Having squandered goodwill, few will mourn Stormont’s fall

Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson

If the past few years have demonstrated anything, it seems to be that Northern Ireland is not ready, or at any rate not yet ready, for a settlement based on compromise, cooperation, openness and partnership.

Everything seemed to be in place in the early days of devolution, including worldwide goodwill with a fair wind from London, Dublin and Washington. Much suspicion and distrust remained of course, and many had deep underlying suspicions.

But the sense of a historic new start was in the air. Remember Ian Paisley standing beside Martin McGuinness, speaking of “wonderful healing” and saying of the years of conflict: “That was yesterday. Today is today.”

Devolution got under way, violence fell steadily and even when serious crises came along they were dealt with well. Suddenly new things were possible, and both communities relaxed: it wasn’t perfect, but it was infinitely better than the bad old days.

When Ian Paisley departed, Peter Robinson as first minister looked willing to maintain good relations with McGuinness. But disconcerting signs began to appear: proposals were blocked, schemes mysteriously vanished into the bureaucracy for months and sometimes years, vetoes were routinely brandished.

On the streets there was trouble with recurring disputes over flags and marches, sometimes ending in riots and injured police officers. It all became a bit like football matches, each event regarded as a win, a defeat or a draw.

It was ten years ago that Gerry Adams forecast that proceedings would be a battle a day, yet the Paisley years and the early Robinson years did not turn out like that. Eventually however daily battles became the norm, with public respect for the institutions steadily dwindling in the face of bad-tempered scrapping.

Although major rescue attempts such as the Haass talks were made, and sometimes looked as if they might work, the necessary breakthrough never came.

Over the months, hopes that the Assembly could somehow cease being dysfunctional gradually faded: there were many good and indeed idealistic people working in it, but there was also obvious nepotism. Some on the hill also seemed to develop extraordinary skill not at politics but at extracting money, apparently regarding the place as a sort of political ATM.

Can it be fixed? The chances are against it, for much of the public today seems to regard the institution with a disdain bordering on contempt. Any sense of give-and-take has long gone, to be replaced by a deep scepticism.

When the old Stormont parliament fell in 1972, tens of thousands of concerned unionists gathered in its grounds to protest. When a new powersharing assembly was put in its place, and was quickly brought down by a loyalist strike, unionists staged a major victory rally on the same spot.

If this assembly falls, it is highly unlikely that many thousands will flock to Stormont to mark its passing. The institution was established as a level playing field for unionists and nationalists, with politicians given a chance to shine, and develop problem-solving skills. It hasn’t worked.

If it does all implode its collapse will suck much of the oxygen of the political system, for supporters of almost all parties are unlikely to urge their representatives to take major risks in order to re-establish a similar body.

The most enduring legacy of the Assembly may be a widespread belief that it’s not worth bothering about another attempt at devolution, because it didn’t work and it’s hardly likely to work next time round.

* David McKittrick is a Belfast-born award-winning journalist and author