Left Foot Forward’s Ed Jacobs looks ahead to the political situation in Northern Ireland in 2012.
Politically, 2011 saw little change in the balance of power in Northern Ireland, with the DUP and Sinn Fein remaining the largest unionist and nationalist parties respectively.
Gerry Adams may have left Stormont for the lure of the Dail in Dublin, but the Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness show continued to remain strong, able to withstand McGuinness’s temporary stepping down from the post of deputy first minister to run an ultimately unsuccessful bid for the Irish Presidency.
But politics aside, perhaps the best demonstration of the progress made on the island of Ireland was the Queen’s historic state visit to Ireland.
Described by David Cameron as a “game changer” during an interview for Irish state broadcaster RTE, the sight and sound at the state dinner of her majesty opening her speech in Irish was truly remarkable, eliciting a simple “wow” from the now former President Mary McAleese.
Yet for all the hyperbole about historic firsts, the tensions in Northern Ireland going into 2012 are as clear for all to see now as they have ever been.
The brutal murder of PC Ronan Kerr in April; the sheer anger and disappointment at the decision by the UK government not to hold a full public inquiry into the death of Pat Finucane; on-going debate over how in future the position of justice minister should be selected; and the continuation of an education system which sees Protestant and Catholic children not being taught in the same schools have all served to ensure that despite the progress made, sectarian tensions remain very much at the heart of Northern Ireland’s political life.
Following DUP leader and first minister Peter Robinson’s calls for an end to Northern Ireland’s sectarian divides towards a new “shared society” and Martin McGuiness’s declaration to his party’s annual conference that unionists should be “loved and cherished” there is a clear indication both the major players in Northern Irish politics understand the need to figure out how to heal wounds going into 2012.
With that in mind, it can be expected that calls will continue to be made for some form of peace and reconciliation commission along the lines of that established in post-apartheid South Africa.
The UK government might have concerns about the cost of another lengthy commission of inquiry – particularly following that which investigated the events surrounding Bloody Sunday – but there can be no more important issue than trying to heal sectarian wounds and bring Northern Ireland’s society closer to “normality”.
But just as Northern Ireland’s societal tensions need to be healed, so to do those felt at Stormont, which continues the somewhat bizarre sight of a statutory coalition government preventing the development and proper resourcing of an effective opposition to hold ministers to account.
With UUP leader Tom Elliott having already called for the development of a formal opposition, the SDLP’s sole minister, Alex Attwood, having left the door open to such a move, and the DUP having called for “normal democratic institutions”, commentators will be eagerly watching any developments that could see the establishment of a proper “Government and Opposition” system.
Ironically enough, having been eclipsed in government by the DUP and Sinn Fein, as both the Ulster Unionists and SDLP consider their futures under newly installed leaders, moving to opposition could provide them with the space and opportunity they need to find their voices and carve out a reason for their existence, free from the shackles of government.
Meanwhile, as the economy continues to dominate the political agenda right across the UK, parties across Stormont will be waiting in anticipation for moves by the UK government to devolve powers over corporation tax in an effort to improve Northern Ireland’s competitiveness with the Republic. Having declared the price must be right before the powers are devolved, 2012 will be a year to keep close eyes on finance minister Sammy Wilson.
Likewise, it will be a year to keep watch on health minister Edwin Poots, having suggested women may have to pay for caesarean sections out of choice rather than medical need; hinted at the return of prescription charges; presided over the closure of the Accident and Emergency department at Belfast City Hospital; and commissioned a report recommending cutting in half the number of acute hospitals in Northern Ireland, Poots could fast become one of the more unpopular members of the Stormont government as he presides over reforms and cost saving measures that could eclipse the changes being made in England by Andrew Lansley.
Following Peter Robinson’s commitment in his Christmas message to “build upon the peace and stability” established in Northern Ireland, 2012 will be crunch year for society and the political classes as a whole to come to terms with the past and establish a political system that is able to look forward without allowing the past to raise its ugly head.
Difficult though it will be, it is on this issue that political leaders in Stormont will be judged over the forthcoming year.
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• Should Northern Ireland football scrap God Save the Queen? – Ed Jacobs, December 13th 2011
• Finucane family’s campaign for justice set to challenge Cameron in court – Kevin Meagher, December 7th 2011
• New study of Orange Order exposes bigotry at the core – Kevin Meagher, November 23rd 2011
• Cameron’s refusal to open full inquiry into Finucane murder stokes row with Dublin – Kevin Meagher, November 18th 2011
• Osborne’s cuts having “damaging effect” on Northern Ireland peace process – Kevin Meagher, November 10th 2011