Looking back at 2012, and forward to 2013

Doing some homework before taking part in a political review of the year on Lisburn’s 98FM community radio, I looked back at posts over the last twelve months. While there were lots of other significant political events during the year, below are some of the posts that caught my eye.

Back in January, the DUP and Sinn Féin agreed to drop the Department of Employment and Learning. It hasn’t gone away you know! Aged 85, Lord Bannside stepped down from his pulpit in January ending 60 years of full-time ministry.

In February he was admitted to the Ulster Hospital, spent a period in intensive care, and was released on 28 February. Media crews went into overdrive, before scaling back their coverage and presence at the hospital.

David McNarry resigned from the UUP Assembly Group in early February having spoken out about unionist unity talks at the end of January. The Community Relations Council published its first Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report in February.

In March Tom Elliott threw in the towel as UUP leader and in the leadership election, Mike Nesbitt won 81% of the vote against John McCallister (who delivered his baby son in the week of the poll).

In a speech at the Political Studies Association conference dinner in Belfast City Hall in April, deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said he was

open to using new language and consider making new compromises.

The Alliance party conference moved to a bigger hotel. In her speech, Naomi Long commented:

Handled well, the coming decade has the potential to allow us to explore our past together, aiding understanding through education and discussion, helping us learn from our past and look to how we can create and shape stronger and better relationships and enhance community relations. By contrast, if handled poorly, it has the potential to be a highly charged and fractious period, marked by deepening antagonism and division within society, playing to and reinforcing centuries old divisions rather than focusing on future progress.

Alliance party leader David Ford said:

When he’s not threatening to collapse the power-sharing objective over the badge on a cap that some prison officers wear, Peter Robinson is talking about a Shared Future … When he’s not wrapping himself in the Union Flag at the UUP AGM, Mike Nesbitt is talking about a Shared Future.

Only 12 of the 176 motions on clar failed at the Sinn Féin’s ard fheis in Kilarney. Back in May abortion was neither an issue of conscience nor an issue up for debate. That position is slowly shifting.

  • Motion 115 // This Ard Fheis supports the ethical view that a woman should have the legal right to elective abortion whatever the circumstances. We recognise that there are strong views within our party on both sides of the argument but we believe the a woman should ultimately have the right to make the decision where her health, physical or mental, and welfare are concerned. (Keating/Sands Cumann; Waterford)
  • Motion 116 // All Sinn Féin members should be allowed to articulate, campaign and vote on the issue of abortion according to their conscience. (Doherty/Delaney Cumann; Navan, Co. Meath)

On 11 June Martin McGuinness announced that he would resign as MP to concentrate on being deputy First Minister. He hasn’t gone away you know … though Francie Molloy has been selected as the Sinn Féin candidate for the by-election expected some time in early Spring.

July had marches and news that an MLA had fired warning shots out his window at potential intruders. “Non-conformist republican groups” merged under the new – yet familiar – name of “the IRA” – Real IRA, RAAD/Republican Action Against Drugs, Oglaigh na hEireann.

The playing of a Beach Boys tune Sloop John B by the Young Conway Volunteer band – to which the racist words of The Famine Song can be sung – as they marched in circles outside the St Patrick’s Catholic Church on the Twelfth of July had repercussions during the rest of the marching season. The change of rules earlier in the year by the Orange Order Grand Lodge to allow local lodges to speak with residents groups opened the door for dialogue with Carrick Hill residents.

Possible boundary changes that threatened sleepless nights for Alasdair McDonnell, Naomi Long, Gregory Campbell and Ian Paisley Junior slipped away in August as the Lib Dems punished their Tory coalition partners for undermining House of Lords reform.

In the aftermath of airing his views on homosexuality, Lord Maginnis stormed away from the UUP having failed to secure Mike Nesbitt’s resignation.

