How do you solve a problem like Stormont?

Well, what ever can I say? Obviously I would be writing a blog post on the subject of recent antics in Northern Ireland, but as an exasperated citizen – what is there to say, really?

What a series of events that has recently unfolded in my home province of Northern Ireland. I prefer to deem it as being a comedy of errors, for to be honest, every resident of Northern Ireland is too wry and cynical to term the recent political drama as being anything else. Truth be told, we are simply too used to this endless merry-go-round of tit-for-tat politics, the media soundbites, the calls for Westminster and the call to arms (by this I mean elections; goodness knows that during The Troubles that would have meant something completely different.)

'The Hill', or as the NI electorate refer to it: 'the headache'.
‘The Hill’, or as the NI electorate refer to it: ‘the headache’.

It seems as though it was ages ago that I caught sight of a BBC Breaking News tweet, stating that a man had been shot dead in Short Strand, meaning there was a strong implication of paramilitary involvement. Indeed, that was basically par for the course – stop and ask anyone on the street, and they would have said it was rival paramilitary factions on the prowl, marking their territory or sending a message. We all imagined, no doubt, that we would hear the usual: statements from both local Nationalist and Unionist politicians in the area, stating that this kind of violence was archaic and had no place in modern NI society, perhaps a follow-up on the news weeks later, discussing how there had been arrests made and suspects questioned. Eventually, in time, it would be discussed only in courtrooms and police stations, not to be heard again in the public realm until sentencing, etc. August news would fade away, along with the summer itself.

But that did not happen this time.

For the murdered man, Kevin McGuigan, was an ex-IRA man. His murder was an apparent revenge killing, as allegedly he had been involved in the revenge murder of Gerard ‘Jock’ Davison. Moreover, the murder of McGuigan was apparently ordered and carried out by none other than the IRA. This was according to the PSNI itself – Det Supt Kevin Geddes said in late August that a major line of inquiry was that members of the PIRA were involved in the killing.

Geddes went on to state:

‘Action Against Drugs as you may be aware made a public statement on 6 August that they would execute anybody who had any involvement or they believed had any involvement in the murder of Jock Davison… It is my assessment that Action Against Drugs are a group of individuals who are criminals, violent dissident republicans and former members of the Provisional IRA.

‘My assessment is that this is a separate group from the Provisional IRA. A major line of inquiry for this investigation is that members of the Provisional IRA were involved in this murder.

‘I have no information at this stage to say whether that was sanctioned at a command level or not and I’m not prepared to speculate on that.’

Regardless of his appeal for information, and emphasis that AAD is considered by the PSNI as being a separate organisation from the Provisional IRA, this was the beginning of what would become the biggest media storm I can remember of recent times in Northern Ireland.

Merely two days later, the Chief Constable of the PSNI, George Hamilton, lit the proverbial touchpaper when he publicly stated that the Provisional IRA ‘still exists’. He further commented that some Provisional IRA members were involved in the murder of ex-IRA man Kevin McGuigan. Even as Hamilton stated that there was currently no evidence to suggest that the killing was sanctioned by the Provisional IRA, and even though Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams quickly made a public statement of his own, insisting that the IRA has ‘gone and [is] not coming back’, it poured fuel on the flames of Unionist anger. Political paralysis and paranoia was about to set in.

The weekend prior to this revelation, the main Unionist and Nationalist parties had met with Hamilton to discuss the murder investigation, and address rumours that were beginning to emerge relating to the paramilitary-style hit. In addition, DUP politician Gregory Campbell had stated how his party was planning to meet with the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, in relation to the alleged role of IRA members in the killing. (He also could not seemingly resist the NI politician-equivalent of ‘I told you so’ as he added that there was no surprise within the DUP at the circulating suggestions of IRA involvement in the killing.)

To top off the feeling of Unionist anger, after the UUP’s respective meeting with Hamilton, party leader Mike Nesbitt afterwards claimed that Sinn Féin’s credibility was ‘in tatters’ and it needed to ‘accept some responsibility’ for McGuigan Sr’s murder:

‘They continue to insult our intelligence by claiming no IRA involvement in this latest murder.’

