Ulster finds a new home for old foes

Click to follow
THEY WERE all there yesterday for the first meeting of the new Belfast assembly in the old Stormont: the good, the bad and the ugly, those who incited violence, those who used it, and those who have suffered from it.

Yesterday they all seemed to have found a political home together in the chamber of the old Stormont parliament which was deliberately shut down in 1972 and accidentally burnt down in 1994.

The old chamber has, like some of its new members with dubious pasts, now undergone a process of rehabilitation and has reopened for what some yesterday declared to be the new politics and the new disposition for Northern Ireland.

The old issues were still there: Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble repeating his warning that Sinn Fein would not be welcome in government until the IRA was "prepared to destroy the weapons of war". But he said he would welcome those who were genuine about "crossing the bridge from terror to democracy".

In a speech which caught something of the day's largely positive tone, he declared: "We are in the fortunate position of struggling with democratic constitutional arrangements rather than struggling with the politics of the latest atrocity."

There were, however, some bridges which looked like they would never be crossed. The Rev Ian Paisley may have sat only 15 feet away from Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness but the inclusive philosophy of the peace process looks unlikely to pervade their relationship.

Mr Paisley denounced Gerry Adams as "the leader of IRA/ Sinn Fein in this house", a Sinn Fein member retorted that some Unionists might have their own paramilitary associations.

There was also verbal swordplay on the question of the use of the Irish language in the chamber, which Mr Adams wants and Mr Paisley does not, and on the question of whether the Union Jack should fly over Stormont, where their positions are the opposite.

Most of the rhetoric about looking to the future came from Mr Trimble, who is chief minister designate, and from his deputy, Seamus Mallon of the nationalist SDLP.

Mr Mallon, referring in friendly fashion to "David and I", said the Omagh bombing and other violence meant it had been a cruel summer, but one which had given them a greater sense of purpose to create something absolutely new.

"A new politics has begun," he said. "It's time for responsibility and commitment, for taking responsibility for our own lives."

There was humour too, as Mr Trimble's faithful Unionist deputy, John Taylor, said they should congratulate the Northern Ireland team who had won a shooting competition at the Commonwealth Games.

"I'm glad to see Mr Adams laughing," he added jovially, "because it was with legal firearms."

The reconstructed Stormont chamber provided a sumptuous backdrop for the new politics with its blue leather seats, gorgeous wood panelling (Spanish walnut) and stately columns topped with much gilt. Everyone gets a seat, the more prominent members having a desk as well.

After this splendour, the utilitarian basement canteen proved a great leveller. Men who had just been jutting their jaws at each other across the chamber were suddenly reduced to people looking for their lunch, queueing together in uneasy proximity before dispersing to tables on a party basis.

Then it was back upstairs for more politics. The Unionists are anxious to move ahead on a number of fronts, in particular sorting out the number of departments, and thus ministers, the new administration should have. But they want to move slowly on actually forming an executive, demanding arms decommissioning as the price of Sinn Fein entry.

Sinn Fein, however want an executive formed as soon as possible, with their party taking two seats on it. Their urgency on this front is in contrast to decommissioning, where they want a slow-motion approach.

Mr Paisley, meanwhile, is saying he wants two executive seats. His party should run two departments, he argues, but it would do so as free agents, not sitting down with Sinn Fein. Most other parties believe the executive should be, in Mr Mallon's words, a single, coherent, consistent body. The question of what to do with Mr Paisley has thus joined that of what to do with Sinn Fein.

New dispensation or not, nationalists and Unionists are arrayed on opposite sides of the chamber. In the middle, where the two sets of benches converge, some independents and small parties form a cordon sanitaire between the two big blocs.

Perhaps this will loosen up as time goes by, if and when this new assembly makes progress in the long slow business of building new political arrangements and eventually new relationships and, perhaps, trust in place of the enmity of the past.