Friday, 7 March 2008

Shappin' versus politics. And the winner is...

Huge crowds appeared on the streets – over 100,000 according to some reports. There was huge excitement in the media – page upon page of commentary, live interviews on TV and radio with both VIPs and members of the public in the street. A new shopping centre was officially opened.

Contrary to what many politicians and journalists think, the people of Northern Ireland are not fixated with the Assembly and its key figures. Yes they took an interest in the First Minister Ian Paisley’s resignation announcement but next week they will still be talking about the new Victoria Square Shopping Centre and less and less about him.

The truth is that most people actually do not have high expectations of the Assembly but if it provides a semblance of democracy and presides over relative peace and economic stability they will be pleased – and go off to the shops.

Who's chuckling now?

A fortnight ago we speculated that Ian Paisley might resign in the summer and that we might have a new First Minister come the return from Recess in the September. As it turns, out Paisley’s tenure will not last until the start of the Summer Recess at the end of June. He is managing to cling on until the first anniversary purely by announcing now that his resignation will take effect in two months time.

Much has been written about Paisley’s career – both the pre and post 8 May 2008 versions and we do not intend to revisit this here. It is worth noting, however, that many people have argued that it was Paisley’s decision to present his relationship with Sinn Féin as a business-like and functioning arrangement – the ‘chuckle brothers’ - that grated with many of his supporters and lead to his downfall. This could well be the case.

However, to present this as the failings of an elderly man who had his ego flattered may be missing the point. It could be the case that Paisley calculated that in order to cement the power-sharing relationship and avoid it looking like it could collapse at any time, it was necessary for him to create the ‘chuckle brothers’ image.

Those who pushed him out – and it is certainly the case that he was pushed – would do well to remember that only Paisley could have made this deal and only he could have cemented it through the ‘chuckle brothers’ routine.

Grumbleweeds to replace the Chuckle Brothers?

Jeffrey Donaldson had barely been sworn in as Junior Minister before he appeared to signal the end of the ‘chuckle brothers’ routine at Stormont.

Following Ian Paisley’s political demise, the expected elevation of DUP Deputy Leader Peter Robinson – a man not publicly renowned for jocularity in any event – to the position First Minister and Leader of the DUP will undoubtedly lead to a period of ‘cooler’ relations between the DUP and Sinn Féin in public.

Undoubtedly there will be cross words in public order to reassure the post-Dromore electorate that the DUP have not ‘gone soft’.

Ironically, as noted last week with regard to the row about the use of the Long Gallery for an event to commemorate Mairead Farrell (the IRA member who was shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar) such rows will also help Sinn Féin reassure ‘the base’ – their core Republican supporters.

Both parties will be concerned however that a ‘Grumbleweeds’ routine cannot guarantee electoral salvation. The DUP in particular will remember what happened to a political party – the Ulster Unionists - who sought to be a party to a deal but remained unwilling to sell the deal.
Fortunately for them, the electoral and political system bolsters their positions – not least by keeping the UUP and SDLP tied into the tent.

A few weeks ago in the debates over the Budget and the Programme for Government, the SDLP Assembly team left the Executive tent to vote against the Budget and Programme but left their Minister in the tent – even though they let it be known that she would have liked to have left the tent too.

It would be interesting – a few weeks after the event - to know what the impression this has had on the electorate – or more precisely that section of the nationalist electorate that a) cared and b) understood the tactic.

The relevance of Sinn Féin...

One Dublin commentator said that Sinn Féin was as about as important to the political process in the Republic as the Progressive Democrats – the two TD minor player in the coalition government who are widely expected to fade from the political scene in the coming years.

This is an exaggeration but there is an uncertainty at the heart of Sinn Féin that has never been present before. The low key Ard Fheis attempted to rally the faithful under the hardly inspiring slogan of ‘Republicanism in the 21st Century’.

For a party that has had success after success, Gerry Adams’ assertion that “we are closer … to bringing about Irish reunification than at any time in the past”, no longer carries the imputation that it is imminently within their grasp.

Like the DUP, the party that once radiated confidence no longer does. Having carried the coffins of a number of leading Republicans in recent weeks, Mr. Adams will be aware that they all believed that a united Ireland would happen in their lifetimes.