The DUP in Lisburn proposed that the Orange Order should be granted freedom of the city. The proposal went to a council committee but was abandoned when it became clear there was neither cross-party support not the likelihood of a successful equality impact assessment.

In September, Theresa Villiers replaced Owen Paterson as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

The DUP used a petition of concern in the Assembly’s Equal Marriage vote (requiring a majority of unionist and a majority of nationalists) meaning that the vote of the unsuccessful motion’s proposer – Green Party Steven Agnew – didn’t count. In October, Alliance looked weak with one MLA voting against the motion, while three others went missing despite the party’s official policy position. Just three unionists supported the motion: Basil McCrea, Danny Kinahan and Michael Copeland.

PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott spoke at the PUP conference, after a well-received session on Irish language. Party leader Billy Hutchinson said in his speech that

if working class loyalists … don’t decide to politicise and to tackle the political system then they’ll be left behind.

November’s SDLP conference was dominated mentions of opposition by the deputy leader Delores Kelly in her conference speech. Party leader Alasdair McDonnell avoided the bright lights this year and must have been secretly relieved when the teleprompter didn’t work during his speech’s rehearsal and was abandoned.

The DUP’s conference later that month had the usual flags left sitting on delegates’ chairs, the Pubs of Ulster sponsoring a drinks reception (featuring the “devil’s buttermilk”) and Peter Robinson talking in his speech about “abandoning out-dated dogmas” and adjusting the party to become more attractive to disenfranchised Catholic voters.

By December, the war of words inside the Belfast City Council chamber about the frequency of flying the Union Flag erupted into traffic disruption, flag burning and brick throwing on the outside. Weeks of protests have followed, accompanied with intimidation of Alliance elected representatives. Unionists worked together to distribute a flags leaflet across Belfast, and the DUP and UUP issued joint press releases in the wake of the unrest. No longer “sleepwalking towards unionist unity”, the unequally yoked bedfellows are now setting up a unionist forum.

Anniversary fever lasted most of the year. In April marked the centenary of the Titanic’s sinking. The family-friendly Balmoral Review in May (held in Ormeau Park!) extended the hand of friendship to non-Unionist communities, offering to explain to them the Home Rule crises from a Unionist perspective. The Queen visited Northern Ireland in June to celebrate her diamond Jubilee. The centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant was marked with books, lectures, documentaries and a big parade to Stormont, at which the speeches were over before the last of the parade had arrived.

Media wise, the Belfast Telegraph dropped its evening edition (with the First becoming the Final) in April. BBC Northern Ireland’s Hearts and Minds broadcast its last episode on 22 June. August’s audited circulation figures showed the Irish News selling more full price copies than the Belfast Telegraph for the first time. The News Letter finally got a new editor in September with Rankin Armstrong filling the seat Darwin Templeton vacated the previous year.

Next year, Belfast marks the 400th anniversary of receiving its charter. The beginning of the political year will be dominated by how unionism and loyalism face the concern about flags and tackle the long-neglected issues around “those living in our communities who feel socially isolated, abandoned, frustrated, disconnected, and discontented; second class citizens, those with little sense of aspiration for something better” (as the Presbyterian Moderator might put it).

Away from politics [Ed – can anything happen in NI that is not political?] the spotlight will continually swing back to the north west during the year of events around Derry~Londonderry City of Culture 2013, with brief interruptions for the G8 golfing visit to Fermanagh in June and the World Police & Fire Games.

But less well planned events will determine the reasons for which Northern Ireland will hit international headlines in 2013: political maturity and immaturity; civic tranquillity and unrest security alerts and attacks; overseas investment.

Locally, politicians’ individuality and rage against the machine will rock party boats. One prediction to finish. Not mine – I said he’d be safe until the next election – but a prediction firmly made by commentator and former UUP insider Alex Kane during the review programme: Mike Nesbitt wouldn’t be UUP leader in six month’s time.

What are your memories of 2012? And what are your predictions for 2013?

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