Ulster Peace Process: The bright new era that collapsed into a farce

IT WASN'T even history repeating itself as farce: it was just farce pure and simple, the Belfast assembly going through entirely inconsequential motions in a bitter parody of what might have been. Instead of the dawn of a bright new era it turned out to be a political version of fantasy football league.

All the trappings of power were there in the chamber but the main actors of the moment were not. The seats normally occupied by David Trimble's party were empty, signifying that Stormont would once again witness disharmony rather than reconciliation.

The other parties were in place, Ian Paisley's people taking a grim satisfaction from a spectacle which seemed to confirm their view of what politics is all about, which is division, disagreement and conflict.

The rest sat there reflecting sadly about what might have been, trying to adjust to the fact that 15 months of deadlock had not ended in breakthrough, and trying to work up the energy to go through it all over again, perhaps in the autumn.

This was supposed to be the moment when unionist and republican took their places together in a new devolved administration for Northern Ireland, agreeing to work together, side by side if not actually in friendship, to open a new era.

This was supposed to represent, both actually and symbolically, a fresh start showing that old enemies could sink their differences for the common good. Sinn Fein showed up at the altar, but the unionist bridegroom was missing.

And Lord Alderdice, the Speaker, was compelled to drag everyone through the deeply meaningless procedures. He intoned: "Since the standing orders require that a response comes within five minutes, I must give the Ulster Unionist party's nominating officer five minutes in which to make his reply. Clerk - the clock."

There was bitter laughter as members looked over at David Trimble's chair. Everyone then had to spend five pointless minutes, as specified in the rules, waiting for an Ulster Unionist response. David Trimble's vacant chair stared vacantly back at them, his party having resorted to old-style republican abstentionism.

Then on it went, a travesty of what was supposed to happen. John Hume duly nominated SDLP ministers while Gerry Adams named Sinn Fein people. But since no unionist names were put forward it was all completely one- sided. Ian Paisley took 15 minutes to think things over before coming back to the chamber to announce, to no one's surprise, that he would refuse to nominate ministers in order to "oust Sinn Fein from office".

Sean Neeson, leader of the small and middle of the road Alliance party, also had an opportunity to nominate but refused because of "the unforgivable behaviour of the Ulster Unionists and the outrageous standing order".

He was emotional. "There are no victors in the events that are unravelling here today, but there are big losers. The biggest losers are my children, your children. I think they must feel betrayed by their politicians, by the fact that we have failed to move forward."

So the SDLP and Sinn Fein got to nominate all the seats, producing a cabinet of 10 nationalists. Eventually there were six SDLP ministers and four republicans, their nominations sometimes greeted with ironic applause. Sinn Fein's Bairbre de Brun became minister for enterprise, trade and investment while Martin McGuinness was, for a fleeting moment, agriculture minister.

But it being obvious that there were no Unionists among the nominees, Lord Alderdice announced as expected that the executive's composition did not meet cross-community requirements and was thus invalid. Martin McGuinness lost his job after 10 minutes, so the farmers of Northern Ireland never got to hear what he had in mind for them.

Seamus Mallon then rose to announce his resignation as deputy first minister- designate, combining his usual eloquence with an attack of extraordinary savagery on the Ulster Unionists. When he became Mr Trimble's deputy more than a year ago many thought Seamus and David would forge a personal relationship which could be a tremendous strength in the peace process.

It was said Seamus would, with his pipe and his whiskey and his straight man-to-man manner, do invaluable business with his Unionist partner, building a friendship symbolising how men from differing traditions could create a bond of trust. But his resignation speech revealed that exasperation with Unionist tactics is as strong within the SDLP as it is within Sinn Fein. "They use this crisis to bleed more concessions out of the governments, to bleed this very process dry," he growled. "They are dishonouring the agreement. They are insulting its principles."

Ian Paisley and his son Ian Junior jumped up to interrupt at various points, but Mr Mallon got through a difficult speech with dignity, holding in check what were evidently very deep emotions.

The outside world kept intruding on the proceedings, notes being passed to Lord Alderdice from the Northern Ireland Office. One of these seemed to be a hand-written message from Mo Mowlam, apparently telling him to wind the whole thing up.

She, or her people, must have been aware the hollow sham of it all looked awful on television, projecting as it did that this was an abnormal society in which the usual trappings of government were present but not functional.

The assembly has been in existence for more than a year in shadow form: its members saunter the precincts carrying bundles of papers, sporting themselves in the dining-rooms and collecting generous salaries and expenses.

They have actually reached firm agreement among themselves in one area: that their mileage allowance should be increased and that more money should be spent on their facilities. Yesterday it was not clear whether, during the review period, the money would continue to flow into their pockets.

As they sat, Mo Mowlam was, telling the Commons about that review, which is expected to carry things through until the autumn. She was short on details, telling MPs: "Having begun to think about it when it became clear only an hour ago, we are going to need a review pretty quickly."

David Trimble was on television, complaining of Tony Blair's artificial deadlines and arguing that he had acted in defence of fundamental democratic principles. He may have made a mistake, many observers thought, in not appearing in the assembly to make a dignified speech laying out his position.

In the chamber the grisly burlesque went on. After a few more Paisleyite points of order Gerry Adams made a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger contribution, saying what was happening would mean that many young people, mostly Unionists, who were at university or working in England and Scotland would not be returning home. Firms which had been thinking of investing would not now do so, he added.

Then Ian Paisley did a characteristic more-in-anger-than-in-sorrow speech which pretty much rounded it all off. This is the fifth Stormont assembly in which the Democratic Unionist leader has sat. He has played a large part in the downfall of many of them, and was this day triumphant that once again the best-laid plans of a British government had gone awry.

Lord Alderdice adjourned the proceedings, to general relief, at 1.25pm after reading a message from Mo Mowlam which said: "The assembly should not meet until I have issued a further direction."

Party leaders went outside to continue their war of attrition for the television cameras. Assembly members drifted out of the chamber, many with sad smiles, most of them downcast that they had witnessed not history but a mockery, and hopeful that something could be salvaged from the mess.

the day at

stormont

10.15am: Northern Ireland First Minister David Trimble says his Ulster Unionists will not be nominating ministers and will boycott assembly meeting.

10.28am: Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon takes a call from Prime Minister Tony Blair as he enters assembly chamber.

10.30am: Speaker Lord Alderdice opens assembly meeting to nominate ministers to the executive.

10.35am: Democratic Unionist Party motion calling for expulsion of Sinn Fein for 12 months fails through shortage of backers. Recess for parties to study new standing orders sent by Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam on the system of appointing ministers to the executive.

10.50am: Laughter when speaker turns to empty Ulster Unionist seats and gives the absent David Trimble five minutes to nominate the first minister to the executive.

10.55am: John Hume nominates Mark Durkan as the SDLP's first ministerial appointment.

11.00am: Reverend Ian Paisley, called on to nominate Democratic Unionist minister, asks for 15-minute recess, after which he refuses to nominate.

11.15am: Gerry Adams nominates Bairbre de Brun as Sinn Fein's first minister. UK Unionists and Alliance party refuses to nominate. SDLP and Sinn Fein then alternate to fill all 10 ministerial posts, Martin McGuinness getting agriculture portfolio.

11.48am: Speaker announces that ministerial appointments cannot stand because all come from the nationalist side.

11.50am: Seamus Mallon announces his resignation and suggests Mr Trimble do the same. Leaders of all other parties present make their own statements.

12.30pm: In a sombre House of Commons Ms Mowlam announces a review of the workings of the Good Friday Agreement.

1.25pm: Speaker adjourns assembly; it cannot meet again until Ms Mowlam decrees.

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