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Brian Rowan The people of Northern Ireland have finally had enough of its broken politics

The journalist and author says yesterday’s strikes show a growing frustration with the Stormont stalemate.

LAST UPDATE | Jan 19th 2024, 1:05 PM

LISTENING AT BELFAST City Hall yesterday, you could hear the mood in the words. A blunt message on a day that will be remembered for its mass strike.

That message was loud and clear; so clear, that Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris will have heard it. And, so too, the DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.

Thousands of workers were there; just over a hundred steps away from the British government’s Northern Ireland Office (NIO) in the city, at a rally where voices were heard above all the noise and the nonsense of the North’s pathetic politics.

An expression of anger

Anger at the use of workers as pawns in a political play to try to get the Northern Ireland Executive back.

And anger over the rarely talked about ‘sea border on pay’ — and the significant difference in salaries when it comes to here compared to the rest of the UK.

Twenty-four hours earlier, this was highlighted by the SDLP Stormont leader Matt O’Toole; his pointed words then aimed directly at the DUP.

‘Worst ever’

From the platform, at City Hall on Thursday, Heaton-Harris was described as fast becoming the worst-ever Secretary of State.

Most who have held that position here were forgotten almost as soon as they left.

The exceptions being the late Mo Mowlam for her work in the period of the Good Friday Agreement and Julian Smith, who managed the last Stormont rescue mission.

Repeat lines

The UK Government has offered a £3 billion-plus package conditional on there being a return to Stormont.

Heaton-Harris is the face of that offer.

But, thus far, the Secretary of State has ignored calls for him to release part of the funds for public sector pay.

He may not be able to keep his fingers in his ears for much longer.

In the here and now, he more than Donaldson is the focus of the wrath of the workers and their demands.

It is the UK Government that holds the money and who are pulling the political strings.

The brokenness of our politics has reached into people’s pockets; depriving them of much needed money. This is what brought so many onto the streets on Thursday.

I spotted a placard that read: We’re not walking out. We’re standing up.

Standing up in this massive mobilisation of workers, many of them carrying the flags of their unions in this very different protest at City Hall.

Heaton-Harris and Donaldson will have seen the numbers, and heard the words.

Will it change anything? Only if Donaldson can get himself off the many hooks of his seven tests on post-Brexit trading arrangements.

It is this sea border that now dominates and poisons the politics of here.

The BBC correspondent Gareth Gordon, who for decades has watched as the political paint has dried at Stormont, quoted a DUP source this week saying the real row in the party now is Jeffrey Donaldson versus Jeffrey Donaldson.

It says it all about this period of waiting and indecision, and the mess we’re in, and the mess he is in.

A former Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service David Sterling posted a bleak assessment on his X account on Thursday.

Different words

There was something else that made us listen in recent days; the tougher words of Michelle O’Neill, and her questioning of whether the DUP boycott of the Executive is only about that post-Brexit sea border, or whether there is something more to it — a reluctance to work alongside a Sinn Féin First Minister.

Many will remember the republican mood that brought Martin McGuinness to pull Stormont down in 2017.

In this waiting for the DUP, is patience running out; patience in terms of this
latest Stormont sham?

‘It’s close,’ one source said, going no further than that brief comment.

One-party talks

The UK Government has not been sure-footed. Heaton-Harris looks and sounds out of his depth.

Those talks with the DUP have gone on for far too long. If the two sides don’t know what is possible by now, then they will never know.

They are still refusing to share the detail of that negotiation, much to the frustration of other leaders.

Moods and minds are hardening.

Our story is moving beyond the failure of the political institutions to everything else that is breaking as a consequence.

That is why people took to the streets on Thursday.

Patience had been stretched and snapped.

There are those who are thinking beyond Stormont; long ago bored by this monotonous, maddening play.


This morning on Radio Ulster, Stephen Nolan, quoting a senior source, revealed that the DUP officer team will meet today.

So, does it mean, that at long last, they are close or closer to their decision time, understanding, of course, that time and patience are running out.

One other thing worth mentioning is a post from Julian Smith in response to David Sterling last night and a line that sometimes ‘it’s darkest before the dawn’.

It’s a post that gives us something more to think about.

No one is suggesting to me that a deal is certain. But there is another space to watch.

Another turn in this script.

Brian Rowan is a journalist and author. He is a former BBC correspondent in Belfast. Brian is the author of several books on Northern Ireland’s peace process. His new book, “Living With Ghosts” is out now at Merrion Press.


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