Northern Ireland news

John Manley: Stormont on its best behaviour makes dull viewing

Arlene Foster answers questions on behalf of the Executive Office

AFTER an absence of more than three years, First Minister Arlene Foster yesterday returned to the assembly's despatch box to answer questions on behalf of the Executive Office.

It was a significant milestone of sorts, evoking memories of the last days of the previous administration when public outcry over the RHI scandal was at its height and the DUP-Sinn Féin marriage of convenience at the heart of power-sharing was falling apart.

Back then, it was high political drama; the DUP leader was on the ropes, battling to save her political career in a maelstrom of allegations and recrimination. Some even speculated that she'd never be back.

But fresh from her appearance on Friday's Late Late Show, the recently reappointed first minister returned to the DUP's front bench to face a series of written and topical questions on subjects ranging from historical institutional abuse and the regional trauma network to an Irish language act and the North-South Ministerial Council.

On paper, it promised something potentially entertaining. Mrs Foster being grilled by a dozen or more Ryan Tubridys, pitching quickfire questions that can't be sidestepped with a smile. We've all witnessed the boisterous scenes in the House of Commons during PMQs (prime minister's questions), all jeering, laughing and cries of "hear, hear".

Yet it appears questions for the Stormont first minister is a completely different animal.

It more resembles an ancient religious ritual in which MLAs across the house read out a question which the first minister and her staff have already had sight of. Mrs Foster in turn responds by reading out a prepared answer in a soporific fashion whose subdued, monotonal presentation implies "I bet you regret asking that".

In her responses, the DUP leader refers to 'we' – not in the royal sense but to stress that her office is a shared one, with joint responsibility.

Next Monday, it'll be the turn of Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill to face the assembly, again answering questions on behalf of the Executive Office.

Many MLAs are still bedding in and alongside a de facto non-aggression pact between the five executive parties, it makes for rather mundane proceedings that are akin to a pigeon fanciers' club's AGM.

This was Stormont on its best behaviour but also at its dullest, the honeymoon period sustained by a mutual desire for self-preservation, coupled with the avoidance so far of making difficult, unpopular decisions.

It's little over three weeks since the New Decade, New Approach deal was secured and one veteran of previous administrations remarked how easily things fall back into place after being offline.

Give it time, you think, and they'll be back to a battle a day, retreating to the silos or ganging up on the smaller parties.

If it's showmanship and rancour you're after, best be careful what you wish for.

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