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Stormont Parliament Buildings Alamy Stock Photo

Northern Ireland 'Stormont is now a mere soap opera on a hill over Belfast'

Brian Rowan says when politics is not about the people of Northern Ireland and their needs, it’s about nothing.

LAST UPDATE | 19 Dec 2023

THE SOAP OPERA that is Stormont politics is performing another of its Christmas pantomimes.

This time, on a stage created at Hillsborough Castle where, in a 12-paragraph document, the UK Government detailed a finance offer as one part in a two-part play to restore the Executive.

The other part of this negotiation is on post-Brexit trading arrangements, and the sea border, which unionists speak of in terms of a constitutional crisis — as something that has made Northern Ireland different from the rest of the United Kingdom.

belfast-uk-02nd-july-2023-stormont-parliament-buildings-is-the-seat-of-the-northern-ireland-assembly-the-devolved-legislature-for-the-region-on-he-4th-february-2022-first-minister-paul-girvan-r Stormont Parliament Buildings Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

And, for a little over a week now, the story has been of one possibility and, then, another; the next pages in deep chapters that often describe collapse and resuscitation within the politics of this place.

Might there be a pre-Christmas breakthrough to end the latest in a long list of standoffs on that political hill that overlooks Belfast? The answer is No — certainly not yet — that message delivered in a briefing given to the veteran BBC Political Correspondent Gareth Gordon In Belfast on Monday.

The DUP is not yet ready; not enough in the finance package to put Northern Ireland and its public services on solid ground, and not enough to convince not just them, but others in the unionist community, that the question of the sea border has been addressed.

Decision delayed

The UK Government wanted to run at pace to get this negotiation over the line now, but the DUP has decided to jog in heavy boots.

It has a line that it is not “calendar-led” but rather “condition-led”.

As far as it is concerned, there is more to talk about.

Yet, this place is all about the calendar.

The North is a long story of days and dates and anniversaries — many of them ‘Troubles’- related, as the dead of the conflict years are remembered. And there are other anniversaries linked to the peace/political process, which become moments of reflection and stock-taking on what has worked and what hasn’t.

left-to-right-deputy-leader-of-the-dup-gavin-robinson-leader-of-the-dup-sir-jeffrey-donaldson-and-gordon-lyons-speak-to-media-outside-hillsborough-castle-after-talks-between-northern-ireland-secret Deputy Leader of the DUP Gavin Robinson, Leader of the DUP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Gordon Lyons speak to media outside Hillsborough Castle after talks between Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris and the main political parties. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

We could make a Northern Ireland-specific calendar. Every date and every day has some meaning. 2023 was the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

When we turn the pages of 2024, there will be other dates to consider — 15 years since the first legacy report from the Consultative Group on the Past (better known as Eames/Bradley), 25 years on from the Patten Report and its recommendations for a ‘New Beginning to Policing’, and 30 years on from the ceasefires of 1994 that would be the beginnings of the hard work of peace.

Politics has struggled in that peace

2023 will be remembered again for the absence of a working Stormont, for moments of policing crisis, and for the trenches being dug deeper in our legacy wars.

All of that is a reminder that there is nothing simple, easy or straightforward about peace-building.

Stormont has become that soap opera I referenced earlier.

And every day, for too many days, we’ve watched it happening and not happening.

They feel like repeat episodes, but they are supposedly new; as new as anything can be in the politics of this place.

left-to-right-conor-murphy-vice-president-of-sinn-fein-michelle-oneill-and-president-of-sinn-fein-mary-lou-mcdonald-speak-to-media-outside-hillsborough-castle-after-talks-between-northern-ireland Conor Murphy, VP of Sinn Fein Michelle O'Neill and Mary Lou McDonald outside Hillsborough Castle after talks between Chris Heaton-Harris and the main political parties. Dec 11. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

In late November, Professor Jon Tonge reminded us that the Stormont Executive has been down for a total of more than 3,500 days since powers were devolved in December 1999.

In this latest standoff, what passes for progress is measured in fractions — a different word that might hint at possibilities.

