Saturday November 25
PANTOMIME season is in full swing and clearly this year’s most spectacular (and longest running) show was the one that opened in Stormont yesterday. The performance had everything — farce, exaggeration, elaborate song and dance routines and unexpected plot twists. We had the usual show-stoppers. Ian Paisley historically agreed to share power with Sinn Féin (‘Oh no I didn’t,’ roared the Reverend). There was Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern saying that when Ian Paisley said ‘no’, he really said ‘yes’ (‘Oh no I didn’t’).
There was the rare sight of the most ambiguous politicians in the universe, Bertie Ahern, fuming about the lack of clarity displayed by one of the most unambiguous politicians in the universe. And yes, to top it all, we had a cameo turn from the arch villain. Loyalist killer Michael Stone gave a grisly reminder of his murderous attack on Milltown Cemetery in March 1988 with his brazen storming of Stormont yesterday. The police later discovered six crude devices that needed to be defused — it brought a chill to the spine, reminding us all of the dark place where we could all return. This was an embarrassment that overshadowed the farce that preceded it. It being Christmas, we were treated to fudge. Loads of it. All year, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern were saying that November 24 was the final deadline, that the two major parties would have to formally nominate their choices as first minister and deputy first minister designate on that date. Even after St Andrew’s, this strong line was being maintained. If there wasn’t a breakthrough, there would be dismantling, with both governments moving to Plan B. Peter Hain might not have a huge legion of admirers in the North but he coined a phrase last week that will worm its way into analysis pieces for years to come. “Belfast is Procrastination City,” he proclaimed, in frustration at the DUP’s antics all week. And being the North, there was the usual exhausting marathon of verbiage. In Dublin, Bertie Ahern described being up to the early hours of the morning working on an agreed sequence. Then he woke up yesterday to hear Paisley say a lot of things but nothing remotely connected to what he was supposed to say. “It would be nice today if we got clarity. Dr Paisley says he’s a man of simple words and today, he wasn’t,” he said. Ahern was as visibly frustrated as he has ever been about yesterday’s charade, and he made no effort to hide it. Blair, being Blair, desperately accentuated the positive. If Sinn Féin agreed to support policing, the DUP would share power, he said. The project is still on track was the message. The problem is that nobody is sure where the track is going. The strange thing is that the sequencing proceeded as if Paisley had committed himself to eventual powersharing. The speaker Eileen Bell deemed his speech an acceptance even though he clearly said the circumstances had not been reached where there could be a nomination or designation by his party on this day. He could have sang a couple of hymns in the chamber yesterday and it would have passed the unbelievably low threshold set by both governments. And this is the danger. Instead of the strong ultimatum we have been hearing all year, the two governments allowed the process to just about limp over the line yesterday, with absolutely no firm prospect that Sinn Féin and the DUP will ever share power. And for once, the roles were reversed. The SDLP, and the UUP in particular, have been the convenient whipping boys for years for the more hardline Sinn Féin and the DUP. Yesterday, they could indulge in some glorious verbal retaliation. Mark Durkan suggested deliciously that Sinn Féin and the DUP should “synchronise their U-turns”. For UUP leader, Reg Empey, there was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gloat at Paisley’s discomfort. Had he witnessed a marriage or an engagement? he asked before berating the Governments for accepting as a commitment the “codology that went on today”. Empey said that both Sinn Féin and the DUP had lost their separate arguments over policing and power-sharing but that none had the guts to make the statements that were required of them.And the Governments have lost a huge deal of credibility by tolerating all this tomfoolery, by not threatening to bring the curtains down on this farce.