The Nationalists, meanwhile, scrambled to recover lost PR ground. Whilst Sinn Féin consistently denied the allegations of both PIRA involvement in the murder and the organisation’s continuing existence (remember that the PIRA was supposed to have decommissioned back in 2005), the SDLP met the PSNI Chief Constable -such a popular man in August, as you may imagine. SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell stated that whilst there was evidence to suggest that the “skeleton” of the IRA remains in existence in NI, it was not substantial enough to collapse the NI Assembly.

Why the need for such remonstrations? Well, remember that Unionist anger I mentioned previously? The flames had started when First Minister Peter Robinson, leader of the DUP, had warned about the political repercussions that would reverberate throughout NI, including in the Executive, if it it were to be determined that the Provisional IRA was involved in McGuigan’s murder. Speaking prior to his party’s meeting with the Chief Constable, Robinson stated that his party would:

‘…speak to the PSNI to see what their findings are in terms of the involvement of any organisation.

‘But let’s be very clear, there will be repercussions if that was found to be the case.’

He elaborated upon these ‘repercussions’ as he added that it would be ‘totally unacceptable for any organisation which is involved in violence to be part of the Executive of Northern Ireland.’ And in case that was not spelling out the message clearly enough for the citizens of Northern Ireland, Robinson referred to the potential political consequences for his fellow power-sharing Executive co-workers: Sinn Féin, the main republican party in Northern Ireland and the second biggest party in the Assembly.

Evidently considering the political aftermath should such PIRA involvement be confirmed, Robinson commented that there were those who would step into a ‘void’ to ‘exploit political difficulties’. (Translation: see those Sinners? Yes, keep your eyes on them.) Warning that,

‘the collapse of the assembly will feed that kind of activity we have seen over the last number of weeks from dissidents in our society’

Robinson said he how he would potentially discuss the prospect of excluding Sinn Féin from the Executive with other Northern Ireland parties – an act which would obviously prevent full power-sharing, lead to calls of discrimination and dismissal of a democratic mandate of the largest Nationalist party in the Assembly. Consequently, devolution itself could be threatened – but was it not already under threat, and not just from these revelations regarding the ongoing existence of the PIRA?

If we are truly honest with ourselves, Stormont has been on the brink since December 2014.

Cast your minds back to the Stormont House Agreement, that agreement which was hurriedly signed at the eleventh hour. The agreement, signed by the five main political parties in NI, was a wide-ranging deal that addressed some of Stormont’s current financial difficulties, after a reduction in its block grant from Westminster. Yet, in order to actually cajole Sinn Féin to sign the agreement, due to its protestations about cuts, the DUP became so frustrated that Robinson threatened to resign as First Minster if it were not signed before Christmas. However, this apparent multi-party agreement was short-lived. In March, Sinn Féin withdrew its support for the bill – because of a row over the implementation of welfare reforms (ostensibly due to its anti-austerity message in the South and its need to ensure consistency in political message as an all-Ireland party). Ironically – now that we have the benefit of hindsight – Robinson had warned of the danger faced by the political institutions in Northern Ireland if the situation regarding the long-standing welfare impasse was not resolved.

‘If Stormont House is not implemented, we are still in the situation where Stormont is not fit for purpose and is capable of collapsing.’

The ongoing row over the need for budget cuts, and the opposition to welfare reform was the simmering flame in Stormont. The revelation of the existence of the IRA was merely pouring oil on the flames, and parties who have been spoiling for a chance to be at each other’s throats are seizing their moment.

This is not simply a case of Unionist parties versus Nationalists parties, either. Oh no. You must consider the rivalry present within each division, most especially within the Unionist faction. See, this is how the chaos which erupted last week truly came to be – Unionists turning on each other.