And we listen to the same characters making the same arguments that are played on a loop.

sdlp-leader-colum-eastwood-speaks-with-unison-chairwoman-stephanie-greenwood-outside-hillsborough-castle-ahead-of-a-roundtable-talk-on-stormont-finances-with-northern-ireland-secretary-chris-heaton-h SDLP leader Colum Eastwood speaks with Unison chairwoman Stephanie Greenwood outside Hillsborough Castle December 11. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The need to get Stormont ‘up and running again’ fights with the latest reasons for the boycott of the Executive.

News has become lost

Lost in this sense, that the absurd — the brokenness of this place — has almost been normalised.

The low bar of just having Stormont should never be good enough.

Those so-called news conferences that repeat the same lines are not news and should not be presented as such.

For months and months and months, there has been talk and more talk about the endless talks involving the DUP and the UK Government; a description of crucial stages, final phases and, then, final, final stages.

uup-leader-doug-beattie-speaking-to-union-representatives-outside-hillsborough-castle-ahead-of-a-roundtable-talk-on-stormont-finances-with-northern-ireland-secretary-chris-heaton-harris-picture-date UUP leader Doug Beattie speaking to union representatives outside Hillsborough Castle, ahead of a roundtable talk on Stormont finances with Chris Heaton-Harris. 11 Dec Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

These, the words of Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.

And, here we are, close to the end of another year and with a script being written for even more talks in 2024.

Stormont is a sham

There were moments in recent months when some detected some movement. When they thought the script in the soap opera might change — maybe at the DUP Conference and perhaps in The King’s Speech to Parliament.

And, certainly, in these latest talks at Hillsborough.

But thus far, they have failed to put Stormont together again.

It seems closer to something this time, but still not there.

Is it worth the effort?

Not if it is a repeat of what has gone before — including those ten years since Good Friday 1998 when politics hasn’t worked.

There is a need for a much wider review — an independent review — of why politics has struggled in the peace; why, at times, it has been unable to cope.

My view is that Stormont should be closed down until that happens. If some form of workable politics there cannot be achieved, then it is up to the two governments to decide next steps in joint work that is not joint authority.

WhatsApp Image 2023-12-19 at 07.55.32 Rowan with Julian Smith. Elle Rowan Elle Rowan

There was an example of this in 2020 when the then NI Secretary Julian Smith and then Tánaiste Simon Coveney jointly presented the New Decade — New Approach Agreement, Stormont’s last rescue mission.

In my opinion, it should have been its last chance.

When politics is not about people and their needs, it’s about nothing,

Our story is not just the brokenness of politics, but everything else that is damaged because of Stormont — because of its inability to function.

Politics has failed

Failed in its current form.

But Julian Smith hasn’t given up. There has been louder talk in recent days about him having a key background role in these latest efforts to restore the Executive.

Could we have imagined in the euphoria of the ceasefires and, then, the political agreement, that things would have been this difficult?

David Adams was at the top table when loyalists announced their ceasefire in 1994, and was inside the talks that produced that moment on Good Friday 1998.

He thinks our problem is that some in politics considered the ceasefires and power-sharing to be an end point “rather than merely a starting position”.

So, perhaps we need to begin again. Try for a new agreement, and put it to the people. Think beyond Good Friday. Create space for the post-conflict generation to do something different.

We need a politics that is not about the Past. Many lines jumped out at me when I was reading Stephen Walker’s biography of John Hume.

Among them, a statement from 50 years ago, at the time of the first power-sharing experiment — including these lines from the Executive’s press team: “We want the New Year to see the beginning, not just of a new system of government, but of a new spirit. Let 1974 be the year of reconciliation.”

If these latest talks make progress in the New Year, what would a Stormont ‘up and running’ contribute to reconciliation in 2024? Nothing. Not if it is some repeat episode of what we have witnessed throughout much of the past 25 years. Our peace has worked better than our politics.

And, as we move beyond the calendar pages of 2023, that is the thought that I will carry into the New Year.

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, “Political Purgatory – The Battle to Save Stormont and the Play for a New Ireland” is out now at Merrion Press.

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