Best of frenemies – thoughts on the last four years

I wrote the following after spending the day in Stormont on the last day of term. I intended posting it earlier but after the week that was, it didn’t feel appropriate.

There was a distinct feeling of summer last week as I passed Carson on my way up the long symmetrical road to Parliament Buildings on Stormont’s hill.

It wasn’t just the blue skies, blinding sunshine or the freshly cut green grass, but the distinct atmosphere bouncing around the marble floors and pillars of Stormont’s Great Hall that rang; last day of school. For all intents and purposes March 23 was the end of term at the Assembly, albeit not a school term, but the final sitting of the four year session of the latest incarnation of our local devolved government.

Although for many observers, school is an appropriate enough analogy for Stormont, given the prevailing political immaturity and on the job learning that many MLAs have been cast into.

I was spending the day on the hill with Marc Mallet and Ken Reid of UTV, soaking up the zoo like atmosphere and palpable excitement evident on so many faces. From a news perspective the last four years at the Assembly (save the odd scandal) have remained by and large unusually boring, with the majority of stories stemming from inside rather than outside of the Assembly chamber.

This was clearly evident last week with most of the stories focusing on the final addresses of Executive ministers and MLAs, some clearing out their desks for good, among them Ian Paisley. Amidst the gushing sentiments batted across the chamber for end of term was outgoing Health Minister Michael McGimpsey’s final address.

While his announcement that the new enhanced hospital for Omagh will go ahead was well received in these parts. He threw the cat among the pigeons, i.e. everyone outside (and some inside) the UUP on his way out the door by shelving the new radiotherapy unit for Altnagelvin. With an election clearly in view, the rest of the parties jostled for a TV slot to lambast McGimpsey, with Sinn Féin going one step further than everyone else by playing the sectarian card. There was little sign of a working partnership within the Executive.


Instead it marked the opening salvo for several weeks of tribal warfare ahead of the May 5 election. It’s difficult to comprehend any other governments where cabinet colleagues openly criticise each other in public. Across the pond, Lib Dem faces and necks must be pretty sore at this stage after nearly a year of forced smiles and nodding heads in the background, while in the South, the Greens kept mum for months on end despite the apparent disregard shown towards them by coalition partners, Fianna Fail.

Our circumstances may be more unique and it is the fact that the Assembly made it through the last four years at all, without collapse or suspension that has been lauded as a groundbreaking achievement in itself, another stepping stone moving us on from a post-conflict society into a working democracy. Of course how well you score the success of the past four years depends on the benchmark you are harbouring as a comparison.

For those wiping away a tear as McGuinness and Robinson stand side by side, smiling and working together, the benchmark is 30 years of bombs, bullets and bloodshed. Those observers are content with swapping the squalor of the pig sty for the relatively improved comfort of the barn, ‘this is much better than what we had before’ they say.

But while they make their bed in the hay, others are gazing forlornly at the farmhouse, angrily mumbling to themselves at the wretched condition of their surrounds in comparison. In truth, the real measure of the success of the Assembly lies not in the carefully staged press conferences or in the sterile atmosphere of the chamber, but in the din of Stormont’s basement canteen.


Sitting down to lunch with Ken Reid in the canteen, the veteran political editor pointed out the voluntary segregation still practised by the major players around us. With the DUP and Sinn Féin munching their subsidized lunches at polar opposite sides of the canteen, Ken reflected, “This isn’t working.” He revealed that real relationships between the membership of the two largest parties doesn’t exist beyond the forced smiles and polite chit-chat endured for professional purposes.

The DUP and Sinn Féin run the shop on the hill a bit like John and Mary O’Leary run theirs on Craggy Island. A smiling facade is presented for the public and the media, or in John and Mary’s case, the visiting priests. But when the priests leave or when the cameras are switched off, the mutual loathing and bitter resentment resumes.

The crux and flaw of the matter is that every healthy democracy needs an effective opposition to government. But what happens when the government is composed of five competing parties? Participation and co-operation has underscored the North’s transition period, but the next step is effective  and working government.

A reduction in the number of the North’s seats in Westminster from 18 to 16 by redrawing the constituency boundaries may give the Assembly the fresh impetus to follow and reduce the number of MLAs from 108 to 96, but will it facilitate any actual reform of the structures of power allowing a potentially better working model?

With no one agreed on what form change should take, we will be left to stumble sideways for a few years to come until we reach consensus or crisis, whichever comes first.


About AldousDuke
Mid Tyrone journalist, not so freelance any more.

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