Opinion

Sinn Féin and DUP need devolution to work this time – Mary Kelly

Mary Kelly

Mary Kelly

Mary Kelly is an Irish News columnist and former producer of current affairs output on Radio Ulster and BBC NI political programme Hearts and Minds

Behind the scenes at Stormont during an official portrait session of First Minister Michelle O’Neill (centre) and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly (right) by Kelvin Boyes in the office of First Minister on the day Ms. O’Neill became Northern Ireland’s first nationalist First Minister. A “historic day” has been hailed as devolved government is expected to return in Northern Ireland. Picture date: Saturday February 3, 2024. PA Photo. See PA story ULSTER Stormont. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly are photographed as they take office at the head of a new power-sharing government. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY/PA WIRE (Liam McBurney/Liam McBurney/PA Wire)

Two years late, and with a fed-up populace doing its best to give it a fair wind, the Northern Ireland Assembly finally cranked into being on Saturday. Though hopefully it won’t be a short sit, as the old superstition would have it.

The omens aren’t good, as it’s actually been collapsed for 40 per cent of its existence. Still, fingers crossed.



There they all were, well scrubbed-up, shoes shining, as they entered the chamber. Michelle O’Neill always looks like she’s about to burst out laughing, but managed a statesmanlike tone with a speech that acknowledged victims of the conflict and pledged to respect the culture and aspirations of unionists.

Behind the scenes at Stormont as Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O’Neill is embraced by party colleague Caoimhe Archibald as she becomes Northern Ireland’s first nationalist First Minister. A “historic day” has been hailed as devolved government is expected to return in Northern Ireland. Picture date: Saturday February 3, 2024. PA Photo. See PA story ULSTER Stormont. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Sinn Féin Vice President Michelle O’Neill is embraced by party colleague Caoimhe Archibald as she becomes the first nationalist first minister. PICTURE: LIAM MCBURNEY/PA WIRE (Liam McBurney/Liam McBurney/PA Wire)

The new deputy, Emma Little-Pengelly, has the air of a lottery winner who hadn’t actually bought a ticket; a feeling possibly shared by many of her party colleagues, if the stony expressions they wore during her speech are anything to go by.

DUP MLA Emma Little-Pengelly speaking after she was nominated to serve as Northern Ireland’s next deputy First Minister
DUP MLA Emma Little-Pengelly speaking after she was nominated to serve as Deputy First Minister (Liam McBurney/PA)

It’s probably easier for the traditionalist males in the party to have a female endure the ignominy of being in the deputy role. Though we can expect to hear her more often described as joint first minister.

She tried, but failed, to strike the same conciliatory tone, recalling an IRA attack on her home town of Markethill when she was 11 years old, and her determination to forge a different path. It might have been more convincing if she’d talked of her determination to take a different route from her loyalist father. But that would’ve spoiled the one-sided conflict narrative.

Noel Little, father of Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly, watches on from the public gallery of the Assembly Chamber
Stormont Assembly Noel Little, father of Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly, watches on from the public gallery of the Assembly Chamber on Saturday. PICTURE: LIAM McBURNEY/PA WIRE (Liam McBurney/Liam McBurney/PA Wire)

And no gathering would have been complete without the bad fairy, Jimbo Allister, who’d had his top lip in curlers the night before so that he could perfect his snarl, most of it aimed at Sir Jeffrey, author of the “Donaldson deal”.

He ridiculed ELP as the “unelected bridesmaid”, and lambasted the DUP leader for reducing Ulster to a “condominium”, subject to foreign laws. Foreign, like his MEP’s pension, one assumes.

TUV Leader Jim Allister leaving the chamber at the Northern Ireland Assembly
TUV leader Jim Allister leaving the chamber at the Northern Ireland Assembly (Oliver McVeigh/PA)

But it’s not only Sir Jeffrey who’s been having the extra Weetabix these days. Paul Givan taunted Allister as a failure who’d never managed to get more than one seat, a dead-end unionist, who’d achieved nothing.

It was left to the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole to take the shine off Sinn Féin’s historic day, when he asked if they and the DUP would now pledge not to pull the plug on the Assembly again and let it get on with the business of governing without interruption.

SDLP MLA’s arrive including Mathew O’Toole for a meeting of the legislative assembly at Stormont in Belfast on Saturday to revive the power-sharing institutions.
Northern Ireland's devolved government was restored, Two years to the day since it collapsed. PICTURE:  COLM LENAGHAN
SDLP MLAs arrive at Stormont including Matthew O’Toole, now leader of the opposition. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN (Colm Lenaghan)

Michelle O’Neill dismissed it as a “stunt”. But it’s hardly surprising that many people are wondering aloud how long it will be before there’s another collapse.

Sinn Féin want to show they’re capable of government as they look to an election south of the border which could see Mary Lou as the next taoiseach. But their new finance minister, who’d expected to get the education portfolio, has an onerous task ahead.

Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O'Neill with party president Mary Lou McDonald in the office of the first minister at Stormont
Stormont Assembly Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O'Neill with party president Mary Lou McDonald in the office of the first minister at Stormont (Liam McBurney/Liam McBurney/PA Wire)

The DUP also need Stormont to work. If it falls again, it’s less likely to ever come back.

It’s not clear if there was a silent collection at Moygashel Orange hall to help pay for m’learned friend John Larkin’s opinion on Jeffrey’s deal. But surely fellow KC Allister and Jamie Bryson, whose law degree should be ready any day now, could have done it themselves?

While it’s good to see Stormont back, it’s hard to get excited. It’s so far from the heady days of 2007, seeing Dr No and the former IRA commander Martin McGuinness getting on like a house on fire

Jeffrey and his supporters will be hoping that despite the sniping from both inside and outside the party, most people aren’t interested enough in the fine details of trade regulations to ignore the more pressing concerns of growing health waiting lists and low wages.

Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness were nicknamed the 'Chuckle Brothers' 
Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness were nicknamed the 'Chuckle Brothers' 

While it’s good to see Stormont back, it’s hard to get excited. It’s so far from the heady days of 2007, seeing Dr No and the former IRA commander Martin McGuinness getting on like a house on fire.

The stakes seemed higher then. As Gloria Swanson said in Sunset Boulevard: “I’m still big, it’s the pictures that got small.”