Hello, goodbye

Sir Reg Empey has been quick to pour cold water on the idea that the political demise of Ian Paisley may lead to a rapprochement between the two main unionist parties. Many will think this is a knee jerk reaction by Sir Reg because he is still smarting at the electoral damage inflicted on the UUP by the DUP.

The road to ‘unionist unity’ appears to appeal to a number of unionist commentators – not least the powers that be in Belfast Telegraph. Sir Reg realises, however, that unionism is so diverse that it cannot be encapsulated in the vision of one political party.

Moreover, Sir Reg is only too aware that a unionism that sets its boundaries at Northern Ireland borders runs the risk of playing into the hands of Irish nationalism. Sir Reg has yet to articulate a way forward but he recognises a cul de sac when he sees one.

Gotta be cross to hold event...

Following the row about the Sinn Féin proposal to host an event in the Long Gallery on International Womens Day to mark the life of Mairead Farrell – the IRA member shot by the SAS in Gibraltar – all events at Stormont will now have to be hosted by three MLAs and have cross community support i.e. at least one nationalist and one unionist.

Beady eye on rates

The Assembly voted in support of Finance Minister Peter Robinson’s proposal that domestic rates will remain at their current level for a three-year period and the increase in the non-domestic regional rate will be pegged to the rate of inflation, which currently stands at 2.7%.

This decision received very little coverage. These measures represent the Executive’s sole revenue raising powers. The domestic Regional Rate will contribute 2.8% of public expenditure in Northern Ireland and the non-domestic Regional Rate will contribute 3.1 % - the remainder comes in the block grant from Westminster.

The next time there is a ‘crisis’ in the health service or in another element of the public services, it remains to be seen whether journalists will ask Mr Robinson and his Executive colleague if they ought to have increased these rates rather more. Only when Ministers are defending their budgetary decisions, rather than blaming Westminster or their predecessors, will politics in Northern Ireland begin to be democratic and accountable. In other words – the Executive could have raised more money but chose not to.

The various Private Members’ Motions and Adjournment debates all passed off as usual with little controversy and considerable mutual backslapping. There was a tenser note in the air when the Education Minister Caitriona Ruane discussed her Area-based planning proposals for schools with the Assembly, but by and large it was a quiet week in the Assembly with the big political story of Paisley’s resignation announcement attracting everyone’s attentions.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Last hurrah for the Big Man?

The Big Man is bowing out. There got that out. Less than six months ago it would have been an unthinkable statement.

As had been trailed, suggested, hinted at, whispered about and generally dominated Assembly gossip for the past two weeks, Ian Paisley Snr announced today that he will be handing over the Big Blue First Minister's briefcase in May.

The resignation caused a few raised eyebrows over the timing, not the fact that the Big Man was jacking it in. At 81 (he'll be 82 in April) time was sure to be limited, despite his assertions and Baroness Paisley's Telegraph interview.

Of course, once the teatime news 'broke' the story there has ensued a frenzy of commentators (is that the right collective noun?) tripping over hyperbole to appear on every TV or radio station in the western hemisphere - even the Chinese news agency Xinhau filed copy for European and Sino news addicts.

As is the wont of news outlets at time like these, some unfortunate researchers are sent out, phone in hand, to gather the comments of the great, the good and the downright average. The BBC collection of such comments includes fulsome (in the old fashioned meaning of the word - sickly and less than sincere!) praise from remote control politicians, and barbed japes from local opponents. David Ford has a swipe, along with Danny Kennedy on the BBC site Try not to snigger at Gordon Brown and David Cameron's comments!

The DUP comments have been led by Robinson, who now takes on the undeclared role of heir apparent, while as of 11pm on the 4th March the profile of the self-appointed elder statesman has yet to be updated to reflect his resignation.

As the welter commentary dies down (head to Slugger O'Toole where Shakesperian quotations have even been drawn into the discussion) the reality is that the resignation has ensured a dozen or so weeks of speculation over Robinson's first series of ministerial appointments...well that is if he gets the FM job. And, who would bet against him?