Over two weeks ago, the UUP saw a chance, and they took it. The UUP, the Unionist party who had for so long dominated not simply the Unionist scene, but indeed the political scene in Northern Ireland, and who had lost their power to their rival, the DUP, obviously thought they could use their unexpected surge after the General Election in May to force the DUP into a corner. For apart from Robinson’s threats of exclusion and warnings of political repercussions, no real action was taking place. Enter leader Mike Nesbitt.

Nesbitt’s proposal was simple, yet effective and strong in symbolic gist. In the last week of August, he announced the UUP’s intention of withdrawing from the power-sharing Executive, instead seeking form an unofficial opposition of sorts in the Assembly. (Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the legislation which implemented the Good Friday Agreement of the same year, there is to be no official opposition at Stormont, only power-sharing in an effort to prevent Unionist dominance and to ensure both communities are fairly represented within government.)

I remember watching the live television broadcast as Nesbitt stated before the press:

‘In 1998, the Ulster Unionist Party stretched itself very close to breaking point to secure the return of devolution, because it was the right thing to do…

Seventeen years on, we are told the IRA still exists, and that it has a command structure, at a senior level. We are also told members of the IRA have committed a murder on the streets of our capital city, working with another criminal gang, Action Against Drugs.

And in response, Sinn Féin trot out their single transferable speech of denial. That speech is threadbare. It has put a hole in the fabric of the agreement.’

Evidently, Nesbitt was arguing that the UUP were taking the high ground, by demanding answers and solutions. The evidence of frustration within the Unionist faction and the sense of political opportunism was telling, however:

 ‘Since 2007, the DUP and Sinn Féin have been leading our government. That’s over eight years. We need wait no longer for further proof of their inability to deliver those goals. In sadness more than anger I recognise they cannot deliver positive outcomes for our people.

We hear what people are saying. They need and deserve and yearn for a party that is willing to stretch itself today – stretch beyond its own self-interests to what’s right for the people of Northern Ireland – all of them.

The Ulster Unionist Party is ready to stretch itself again.’

The UUP’s decision to move into opposition via the resignation of their sole representative minister in the Executive, Danny Kennedy, was a clear attempt to add pressure on the DUP. This would leave the DUP with two options: either make good on its threat to exclude Sinn Féin from government, or else itself resign from the administration, thus triggering fresh elections.

The political stalemate did initially continue. The DUP accused their rivals of blatant hypocrisy, with Nigel Dodds, the North Belfast MP and leader of the DUP at Westminster arguing that the UUP had previously worked alongside Sinn Féin prior to decommissioning, at a time when the PIRA was active. He accused the UUP of attempting to rewrite history, which was ‘misleading’. Furthermore, Dodds argued that if anyone should be excluded from Stormont/withdrawn from the Executive, it should be Sinn Féin.

Conversely, Sinn Féin leaders lined up to denounce Nesbitt’s recommendation to his party executive regarding withdrawing from the power-sharing Executive, claiming that it was prioritising political gain above the Peace Process. The local political commentators were in a flurry, discussing how the metaphorical ball was in the UUP’s corner, how we had to wait to see how their ruling executive voted at the weekend. All this, with Northern Ireland having the dubious honour of making the ‘breaking news’ yellow roving band on Sky News, as I recall exchanging looks with my family watching the news. Would this be yet another episode of ‘call my bluff: Stormont edition’, or was this a legitimate threat to devolution? I allowed myself to remember when Stormont last collapsed, and devolution suspended, back in 2002, following raids on Sinn Féin offices as a part of ‘StormontGate’ which involved an alleged IRA spy-ring. Unsurprisingly, Unionists withdrew in anger at an apparent IRA-Sinn Féin link and the continuing existence of the IRA (you can sense a real theme developing here.) Direct Rule followed, from 2002 to 2007, when Stormont was restored following elections provided by the The Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006. I can remember the chaos suspension caused, and the sense of frustration felt at our local politicians – nothing compared to the feelings of embarrassment and bitterness at having to be subjected to Direct Rule.

