It is one year since the DUP and Sinn Féin published a joint article on how well they were working together
It was supposed to herald the beginning of a new era of cooperation but it instead provided the bookend to a decade of devolution. Political Correspondent John Manley looks back at the Stormont leaders' platform that sought to draw a line under division but rang hollow within weeks
A year ago today Stormont's then first minister and deputy first minister put their names to a joint platform setting out their priorities for the remainder of the five-year mandate.
The 800-word piece from Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness which appeared in The Irish News is believed to have been written by their press secretary David Gordon, who weeks earlier joined the Executive Office's already generously staffed press team in controversial circumstances.
The three protagonists in this drama are no longer in those positions.
The thrust of the article was encapsulated thus: "slowly but surely, politics here is changing – and it's for the better."
At the polls six months previous, the DUP and Sinn Féin had reinforced their respective positions, between them securing 66 of the assembly's 108 seats.
But in the wake of the election the Ulster Unionists and SDLP took advantage of the new arrangements that enabled the creation of a Stormont opposition. According to the joint platform, however, the two smaller parties had “decided to duck the challenges and retreat”.
Alliance too was outside a reduced-size executive with independent Claire Sugden taking the justice minister’s job.
Inside Stormont Castle, where the platform piece acknowledged things were never entirely rosy, the DUP and Sinn Féin were nonetheless pointed in the “same direction” when it came to making “tough decisions” about “bread and butter issues”.
At this stage the initials RHI remained obscure, yet while not anticipating the level of public anger and media frenzy that would be sparked by a BBC Spotlight programme about the botched green energy scheme, Sinn Féin would have been aware of the scale of the scandal, as set out in the audit office report the previous July.
Sinn Féin's Máirtín Ó Muilleoir held the finance portfolio, while its MLAs Oliver McMullan, Michelle Gildernew and Declan Kearney were part of Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee, which was pursuing its own investigation into what chairman Robin Swann described as “the biggest financial scandal in living memory”.
It was clear the joint platform was typically designed to paper over the cracks of discord while focusing on areas of broad agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin. The parties were doing their utmost to maintain a non-aggression pact and avoiding “filling the airwaves with endless squabbles”.
The main area where they planned to advance together was in health service reform, through a 10-year vision that would “finally tackle the underlying causes of the problems facing our health service”.
The platform concluded: “This is what delivery looks like – No gimmicks. No grandstanding. Just ministers getting on with their work.”
It all augured well but the political and personal drama that played out over the subsequent weeks would set Northern Ireland’s devolution project back by a decade, creating the current deadlock while fuelling suspicions that even if power-sharing were revived, it would unlikely be sustained.
With the benefit of hindsight, RHI should be regarded not as the cause of Stormont’s collapse but at best a catalyst, and at worse a smokescreen. For all the cries of “corruption”, Sinn Féin initially did its utmost to keep the show on the road, only losing patience with the DUP in the run-up to Christmas, after Jonathan Bell claimed special advisers had sought to delay the scheme’s closure and Paul Givan scrapped the Líofa funding in a fit of pique. Let’s also not forget how RHI replaced the mutually-embarrassing SIF (Social Investment Fund) as the political headline grabber.
Meanwhile, as relations in the executive deteriorated, Martin McGuinness’s health was rapidly failing. Perhaps it wasn’t entirely apparent at the time, but the Sinn Féin deputy first minister was the glue that that ensured his party stuck to power-sharing. Without him arguing to maintain the executive, there was little reason for republicans to remain on board.
But other factors precipitated the rapid shift from “getting on with the work” to Sinn Féin crashing the institutions.
Some argue that endorsing the Bengoa report on health service reform set Sinn Féin on a course that was likely to see the then health minister Michelle O’Neill come into conflict with the unions, giving ammunition to People Before Profit, which months earlier had topped the poll in the republican heartland of West Belfast.
There were other headwinds – Stormont’s new opposition was making life difficult, while Brexit too created problems the platform acknowledged as “opposing standpoints”. For what it was worth, Stormont’s two leaders agreed their priorities for the Brexit negotiations the previous summer, but as always it was the ambiguity of what they said that enabled the two to agree.
While all of the above create the immediate context for the complete breakdown in relations, republicans will point to a deeper problem, where outreach was continually spurned by the DUP and an attitude of combativeness between the two biggest parties prevailed.
It’s a narrative that has gained currency, either through repetition or emerging evidence, that points to a lack of unionist reciprocation to conciliatory gestures. The ‘curry my yogurt’ episode and Arlene Foster declining Martin McGuinness’s invitation to watch the Republic’s soccer team in last year’s Euros, would be regularly cited examples.
Retrospectively some republicans see the situation as analogous to the frog being slowly boiled alive – they were oblivious to the gradual ratcheting of the temperature but when the opportunity arose to bail out, they jumped.
It brought to a close a ten-year devolution project that not so much failed as failed to deliver much that was worthwhile. There are many lessons to be learned from Stormont’s collapse but the most obvious one is to take future platforms from the Executive Office with a generous dose of salt.