Jake O'Kane: Stormont fiddles while Primark burns

On Tuesday, one of Belfast's few remaining historic buildings burned to the ground. As I write this, the NI Fire Service aren't sure if the sandstone facade of the Bank Building on Royal Avenue will remain standing. Hopefully it does and restoration can bring this famous Belfast landmark back to its former glory...

The iconic clock at Bank Buildings goes up in flames
Jake O'Kane

THE fire started on the roof, where work was being completed on a £30m refurbishment of the 231-year-old building, which for decades has housed one of Britain and the north’s largest Primark stores.

I’ve heard some suggest the fire was retribution from on high, after Primark decorated one of its windows in Pride colours.

Yeah, right: if you believe in a god who’ll burn down a building in Belfast for supporting Pride whilst ignoring wars raging across the world, I’d suggest your god needs to seriously reappraise his/her priorities.

A picture of the famous clock atop of the building being engulfed in flames seemed like an omen, as Tuesday also marked Northern Ireland surpassing Belgium for the longest period without a government in peacetime.

Irrespective of whether you call it 589 days or 19 months, it’s a disgrace we have been abandoned for this length of time by our politicians, especially as they remain on full pay.

Those who follow me on social media will know I’ve been marking this shameful reality with a daily reminder that your MLA has pocketed £131 today.

I’m not deluded my little protest in anyway affects shameless politicians taking from the public purse. The rallies held across Northern Ireland under the ‘We Deserve Better’ campaign will likewise have no impact.

Whilst organiser, Fermanagh man Dylan Quinn, is to be congratulated, he will find his efforts disdainfully ignored by the fools not on the hill.

Our politicians believe themselves above the social norms applicable to us lesser mortals, such as a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.

Last December, an independent report by former assembly chief executive Trevor Reaney recommended a pay cut for MLAs of £13,612. Nothing was done.

Then in March of this year, secretary of state Karen Bradley announced she ‘was minded’ to reduce MLA pay. Nothing was done.

When I’m criticised for putting all NI politicians in the same boat on this issue, I remind people that not one of the 90 MLAs in receipt of a £50k salary has taken the step to repay the unearned £13,612.

Some MLAs argue a facility for such a repayment doesn’t exist: let me propose an alternative – donate the £13,612 to charity. I can even suggest a worthy cause, the NI Marriage Equality Fund, which can be found at

What made last Tuesday all the more galling was the sight of health workers protesting outside hospitals after discovering crippling pension deductions from their pay packets.

What sort of society takes money from hard-working healthcare staff whilst squandering millions on non-working politicians?

Few were surprised at how those politicians marked their ignominious achievement on Tuesday. Arlene Foster, breaking cover for the first time since the Papal visit, got her retaliation in first. Surrounded by giggling minions, she unfurled a banner on the steps of the assembly blaming Sinn Féin.

Conor Murphy of Sinn Féin, surrounded by serious looking minions, immediately shifted blame back onto the DUP. I watched this unedifying spectacle thinking it the quintessence of playground politics, and a nursery school playground at that.

That our political class don’t seem to grasp the depth of contempt in which wider society holds them demonstrates either an arrogance of pathological dimensions or a barely comprehensible stupidity.

How they will have the cheek to knock on doors seeking re-election baffles me – but what is truly disheartening is the fact they’ll be re-elected.

And this is the crux of the problem: our politicians know they can luxuriate in their
laziness as they face no serious threat. 

They realise no scandal, be it sexual or financial, will put their position in peril, so long as they point a finger at “t‘other side” and ask “would you rather have them?”, knowing their gullible, terrified electorate will immediately fall back in line.

It’s hard to imagine anything positive coming out of the assembly collapse, but I think I may have found something: essential repairs to the building’s roof have been completed during its 19-month closure.

I can’t be the only one to think that if God wanted to intervene in a positive way, he should have directed his attention to Stormont’s roof and not Primark’s.

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