There was no chance whatsoever that the assembly and executive was going to be rebooted on Wednesday afternoon.
Every single party knew it. Every columnist, commentator, journalist and observer knew it. Everyone employed in the assembly knew it. The dogs in the street, gathered on the corners and cocking their legs, could be heard barking their ‘no chance’ certainties.
Yes, the sound of whining and whingeing—and the occasional scream—could also be heard, although that was mostly from the serried ranks of non-DUP MLAs who knew that the fifth recall since May’s election would end the same way they always did. No deal. No meeting of minds. No government. The same-old, same-old Star Trek impasse: “It’s power-sharing Jim, but not as we know it.”
The only surprise, in fact, was the sight and sound of Edwin Poots trying to claim the moral high ground as he put the boot into Doug Beattie. In fairness to him, Doug had provided him with an own goal: the only moment during the proceedings in which 99.9 per cent of MLAs were in common agreement.
The faces of the UUP members were a sight to behold. They all knew their boss was wrong but none of them could register their disapproval: a classic we-all-know-who-farted-in-the-lift moment. I won’t be surprised if the clip turns up on ‘You’ve Been Framed.’ I don’t think it will cost Beattie the leadership, but it’s a reminder of the problems he faced back in January (and which I think cost the party votes in May’s election).
For those of you wondering, the assembly wasn’t recalled because the SDLP, SF and Alliance had any expectation of the DUP nominating a speaker. And nor was it recalled because they hoped to embarrass the DUP into some sort of Scrooge-like mea culpa and born-again passion for doing the right thing (anyway, a miracle like that would be of more benefit to the DUP than anyone else). No, it was recalled because the other parties had to be seen to be doing something at a time when so many people in NI are rightly concerned about the cost-of-living crisis.
But let’s remember one thing. In January 2017 Sinn Féin brought down the executive because it knew that’s what its voting base wanted. The relationship between the DUP and SF was reaching levels of personal toxicity not seen since before their deal in May 2007. The DUP is preventing the formation of the executive now because it knows it has the full support of its voting base—along with that of the TUV, Orange Order and most elements of loyalism. In other words, both parties knew their tactics wouldn’t do them too much damage in the only place that matters—the polling booth.
Another thing to remember is that the assembly isn’t a government in any meaningful sense of the term any more—if indeed it ever was. Nationalism has its eyes set on sooner-than-expected unity so won’t care about preserving it. Most unionists don’t care all that much either: my own instinct is that a majority would prefer it was replaced by some form of direct rule. Most people also acknowledge that the energy support payments will still come-later than expected maybe—and will arrive without the assembly’s nod of approval. And they know this because they’ve seen what happens during every other of the multiple occasions when the executive hasn’t functioned. Life goes on.
I know, of course, there is still a middle ground which does champion the preservation of the assembly—albeit mostly because it is the only significant platform it has for its voice. Yet the fact remains that there really isn’t a parallel political world in NI in which burgeoning societal integration is the bedrock of everyday life. Fair enough, people will still try to persuade me about the great relationships and good work happening ‘quietly on the ground’ (why is it always quietly, by the way?). But I’ll keep reminding them of the Everly Brothers’ hit, Love Hurts: “Some fools think of happiness, blissfulness, togetherness; some fools fool themselves, I guess, they’re not foolin’ me.”
The push to get the assembly up and running again and looking less like Miss Havisham’s dining room will continue. Not because the British and Irish governments expect anything to change in terms of ending serial crises, but because it would suit both Rishi Sunak (assuming there isn’t another bus thundering towards Downing Street) and Leo Varadkar (who replaces Micheál Martin next Saturday) very nicely if they could milk a visit from President Biden to mark next April’s 25th anniversary junket. Hmmm. I’ll be the party pooper in the corner with Love Hurts on loop replay.