Wry commentary can’t take away from Michelle O’Neill’s big moment in history – Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly is an Irish News columnist with a background in politics and public relations. He is also a former member of the Policing Board.

Stormont building on Friday as The Northern Ireland Assembly will sit on Saturday, two years exactly since power-sharing collapsed.
Parliament Building, Stormont prepares for the return of the Northern Ireland Assembly, two years exactly since power-sharing collapsed. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

So Stormont is back. No doubt readers are on edge, holding back pent-up emotion and nervous with excitement. But then again, maybe not.

On the plus side (and based on past performances), expectations of our politicians are so low that even the most nimble of limbo dancers couldn’t get under the bar they have set.

One seasoned and cynical political observer remarked to this writer that Stormont’s return was like the scene in The Shining when Jack Nicholson strikes fear into viewers with the line ”Here’s Johnny!”

But let’s not take all the joy out of this significant moment.

Expectations of our politicians are so low that even the most nimble of limbo dancers couldn’t get under the bar they have set

The penny finally dropped for the DUP leadership that this was as good as it was going to get. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson deserves credit for calling the moment and then taking control of the narrative. He played a blinder on The Nolan Show by demonstrating a remarkable resolve and competence in calmly but robustly explaining detail to the public.

The long-awaited command paper was just the ‘legislative hug’ this column forecasted the DUP and others needed. Some of the language makes for uncomfortable reading but, in truth, it shouldn’t surprise anyone. On social media there has been some negative nationalist commentary about the contents and the SDLP seems to share those concerns, but there is no reason to be skittish about it. Sinn Féin are non-plussed. One senior figure from that party said: ”It’s just rhetoric.” If they are wrong, they are walking into Stormont with their eyes wide open.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris with the Safeguarding the Union command paper
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris show the British government's command paper on 'Safeguarding the Union' during a joint press conference at Hillsborough Castle (Niall Carson/PA)

Stormont’s return is an occasion more embedded in symbolism than substance. Not that this matters.

A nationalist will be the first minister of Northern Ireland. Who really cares if first and deputy first ministers are equal in status and powers. A pair of politically conjoined Siamese twins. Like peas in a pod – the pod being Stormont, whose unionist forefathers once proudly declared they wouldn’t even employ a Catholic to clean the toilets. A Stormont which the late Martin McGuinness and Sinn Féin once vowed never to enter only to end up being responsible for appointing the cleaners.

There will also be a meaningful opposition to hold the administration to account.

Wry commentary can’t take away from Michelle O’Neill’s big moment in history. She’s an earnest and able politician. Friendly and affable too. Everyone is entitled to their day in the sun and now the real work will start.

Sinn Fein Leader Mary Lou McDonald , First Minister in Waiting Michelle O’Neill and Conor Murphy speak to the media on Tuesday, after  the DUP's agreement to return to the NI Assembly - after agreeing to a package of measures put forward by the government.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald with first minister designate Michelle O'Neill at Parliament Buildings. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

Contrary to the fears of some loyalists, Carson won’t tumble from his plinth at O’Neill’s ascension – just as the Dome of Delight didn’t collapse at City Hall when the SDLP’s Alban Maginness became the first nationalist Lord Mayor of Belfast.

People move on quickly and political equilibrium gets restored. It’s a nonsense to think O’Neill’s installation won’t stick in the craw with elements of the DUP, but they too will just have to suck it up as a reality.

Extreme loyalists and their rag-tag groupies of political has-beens, wannabes and might-have-beens are shown up for what they are – inexorable, intransigent and intolerant. They achieved nothing more than catching colds and laryngitis, roaring their heads off in half-empty Orange halls and running up and down high streets in the middle of the night, accompanied by marching marionettes in fancy epaulette uniforms. More Beau Geste than Braveheart.

Their real achievement, if you could call it that, was to nearly eradicate the Good Friday Agreement, collapse power-sharing and create conditions for economic and social ruin. They failed but only lasted so long because they were indulged and inflated by mainstream unionism and some elements within the media.

There’s an old Neapolitan saying that to comes to mind: “To wash a donkey’s tail is a waste of time, water and soap.” Hopefully that’s one lesson learned from the past two years of stasis.