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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Sport
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching