Stormont 2016 - Changed Utterly, A Forgettable Beauty Is Born

25/05/2016 11:57


The dates May 12 and May 19 2016 could go down in history. The moment Northern Ireland politics were normalised or consolidated; the moment the hegemony of DUP and Sinn Fein was either secured or scuppered.

Just as nearly half of the electorate don't vote and don't care about politics, most of Northern Ireland are probably unaware of Momentous May 2016, the month when Ulster politics changed and "changed utterly".

History has been made, a chapter perhaps as grand as any in recent time.

In April 1916 the revolutionaries of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, with manpower from the Irish Volunteers (not Sinn Fein), fired a shot that killed a police officer and launched a rebellion whose deadly legacy rumbles to this day. The Easter Rising reduced Dublin to the state of a town on the Western Front, an Ypres-on-the-Liffey, and changed Ireland "utterly" as W.B. Yeats wrote. Separation from Britain may have been a "beauty" for the Irish, but the terribleness was on a far higher scale - giving to Ireland a rebellion, a war of independence, a civil war, an embryonic Dublin government continually assailed by the IRA, the 1939-1940 S(Sabotage)-Plan, the border campaign of 1956-1962, the Provisional IRA campaign of 1969-1998 and the dissident IRA violence of 1998 to present.

The move by Nesbitt (UUP) and Eastwood (SDLP) in May 2016 could mark a change as "utterly" transformative as Easter 1916 - except this moment of change has been a boring and forgettable beauty.


Nothing "terrible" happened. Nobody was bombed or blown apart, nobody killed, just a momentary growth spurt bookended by stagnant politics. The appearance of Belfast didn't change an iota and its inhabitants were perfectly unperturbed.

As Martin Luther King said of justice, the arc of history is long, but in May 2016 an exception was made.

Martin McGuinness said in his youth that it would be "the cutting edge of the IRA " which would bring freedom to Ireland, but ultimately it has been the tedious partnership-partisanship government of DUP-Sinn Fein that has brought freedom and change. A freedom to live peaceably in a stable and equal society, the freedom to lobby peacefully for whichever constitutional position you think best for the north-east of Ireland.

But the conditions of freedom have been dysfunctional and abnormal, as compared with other western democracies - Identity politics that values access to flags and emblems and parades, as opposed to normal politics that values jobs and health and education.

The move by the smaller parties was necessary, even inevitable. Necessary because tribalism and identity politics have paralysed legislation. Inevitable because the junior parties in the executive, both the UUP and SDLP, were on the inexorable slide towards the dustbin of history

During the Troubles the aspiration was for an "accepted level of violence ". The term today sounds absurd, even Orwellian, but it reflected the uncontrolled passions that existed in Ulster. The Assembly term 2011-2016 and the years preceding it were marked by an "accepted level of dysfunction". Cross-community government was a very good and special thing by Northern Ireland standards, but it was a government that was very bad by normal standards.

Just as violence became unacceptable, so bad government for the sake of government has become unacceptable.

Since 1998 Stormont has been marred by the ugly scaffolding of the peace agreement. Now it is starting to come down.

People now want accountable and responsible government that sets out a programme for government that is held to its promises. If opposition works then promises will be judged against their delivery, not drowned out by the noise of flag and patriot politics.


As Newton Emerson suggested, I believe the recent evolution "will force the executive to up its game."

Colum Eastwood, as Mike Nesbitt inititaed, by declaring "constructive opposition" may have completed the start of the Reformation of Stormont. There is no doubt that 'Marlene' has been momentarily rattled by the momentous shift in the Stormont status quo. The question now is whether the smaller parties can deliver effective opposition and present a picture of government that will upend the DUP-Sinn Fein ascendency.