It’s elementary, Madam Secretary ... surprise yourself and your MLAs

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

The Secretary of State, having paced her office for 10 minutes, sat down behind her desk again. “Well, Mr Holmes,” she said, “those are the facts as I see them. What would you advise me?”

Holmes raised his eyebrows and unsteepled his fingers. “Madam, I would draw your attention to the curious incidents of the letters of support for the Assembly and to the number of removal vans in the car parks at Stormont.”

The merest flicker of annoyance crossed the normally impassive face of his client. “Mr Holmes, I fear you were not listening. There have been no letters of support and no removal vans.”

“Indeed,” laughed Holmes, clapping his hands together, “and those are the curious incidents. Does it strike you as peculiar that your office is not now knee deep in emails and letters from a general public imploring you to keep the Assembly open and carrying on with its good work? Are you not struck by the fact that not one MLA or minister has ordered a van and packing cases to transport the contents of their office on Wednesday morning?”

The Secretary of State shifted uncomfortably, signifying that she had not, as Holmes surmised, been struck by the curiosity of these incidents. “You seem to see what I have not seen, Mr Holmes.”

He smiled. “Fear not, Madam, I have often accused Doctor Watson of seeing, yet not observing and of failing to draw obvious conclusions. The reason there have been no emails and letters is that the general public – who are often wiser than politicians – have little desire for the Assembly to remain open. Their lack of response is, indeed, the answer to the advice you have been seeking from me. Watson noted in one of his highly embellished accounts of our cases that my knowledge of politics is feeble. Maybe so, but that does not prevent me from both seeing and observing that, for most people, the Assembly serves no purpose and makes little difference to their lives.”

The Secretary of State rose from her chair and gazed across the lawns from her office in Stormont Castle to Parliament Buildings. “And still no removal vans, Mr Holmes?”

“Indeed, Madam. There are no removal vans because the MLAs do not believe that they will be removing. More to the point, they do not believe that you will remove them. They neither fear you nor respect you. They assume that, as on every other occasion, they will be allowed to maintain the pretence that they serve a purpose. That they are, albeit in their own minds, indispensable.”

The Secretary of State turned to face Holmes again. “There is much in what you say, Mr Holmes. My dilemma, of course, is that people believe I have power, yet the power I have is mostly illusory.”

Holmes crossed the floor to her desk and with one sweep cleared the files and papers from it. “Madam, if your powers are, as you insist, illusory then seek a new profession as a magician or children’s entertainer.”

“How dare you!” Her hand hovered over the buzzer that would have summoned a security team to her room.

“I dare,” he said, “because you consult me for advice and yet you don’t pause, even momentarily, to consider it. You have the greatest power of all at your disposal, Madam, the power of surprise. Use it. You must do what they don’t expect you to do. You must teach them to respect you and to fear you. You must let them see that there are consequences for their actions.”

The Secretary of State, once again behind her diplomatic mask, nodded. “My instincts are with you, but to do what you advise may cause the collapse of the Assembly and the end of the peace process. And never forget, Mr Holmes, that I am answerable to the Prime Minister.”

“Perhaps,” replied Holmes, “it may allow you to create the circumstances in which the failings of the present system can be addressed and, possibly resolved. Of course there are risks. There always are for those who exercise real rather than illusory powers. But as I have remarked to Watson on many occasions, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. You may also find that the Prime Minister, now exercising office in his own right, will be more inclined to let others know that he will not be pushed around.”

“For someone whose knowledge of my profession is supposed to be feeble it seems to me that you are wiser than many of those who choose it as a career. Have you never considered it?”

Holmes smiled and rose from his chair, lifting his hat and indicating that the consultation was at a close. “There is too much emotion in politics and emotional qualities are always antagonistic to clear reasoning. Even one truth is always preferable to indefinite doubt and procrastination. I see the evidence, draw the conclusions and reach a decision. You must do the same in this case, Madam. There is only one conclusion you can reach and only one decision to make. Surprise yourself. Surprise the MLAs.”

The Secretary of State shook his hand. “Thank you, Mr Holmes. Your advice has been enlightening and invaluable.”

Holmes smiled and nodded. “It has been elementary, my dear Secretary of State. It has always been elementary.”