Business as usual at Stormont, with an air of unreality

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The Independent Online

The business of devolved government went on apparently as usual in Belfast yesterday, with local politicians dealing with local issues as they were meant to do under the Good Friday Agreement.

The business of devolved government went on apparently as usual in Belfast yesterday, with local politicians dealing with local issues as they were meant to do under the Good Friday Agreement.

Sinn Fein's Education Minister, Martin McGuinness, issued a statement on co-operation with his counterpart in Dublin while the Development Minister, Peter Robinson, from the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, announced a new road project.

It all had an air of unreality however, everyone realising that the devolved project was close to the point of losing its power. One old hand described the administrative activity as akin to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

When that Belfast-built vessel went down it sank for ever. The question in most minds now is whether the Assembly, once suspended, might ever be successfully revived.

The sequence of events now is for some days of slightly desperate last-gasp efforts to avoid that suspension. The Ulster Unionist Party seems unshakeable in its stance that disarmament must begin immediately, while the IRA seems implacable that this will not happen.

But the British and Irish governments will nonetheless continue with efforts to find some way of softening the harshness of this clash of opinions. The fact is that both republicans and Unionists very much want the new administration to continue; the hope is that this desire will somehow produce a new willingness to compromise.

It is obvious that the actual ministers wish to stay in power, and anyone visiting Stormont is quickly aware that most of the Assembly members relish their status and, on a human as well as political level, are anxious to preserve it. Although money is probably the primary driving force for only a few, many of the politicians have greater prestige and higher salaries than ever before in their lives. Many of them also employ relatives as aides. Suspension is therefore a bleak prospect on a personal level for many of the 108 members.

Closures of Belfast institutions also have a tendency to start out as temporary but to become permanent. In 1972, for example, the Heath government announced that Belfast's Stormont parliament had been prorogued, meaning suspended: in fact that was the end of the institution and it never met again in that form.

The governments will hope that the next few days will allow both the political and financial facts to sink in, and to hope that the present spirit of confrontation will mutate into a sense that risks should be taken to protect and preserve an institution which took so long to come into being.

For the moment, though, the sense in Belfast is that both sides are painted into corners, with no obvious signs of flexibility on the horizon.

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