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Stormont crisis: Two years hence... and all's changed utterly

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The power-sharing administration at Stormont is in trouble

The power-sharing administration at Stormont is in trouble

Billy Hutchinson

Billy Hutchinson

Martin McGuinness

Martin McGuinness

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The power-sharing administration at Stormont is in trouble

Lord Robinson’s retirement will give him time to reflect on a maxim coined in the early days of the peace process by those unionists who preferred to engage with nationalists than to procrastinate further.

This pointed to a sad truth learned in the recurring negotiations, that every time unionists came back to the table there was less on it for them.

It was a fundamental truth that the late Dr Paisley had been able to rely on to fire up the passions of his followers into blunt opposition to change. If unionism was always going to lose ground in talks, what point was there in entering them?

It was the principle that added urgency to David Trimble’s failed efforts to settle terms with Sinn Fein.

The longer unionism left it, he sensed, the more it would have to concede.

That it still applies reflects an underlying dynamic that has directed change here for decades. Demographic shift has deprived unionism of a secure majority. Protestants in Northern Ireland, as counted in the last census five years ago, were merely the larger minority. Halfway to the next census, they may not even now be that.

And part of the blame for that must lie with those who failed to make Northern Ireland function after the agreements as a place where ambitious young people might wish to stay and thrive.

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Few will point the finger at Lord Robinson for finding fault with a dysfunctional Stormont Executive and urging a renegotiation of the St Andrews Agreements. His key error was in assuming that the direction of change would inevitably be to his advantage.

It is hardly surprising that he thought so.

His party took the credit for forcing republicans to complete decommissioning and to endorse the PSNI, but perhaps he had talked up those achievements more than he should have done.

Certainly Sinn Fein would have refused those demands if it had thought it could get away with that, but, in reality, it had surely foreseen, as far back as the mid 1990s, that these would be a big part of the price of a deal.

Yesterday at Bodenstown, the First Minister Martin McGuinness, standing beside Tanaiste Gerry Adams, announced his own retirement, passing the baton to a generation of younger republicans with the new party slogan ‘Tá an Lá Linn’ — Our Day Has Come.

Mr McGuinness, who is likely to decline a gong, said: “Our list is not long nor unreasonable; it includes an Irish Language Act, a general amnesty for paramilitary offenders and voting rights in the six counties for presidential elections.”

He also said that the round of talks with Mr Miliband on the reconstruction of the welfare system in Northern Ireland will include demands for a provision for pension rights for former combatants, a move supported by his coalition partners in the PUP.

But he will have trouble holding his partners in the SDLP and Ukip to that.

The gamble that Lord Robinson took in the Liverpool talks was to open discussions on a majority rule system that would replace the old mandatory coalition between the largest parties on both communities.

His starting point was to argue that a weighted majority of 65% across the whole Assembly might guarantee a cross-community vote and a sufficient safeguard against old Stormont-style majority rule.

Had he succeeded in pushing reform only far enough to preserve a veto for his own party, he would still be the de facto leader of unionism. He would be taking the credit for creating a party that is a little closer to the model of standard British democracy, with an Opposition and a prospect of change.

He did not anticipate the surprise move by Sinn Fein conceding a 55% majority as sufficient.

Who can forget the frisson of horror that ran through the Ulster Hall when Gerry Adams upstaged a DUP party conference by announcing that he was perfectly happy for his party to be occasionally in opposition, if that was what the people wanted.

That bombshell exposed the unionist fantasy that majority rule was a desirable alternative to power-sharing, a safe harbour to return to.

Lord Robinson had wanted freedom for his party not to be perpetually wedded to Sinn Fein.

What he did not expect was that republicans were similarly confident that they could wrest control of the Assembly by the same methods.

Nor can it have been thought likely two years ago that Sinn Fein would go into coalition, given the chance, with both the PUP and Ukip.

Yet there had been several shared interests between republicans and loyalists from the start of the peace process, not least in the resistance to decommissioning and the opportunities they could create for ex-prisoners.

Making Billy Hutchinson the Justice Minister secured his support on a wider range of issues. He surprised his own followers by conceding the flying of the Irish tricolour over Stormont on 25 designated days, including the anniversaries of the deaths of hunger strikers.

But a vote is approaching in the council in Belfast over the flying of the Union Flag there and Sinn Fein is expected to at least abstain, clearing the way for a return to the old system of flying it over the City Hall every day of the year.

In some ways it seems more surprising still that Ukip should have entered the Sinn Fein-led coalition, bringing it closer to government than anywhere else on these islands.

The Ukip members share with Sinn Fein a huge scepticism about the European Union. Sinn Fein has opposed EU expansion in every referendum in the Republic. So there is an obvious fit there.

And the Labour victory at Westminster having averted the immediate danger of a vote on withdrawal from the EU has spared Sinn Fein the problem of how to maintain its cross-border strategy with one part inside the EU and the other out.

These are exciting times.

And while it must feel like a calamity for Lord Robinson that he achieved his dream of a return to the norms of British, Scottish and Irish democracy, he will be regretting that he so dismally failed to see how his hopes might work against him.

Yet, in five years from now, there will be another election. That will be in 2021, the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland, when unionist sentiments may be high again and, he can hope, the people may be tired of Sinn Fein and looking for a change.

Whisper it, but we might have found a form of government that will work.


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