Extraordinary events at Stormont this morning. Though it was hardly a re-run of Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero Molina’s takeover of the Spanish parliament in 1981. His attempt was organised and involved 200 member of the Civil Guards. Loyalist killer (and visual artist) Michael Stone appeared to be acting on his own.It seems he was relaxed enough to stop outside Parliament Buildings at Stormont this morning long enough to daub “Sinn Fein IRA War” on its grand facade, before bursting in through the doors declaring he had a bag containing a live incidiary device. He was quickly apprended and bundled back out of the door. Two security men have been taken hospital.
It brought a full stop to an extraordinary parliamentary episode.
The full Assembly had been called by Westminster legislation hastely rushed through both houses and given Royal Assent on Wednesday which required this session to meet and further that the two largest parties, Ian Paisley’s DUP and Gerry Adams’ Sinn Fein to indicate that they would nominate their candidates for the two top parliamentary jobs. If they failed, the penalty was, as Peter Hain put it on Radio Ulster this morning: devolution or dissolution.
The auguries for a successful outcome were not great. Stormont was bound in by the same miserable weather we had when this latest installment of the ever shrinking small time soap opera, as when it began last May. A text poll on a local phone programme had over 90% agreed with the proposition that Hain should should just pull the plug on Northern Ireland’s politicians and have done with the grand experiment altogether.
One hack, just before the session began, joked that there was no fudge left in the visitor’s shop. There was talk about who to watch on the benches behind Paisley. And then, when the delegation finally appeared, rumours that Robinson (‘the Reformer’) was looking relaxed and happy.
In the event there was plenty of fudge to be had in the chamber, albeit very thinly spread.
Despite the fact that the whole point (for months ahead) of this session was get nominations from the two party leaders, the wording in Dr Paisley’s speech fell well short of an unambiguous yes: “Circumstances have not been reach that there can be a nomination this day” (though it wasn’t consipicuously a no).
However, that’s not how Speaker Eileen Bell heard it, who accepted it as an assent. Or rather had been pre-instructed to accept it as an assent, after both parties had indicated in a private meeting what their positions were going to be. She anounced in accepting it as a yes, she was acting under ‘further direction of the Secretary of State’.
There were loud cries of derision, particularly from Paisley’s moderate rivals the Ulster Unionists, with calls of “You’re not speaker, you’re a puppet from the floor of the house”! When their leader Reg Empey took to his feet, he correctly summed up the mood in the house when he noted that, “the question on everybody’s lips is has Dr Paisley made a nominiation or not? Have we been witnessing a wedding or an engagement?”
The Unionist side of the house was in uproar. However, the Sinn Fein benches apart from a few humourous asides between Mitchel McLaughlin and Gerry Kelly, for the most kept a respectful silence and let the unionists get on with it.
By the time Mark Durkan got up to speak the whole place was in tumult. However it was his words that summed the feeling of many in Northern Ireland, both inside and outside the chamber,
“The manner in which these proceedings are being conducted under the remote direction of the secretary of state where language and logic has been turned inside out and on its head. We need to recognise that the slippage that we all criticise the government for allowing actually stems from the slippiness of two political parties who are claiming to lead this process but are deadlocking this process yet again.
The alarm warning us of Stone’s attack rang punctuated Alliance leader David Ford’s speech at a spookily appropriate moment: “If the Prime Minister had any integrity, he would close this place” (cue sound effect).