Fionnuala O Connor: These are not ordinary times

Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Parliament Buildings, Stormont. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Parliament Buildings, Stormont. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Parliament Buildings, Stormont. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

IT should only be an aside at an ordinary time but these times are not ordinary.

As Alex Maskey makes his last appearances before retiring as Assembly Speaker, that sight of him a few years back in Stormont’s overgrown Great Hall comes to mind. At a microphone, cameras and press lined up, alongside Boris Johnson. Go and find it, all ye with a nearby working library or your own online search facilities.

Dignified Maskey, bandbox in his dark suit. Johnson, as ever, pulled through hedge backwards and pantomiming for the photographers. But pantomiming what? It wasn’t quite the arms windmilling as in Dublin once alongside Leo Varadkar. This was just the bog-standard notice-box, the person who cannot bear to see anyone else draw the onlooker’s eye.

So a former internee meets the press with a British prime minister, and the serious being and model public representative is the ageing republican while Britain’s PM is a pochle. (Ulster Scots? To mean a sight, a being incapable of the simplest task without making a mess.)

It has for sure been a time of freakish and dark coincidence: post-Brexit unionist denial running right into Covid, the world apparently burning up and now Ukraine, Putin on a rampage fuelled by western cynicism and exploitation. This may not be the end of days but if you’re in a shaky state personally, optimism squashed, it can feel like a dry run for it. Especially if there’s nobody around to say ah get a grip, there’s more to life. Lift in the weather may do it. Turning off the news might be a surer bet.

Although then you’d miss gems like Johnson at a loss among prime ministers in Brussels. A video clip, this, cut to his disadvantage – but fair enough in the circumstances? An image shared by Britishers shamed that when so many states are chorusing disgust at serial liar Vladimir Putin, their head of government is incapable of appearing in public without making silly faces, as well as being a serial liar. Looking in Brussels, as one young English expatriate said, like a mean-spirited Winnie the Pooh.

And in the backwater UK region of Northern Ireland, in the corner of the island of Ireland that dominant voices in the rest of the island wish would just drop off, an election with features nobody has seen before is up and running.

Oh sure, it is also impossible to miss some predictable pre-election behaviour.

People having goes at each other that are probably slanted more towards the voters than the notional targets? This is you Alliance and SDLP, Greens and People Before Profit, and you’re the nice guys.

In the last days of this Stormont Assembly’s existence an embarrassing burst of energy churned out legislation at a novel pace.

The unprecedented features have included a secretary of state promising to act ‘directly following’ the election, on something already long promised. The delay has looked like a bare-faced sop to the diehards, principally the DUP, who with Jim Allister tried to the last minute to block Green leader Clare Bailey’s bill to keep abortion facilities clear of harassing protesters. Brandon Lewis says his new move means executive approval will no longer be needed before abortion services can be properly rolled out ‘and the Department of Health will have no further barriers to commission and fund services'.

What an odd message, from a Johnson appointee whose own commitment to the abortion provision Westminster voted for has been alternately outspoken and absent. Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry, staunch on the issue, noted drily that it had been evident for some time that the department of health and executive were not going to act.

But the least familiar feature is the question-mark over unionist dominance of the outcome. Drab Sinn Féin and talky SDLP look sideways at Alliance. The DUP is not well.

Cliffhanger or clear-cut? There is still time for a mood-changing clanger. Place your bets.