Analysis: The loyalist riots were raised in Stormont on Monday under a mechanism that limits debate and tends to see the main parties presenting a united front. But the veneer of public unity across the political divide did not last long.
Sitting for the first time after its five-week Christmas holiday, the Assembly discussed the issue as a ‘matter of the day’, normally a late addition to the order paper dealing with tragedy, crisis or congratulation.
Speaker Willie Hay reminded MLAs that “matters of the day should not be used for political point-scoring” and urged to “bear in mind the dignity of the chamber”.
But, despite a restrained start, the session ended with both the First and Deputy First Minister heckling political rivals from their seats.
Martin McGuinness was particularly angered with DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson. Though not recorded in Hansard, the Assembly’s official report of proceedings, Mr McGuinness could be clearly heard shouting “time’s up, time’s up” as Mr Wilson ended his speech with a caustic attack on Sinn Fein, saying that its past violence (through the IRA) had not worked but now found themselves in a British parliament. In what would have been an extraordinary barb in any other legislature, Mr McGuinness twice shouted across to the third most senior member of the Executive: “Rabble rousing”.
When Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle, whose Newtownards Road office has been picketed daily by loyalists for weeks, accused Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness of “an abdication of leadership”, the First Minister shouted “boycotter” several times from his seat, a reference to Alliance’s decision to leave the Executive group attempting to draw up an anti-sectarianism strategy.
From above in the press gallery, it was clear that Mr McGuinness was speaking from just a few scribbled notes on a blank page. But there was forceful political intent behind his words which appeared to show strains in even the seemingly solid McGuinness-Robinson relationship.
Before the debate, a Sinn Fein source had claimed that the party wanted a joint Robinson-McGuinness public statement – such as those after dissident republican atrocities – but Mr Robinson would not agree to the proposal.
Though it was covert, Mr McGuinness appeared to publicly press his Stormont Castle colleague to agree to that proposal, citing the example of “standing together” shown in the wake of the Massereene murders and the murders of Stephen Carroll and Ronan Kerr.
The protestors may not succeed in returning the Union Flag to City Hall but they have again exposed the brittle forced relationships at the heart of Stormont.