Opinion

Fionnuala O Connor: Direct rule shuffles closer, like an arthritic old dog

Secretary of state James Brokenshire tops the league of grey Stormont ministers sent from Westminster, managing to make even his predecessor Theresa Villiers appear vivid. Picture by Hugh Russell

IN the next week, before the last of the final deadlines, a feeble executive may be re-assembled at least on paper.

Tissue-paper, held together with big clipes of sellotape. If we get another no-show, part of the reason is that nobody is afraid of the alternative.

Direct rule has shuffled closer like an old dog with arthritis, deaf in one ear, musty-smelling.

There has been not so much as a breath of panic in the air. Why would there be?

The insult of Westminster imposing a set of supposed supervisors unelected by anyone here holds no sting this time.

Through the decades, direct rule ministers have been, mostly, all but unknown in London, unrecognisable here beyond the micro-society of the civil service's top layer.

Nonentities who make nothing speeches dampen outrage. And think what direct rule will replace.

Robin Newton is still the speaker of our pretend parliament. Paul Givan was in charge of grants to GAA clubs and Irish language schemes but had trouble seeing beyond Orange lodges and loyalist bands.

There was more where that came from, much more. In the interests of sanity recent highlights will do.

Caitríona Ruane as his deputy copied Speaker Newton and continued to be paid for a job no longer in existence, in a body she to which she no longer belonged.

Sinn Féin's tactic this past week of withholding comment on Ruane, defensive or otherwise, would in itself once have been a decent-sized story. (If the bonds of loyalty have rusted can republican omerta on major issues long survive?)

The Stormont of our days has been useless but also scandal-ridden, a bad combination.

Why try to improve on the old butcher Cromwell, whose denunciation of parliament rings down the centuries: "You have sat too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say; and let us have done with you." (The quote is shortened to avoid hypocrisy. If you don't know what's missing, be off and search for it.)

We are left with James Brokenshire to rid out the scores of MLAs, staffed and 'expensed' to their own, their families' or their parties' content.

Let the motley begin. Bring on a raft of Westminster's spare backbenchers. The people British governments send over as secretaries of state and junior ministers have only at times of major crisis been substantial politicians.

This is not a major crisis, or not yet.

Willie Whitelaw, Jim Prior, Mo the Blessed - or the Damned, depending on where you viewed her from - the Peters Hain and Mandelson; these and a few more made an impact.

J Brokenshire has made Theresa Villiers in retrospect seem vivid, a man who gives good unionist-pleasing cipher; which appears to be both his nature and very probably what his boss wanted even before she did her deal with the DUP.

In the league of grey ministers Brokenshire out-nothings Humphrey Atkins, lampooned via Westminster gossip as 'Humphrey Who?' but who made harsh responses during the hunger-strikes.

Prior got the rough end of unionism and snapped back at Ian Paisley, but then so did the wiffly-waffly Merlyn Rees, who dopily stormed out of his own office leaving Paisley and acolytes in possession.

Non-secretaries of state like Nicholas Scott, Grey Gowrie, Peter Melchett (the last two Lords) all had colour and verve.

Melchett even rode a couple of personal hobby horses in integrated education and the environment.

Richard Needham, also a lord, was dislikeable but energetic. Brian Mawhinney, no more popular, gifted us the tale that underlings greeted his arrival at Stormont by helicopter with "the ego has landed".

Scott and Gowrie were openly more taken with nationalists than unionists.

Other juniors made mixed impressions. John Stanley had been a junior defence minister; Belfast legend had it that for fear of IRA attack he lay on the floor of his official car between Stormont and the airport.

Sir Peter Viggers quit parliament, years after his stint here, when it emerged that he had claimed £1,600 expenses for a floating duck house in his garden pond.

This writer remembers him asking politely, as one transient to another, "And when did you get here?" Anyone with such a name must surely have come from the south.

Like many of their predecessors, the next contingent may see this as a good posting, better than being backbench fodder, ritzy-looking lodgings at least on the outside.

We need not feel embarrassed by them; a holding operation, a necessary interval, not ours. And they will cost less than Stormont.

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