Belfast Telegraph

Stormont is like a ghost ship, sailing rudderless towards inevitable demise

By Fionola Meredith

"This is the way the Assembly ends - not with a bang but with a sort of whimpering diminuendo of interest," said Eamonn McCann of People Before Profit.

It was the day after the institutions had collapsed, yet Stormont was somehow still rolling on, carried forward by the sluggish momentum of old, familiar habit, if nothing else.

At first glance, it was like any other humdrum work day at Parliament Buildings. Politicians - with the exception of Sinn Fein MLAs, who had apparently vanished en bloc - were going through the motions in the Assembly chamber, and committees continued their sittings.

Small groups of tourists drifted through the Great Hall, or contemplated buying a Northern Ireland Assembly mouse-mat (which could probably become a collector's item, the way things are currently looking) in the gift shop. The flower arrangements were as stiff, forbidding and ornate as ever.

"The Northern Ireland Assembly welcomes Termoncanice Primary School, Limavady," brightly announced the electronic information screen in the reception area.

With exquisitely ironic timing, a group called DRS Mediation was also expected to host a session called 'Moving Forward: A Planned Approach'.

What a difference from Monday, when Stormont's grand avenue was packed with the cars, vans and trucks of the assembled media, gathered as of old to mark, once more, the passing of the institutions.

On Tuesday, the bristling cameras and microphones were gone, the massive police and security presence had been stood down, and - remarkably enough, in the circumstances - all seemed to be back to normal.

But not quite.

Attendance in the chamber was decidedly sketchy, even with the absence of the Sinn Fein cohort, and those who were present were clearly in electioneering mode.

The UUP and the SDLP put forward a joint motion calling for a public inquiry into the botched heating initiative, and Jonathan Bell got up and said he would repeat his explosive allegations about RHI before a judge-led inquiry.

After lunch, there were more bitter recriminations about the Executive's failures, a brief discussion about the low numbers of traffic wardens in Coalisland and some general hand-wringing about Brexit.

Then it was back to RHI again. Justice Minister Claire Sugden got miffed when Richie McPhillips of the SDLP asked why she wouldn't instigate an urgent public inquiry into the scandal. It wasn't going to happen, she said, "as I have reiterated time and time again - but the message seems to have got lost with some people."

The Assembly will pointlessly trundle on like this, an MoT-failed vehicle for various petty gripes, groans and moans, until January 26, when the wheels will at last drop off, and MLAs will be in full-time election mode.

Politicians may have been going through the motions, but omens of Stormont's imminent demise could be seen all around.

The door of the Deputy First Minister's room stood slightly ajar, but there was no sound from inside. Racks of chairs bound in plastic were stacked along the Great Hall, marked 'do not use'.

In one of the long echoing corridors which run through the bowels of the building sat a trio of dead microwave ovens and a row of broken coffee machines. 'Out of order,' said the label. 'Sorry for any inconvenience caused.'

Wandering into the canteen, I noticed that the atmosphere was a little brighter, no doubt assisted by the impressively low prices of the lunch menu, and there were a few people taking advantage of the subsidised nosh while they could.

But even here, there were poignant signs of what might have been, if it were not for Arlene Foster's intransigence, and Sinn Fein's determination to teach her a harsh lesson. "New Year, New You - commit to being your best in 2017," urged a chirpy sign, which was ostensibly there to encourage our corpulent public representatives to ease off on the cheap calories.

And the special message for today?

"Set goals and make your plan."

Sadly, it's a bit late for that now.

Stormont is like a ghost ship, captain-less, steaming on towards its inevitable demise, doomed to crash into the iceberg over and over again, with never any change of course.

Belfast Telegraph


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