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Greetings to Stormont from Washington, DC - now stay home and put your own house in order

By Michael HC McDowell

Published 19/11/2016

Work to do: Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and First Minister Arlene Foster
Work to do: Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and First Minister Arlene Foster

Dear Arlene and Martin:

So, you have congratulated President-elect Donald Trump on his election. Very polite, but a bit pompous, indulging in hubris and inviting the sharp question he may ask: "Who on earth are these people? And why should I care about this little place off Scotland, somewhere?"

Indeed.

My advice to The Donald - not that he would heed it, I suspect - is not to invite you to his new house, the White House, until you have fixed up your own ailing house in Northern Ireland.

Please stay at home and don't bother junketing out here and begging for tickets to the inauguration in January and then buying the first-class, or business class, airline tickets for another time-wasting visit to Washington in March.

You need to stay at home and fix up the Fresh Start, as it was supposed to be, and not the Stale Start, it has turned out to be.

The 'Opposition' powers in the Assembly have turned out to be an utter joke, thanks to your two tribal parties excluding others from decisions, not just because they left the Executive (they weren't consulted when they were in the Executive, anyway), but because of the DUP and Sinn Fein carve-up of power, not sharing power, which suits you both very nicely.

For years now, in fact for almost two decades, we have had the spectacle of Northern Ireland First Ministers, deputy First Ministers, ministers, MLAs, senior public servants, and assorted bag-carriers traipsing off to DC every St Patrick's Day, but with precious little to show for it on their return.

In the days after the Good Friday Agreement back in 1998, and before, and for about five years afterwards, there was focus and definite purpose to these trips and likely pay-off. In recent years, no.

Let's take the so-called trips to drum up the elusive "US investment, jobs back home, exports from NI".

Declan Kelly, a one-time reporter for southern Irish weeklies and The Cork Examiner, who hit the jackpot out here as a wunderkind PR man, was appointed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's 'economic envoy' to Northern Ireland.

He won an office in the State Department, staff and produced, well, how many jobs? How much in investment? Export numbers?

No doubt Invest NI (an oxymoron, mostly) will tell us he did truly wondrous things. But he left within two years and he was doing other things, such as benefiting from the wonderful connection with the Clinton Foundation, Bill Clinton himself and the kudos that gave Mr Kelly and those at his company.

And then we have the well-staffed 'Northern Ireland Bureau', with splendid offices in DC and with an office in New York. Under the first Executive of David Trimble and Seamus Mallon and later Mark Durkan, this office - which I pushed to be set up in the late-1970s and early-1980s - no longer operates as a serious policy/communications virtual 'embassy' for Northern Ireland.

It is, today, let's face it, a truly wonderful high-end concierge and lodging and travel bureau, which arranges the very best hotels, hires shining stretch limousines to ferry our VIPs around DC and New York and books superb restaurants for these elected representatives. But what do we have to show for this large staff?

It's time for the responsible Assembly committee to do a forensic audit of cost-and-benefit for these offices and also the other offices outside Northern Ireland, such as in Beijing.

Please stay at home and work on what, for me, is Issue Number One: integrated education.

The former First Minister, Peter Robinson, made a big speech years ago about what a difference the educating of girls and boys from the Catholic and Protestant communities together could make to a future Northern Ireland.

I liked that. And, then ... nothing happened.

The DUP/Sinn Fein pantomime horse trotted out 'shared education', a pale, almost see-through imitation of the real thing. We still have only 7% of our schools integrated. Americans would be stunned and amazed that the taxpayer pays for Catholic and Protestant grammar schools.

And then we have the Assembly where you, Arlene, have pledged not even to have a vote on same-sex marriage, but have promised to use a Petition of Concern to block it. What are you afraid of? Democracy? And let's be clear that Sinn Fein would do exactly the same if they wished. Fresh Start? Hardly.

Tell you what. Let me suggest how you could, legitimately, come back to DC on a future St Patrick's Day (no, not 2017) and maybe at other times: when you, Arlene and Martin, have shown progress; joined-up government; given real teeth to A Shared Future, now toothless pabulum, and a boost to integrated education.

Sure, the perks of office are nice for your parties and for the too-numerous MLAs and their generous expenses. These jobs are nice earners - no question about it.

There was a time when the Northern Irish were famous for hard work and wanting value for money.

Not anymore, it seems.

Earn your back pay, Arlene and Martin, and I'll be delighted to see you - even in the awful Donald Trump Republican Party-dominated USA. In the meantime, stay at home.

Yours,

Michael.

  • Michael HC McDowell is an international affairs consultant and former Northern Ireland journalist who has worked in Cambridge, Massachusetts, New York City, Toronto and Washington DC, where he has lived since 1988

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