So whilst Direct Rule v shambolic Stormont was debated by various political journalists in the press, we waited for the weekend.

Then came the news that Saturday – the UUP’s ruling executive voted overwhelmingly in favour to back Nesbitt’s exit strategy from the regional government. This in turn increased the already intensive pressure faced by the DUP to pull out of the power-sharing administration itself. Doing so would trigger the collapse of the devolved regional government and prompt early assembly elections – or restore Direct Rule from Westminster once more.

The following week was a blur of political standoffs, soundbites, and countless photo ops – why our politicians feel the need to surround themselves with fellow party members, I have no idea. As Sinn Féin kept reiterating that the IRA no longer existed, any violence occurring now was lawless and must cease, the DUP proposed talks with both the Secretary of State for NI, as well as Prime Minister David Cameron at Number Ten. It became increasingly evident that an actual legitimate standoff was being cultivated. This was emphasised when the DUP delivered their bottom line: either Westminster would step in and suspend Stormont, or the party itself would seek the collapse of power-sharing.

After the conclusion of talks in London, when it became increasingly obvious that neither Ms Villiers nor Mr Cameron would permit the implementation of Direct Rule (Cameron clearly has enough to contend with: the current migrant crisis, EU referendum, proposed military intervention in Syria, why ever would he add NI to his plate?) the DUP sought to take matters into its own hands.

First came the announcement that there would be no future meetings of the Executive, unless the DUP deemed there to be ‘exceptional circumstances’. Then came the recalling of the Business Committee, to consider the DUP motion for adjournment – essentially calling for the Assembly to vote to adjourn, or ‘shut down’, Stormont voluntarily. On the 10th September, no doubt after a heated discussion, the DUP lost the adjournment motion, with only themselves and the Alliance party voting in favour. As the media started to digest and then cover this news, the episode unfolded yet again.

First Minister and leader of the DUP, Peter Robinson, called a press conference and announced he was ‘stepping aside’. All other DUP ministers were to resign from the Executive, with only Arlene Foster remaining as Finance Minster. She was also to take over as First Minister in a temporary capacity.

Robinson stated that

‘As someone who invested many hours trying to bring devolution to Northern Ireland, and to maintain it, I have tried to create space to allow these critical unresolved matters to be dealt with in a structured manner…

‘The failure of the SDLP and Sinn Fein to implement the Stormont House Agreement together with the assessment from the Chief Constable of the involvement of IRA members in murder, the continued existence of the IRA and the arrests that followed has pushed devolution to the brink.’

Following Robinson’s announcement, Secretary of State Ms Villiers acknowledged that whilst the situation was ‘very grave’, she still would not suspend the devolved institutions. She instead urged for the parties to engage in talks in an effort to save power-sharing.

Meanwhile, it became obvious that the DUP was skillfully adhering to governing legislation in its efforts to bring Stormont to a standstill. For example, Robinson insisted he was not resigning, merely ‘stepping aside’. This is significant: if he had resigned, this would have resulted in Deputy First Minister McGuinness having to resign, as per the Northern Ireland Act 1998. As such, again according to the 1998 Act, the vacancies of the offices of First and Deputy First Minister would have triggered a six-week election, the conclusion of which would be the same political landscape, and same political stalemate. By ‘stepping aside’, Robinson prevented the election, and ensured Stormont continues to wander into limbo, with local governance paralysed. The plan was evidently to force Westminster to step in, and suspend Stormont. By placing Foster at the helm inside the Executive as acting First Minister and Finance Minister, devolved government remains alive, albeit in ‘zombie form‘, and buys the talks process proposed by Ms Villiers and Cameron around six weeks worth of time.

But what about the here and now?

Robinson had pointed to the arrest of Sinn Féin’s Northern chairman, Bobby Storey, in connection with the McGuigan murder as a key reason why Unionists had lost faith in power-sharing with their Republican counterparts. In a twist of irony not uncommon in NI politics, Storey and two other Belfast republicans have now been released without charge – with Storey’s solicitor saying he would be suing the PSNI for unlawful arrest.

