestion for a time-out approach has actually passed.

Northern ministers, with the exception of Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, are still at their desks and we are not quite at an apocalyptic moment. That will surely come but just now we are still courting the danger.

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The British and Irish Governments have been asleep at the wheel for some time and haven't provided the nurturing that a fraught relationship between two parties of polar but popular extremes, such as the DUP and Sinn Fein require.

Both Governments have much to answer for in this current debacle. Fine Gael has always been arms-length from Northern Ireland. Certainly there have been no flag carriers since Peter Barry and Garret FitzGerald.

This British Government got altogether too cosy with the DUP under the tenure of Theresa Villiers, and Brexit hasn't helped matters. Just like the days of the old Stormont, the British and Irish Governments have closed their eyes and ears to whatever is going on in the Northern administration.

But devolution in a contested space such as the divided Northern Ireland is always fragile and needs an ever-vigilant eye.

At the moment, with Brexit looming, neither the British nor the Irish have much time to give to the Northern baby who threw out the dummy. But they must give time. So far the reaction of Secretary of State James Brokenshire and Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan is hardly encouraging for anyone looking for hope in their language.

Mind you, there's not much hope coming from the language of the main two protagonists either - Arlene Foster or Gerry Adams. Both have acted with all the subtly and hammed up outrage of two pantomime dames at a funeral.

Anyone engaged in actual conflict management knows that inflammatory language does not help the situation, but the leaders of the DUP and Sinn Fein seem to want to use language that is as incendiary as a dozen biomass boilers in a Wendy house.

A few years ago I was asked to stand in for a parliamentarian and chair a two-day workshop between young Palestians and Israelis.

At the opening forum in Larnaca, I felt like the foreman at the Tower of Babel as each group roared at each other like the feisty apple sellers in Henry Street.

Megaphone diplomacy never works. What works even less is playing out one's angst in public through the media. Setting out non-negotiable terms through the airwaves is the political equivalent of a two-year-old having a tantrum in a supermarket.

In a futile attempt to out-gun each other, both Adams and Foster have chosen the Phil Mitchell approach to persuasive argument.

The outgoing or gone First Minister has also tried to reinforce her Britishness with her ubiquitous crown brooch slotted on to every coat and matched with union flag coloured scarves. All that was missing was Lily Savage's patriotic bloomers.

Despite her obvious confidence and having an array of intelligent advisers, her media performances have been poor.

Whoever decided that her broadside to Martin McGuinness's resignation should be filmed in front of a fireplace either has a warped sense of humour or has the political radar of the bespectacled hamster, which Mrs Foster put up on her Facebook page. Ironically the hamster moment seemed well matched to the madcap tweeting idiosyncrasy of her would be nemesis, Mr Adams.

But there are rules in managing a crisis and in the future students of crisis management will see that both the DUP and Sinn Fein threw those rules out the window.

One basic rule is to agree a single spokesperson as this controls information flow and allows for consistency of message.

The DUP has given us Sammy Wilson, Gregory Campbell, Simon Hamilton, Paul Givan and Jeffrey Donaldson. Three of who aren't even in the Assembly.

Sinn Fein also gave multiple spokespeople just to add to the confusion. They included Conor Murphy, Michelle O'Neill, Alex Maskey, Mairtin O Muilleoir and even Mary Lou McDonald.

In the case of both parties - not one spokesperson seems to have been given the same briefing. It was quite funny at one point, when Gregory Campbell speaking about the RHI scheme said to Stephen Nolan, that he (Nolan) seemed 'fixated with what went wrong.' Well, err, that would actually be a good thing as it would be the central focus of any proposed independent public inquiry.

Another rule of crisis management is to talk up a successful track record, but its clear that neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP could do that despite being in Government together as partners for 10 years.

The sight of two opposing Executive ministers actually gutting one another on TV was bizarre by the bear-pit standards of Northern Ireland. How will it be possible for these individuals to return to Government as collegiate partners in the long term?

Ultimately in crisis management it comes down to taking responsibility for actions and going to the public with demonstrable humility and regret. There's just no escaping it. In Japan a few weeks ago, the CEO of a company which employs nearly 50,000 employees resigned after an over-worked employee committed suicide.

It's doubtful if they ever met, but as CEO, he was responsible for the culture of the organisation.

Thanks to our chequered history, we don't have a culture of responsibility taking in Northern Ireland and that's why unionists found the intervention of Mr Adams so nauseating. However, they should have had no such misgivings about the reservations expressed by Mr McGuinness.

On the plus side, by continuing to be Western Europe's political basket case, perversely we may yet get a better and boutique post-Brexit deal from the EU.

Against a backdrop of Trump and populist fanaticism - what has normal politics ever done for us anyway?

Tom Kelly is a political commentator

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