In addition, today saw Ms Villiers take to the floor in the Commons, where she proposed the establishment of a new body to monitor paramilitary activity as a means to save the Peace Process, and put forward of the need for multi-party talks. Predictably, the DUP and Sinn Féin disagreed. The DUP again reiterated its stance, that it is only prepared to attend more talks ‘in the right circumstances’.  Sinn Féin warned the government against preconditions for the talks, arguing that such talks need to occur immediately in order to save Stormont and the Peace Process.

Robinson’s ‘stepping aside’ potentially marked the beginning of the end for the House of Cards on the Hill. Yet it is merely another episode in the ongoing comedy of errors in NI politics. I note with interest at the reporting of events in the mainland, as many political commentators fear a return to violence and political strife not witnessed since The Troubles. In Northern Ireland, we merely grow restless and weary with our local politics and local politicians, but there does not appear to be a consensus clamouring for Direct Rule. As a working-class student, and a proud NI citizen, I fear the implementation of Direct Rule. The most obvious danger that springs to mind lies in budget reform, and the forced implementation of austerity. The ever-present danger is that of losing the will and the ability to govern ourselves.

I conclude this post on a hopeful note. Yesterday (Monday 14th September) a young, independent Unionist MLA, Claire Sugden, tabled a ‘Matter of the Day’ in the Assembly, concerning the future of Northern Ireland’s political institutions. It was a bold move, and her contribution to the debate was bolder. She spoke without seeking political opportunism, without succumbing to tit-for-tat politics.

‘This House of cards is falling Mr Speaker. The only good that will come out of this is if the jokers at the top coming crashing down too and do not get up again. I am concerned because we have so much to lose. Not just the message that Northern Ireland has failed, but the prospect of being governed by people who don’t know us; understandably are fed up with us and won’t fight for the people or sell our country for the potential it has like we can.

Events that unfolded on Thursday make me very sad.

My constituent, Mr Watton and I know he won’t mind me saying his name, has been waiting for a disabled parking bay for over six months. Mr Watton is very ill, it takes him all strength to walk several feet and he is certainly entitled to this space. He is entitled to a public service that will make his life a little bit easier while he focuses his strength on his day-to-day struggles. He won’t get his disabled parking bay, because the Minister and then the Committee need to sign it off. The first one doesn’t exist.

Mr Watton is only a small piece of the puzzle of Northern Ireland. The bigger picture is ruined, however, when one piece is missing. The collapse of our institutions are being felt from the people up while politics is being played badly from the top down.’

After making the important point that real lives are being affected by the Stormont impasse, brought about by politicians who had been entrusted by voters to represent them and who were now letting them down, Ms Sugden continued:

‘My interpretation of what is really happening here is deflection and election. Mr Speaker there are people bleeding this country dry and the current events are providing a very convenient smoke screen. I see it in my own constituency. Our drug problem is often hidden by the contentious issues. But Mr Speaker these people will be caught and I look forward to the day, because the people of Northern Ireland deserve better and I trust they will realise this come next election.

Whether in a month or May next year we have an election. Mr Speaker there is nothing wrong with electioneering. But electioneering should begin the day after you are elected to earn the Mandate you were given, not in panic to get one over on your competitor. As an Independent, I probably have more than most to lose in an early election, but it’s not about me, it’s about the people I represent. If losing my seat and never speaking a word in this Chamber again means that we will move forward positively, then by all means, bring it on.’

(You can read the full transcript here.)

Ms Sugden made the most important, obvious point of all: Stormont’s current operation is flawed, and needs to be rectified. This can only be achieved by ending the current impasse through calling an election. Stormont, for all its antics, is preferred to Direct Rule. The ability to govern oneself is sacred, and should be preserved.

Furthermore, the days of old party politics are fast disappearing, and it is about time that a majority of NI politicians realise this.

So, how do you solve a problem like Stormont? Perhaps Stormont as an institution is not actually the problem which needs to be solved.

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