Who is responsible and what’s at stake in the Assembly standoff

David McKittrick emerges from retirement to pass a magisterial verdict on the Assembly in the Newsletter, while the paper has just run a long and fascinating interview with David Trimble by Alex Kane.

His view of the history since 1998 is not a million miles from the familiar saying that Sinn Fein were  clever enough to play their weaknesses to advantage while unionists were too stupid and bigoted to realise that  they’d won.

Presumably recorded before the latest developments in the Assembly crisis, Trimble’s analysis the present situation nevertheless focuses on the leadership shortcomings of both Sinn Fein and the DUP.   The present impasse he sees essentially as a failure of leadership on both sides rather than the system itself and offers lessons from his own mistakes  (purely tactical ones, though).  Today he regards both sides as victims of their own disingenuousness.

His solution, for the UK national parties to organise and stand, will no doubt get another outing if the Assembly collapses. While it might offer a broader alternative to unionists, it does little for nationalists however moderate. It is surely a mistake to read lack of enthusiasm for Irish unity as positive support for the Union. Trimble of course fully realises this and therefore seems prepared to contemplate a community in which the dream of integration lapses in favour of different  national identities  remaining its defining characteristic.  This is surely what’s at stake if the Assembly system is abandoned. While we have yet to confront the consequences of collapse, greater polarisation can hardly be discounted.

AK: There have been two phases of the process so far. The 1998-2003 phase and then 2007-now. Neither of them seems to have worked. Do you see a time when this process and the institutions will work?

DT: You don’t have to change the structures or the architect to make it work. All you have to do is get the two party leaderships to come to terms with themselves and the situation they’re in.

AK: How likely is that? How likely is it that they can ‘man up,’ admit that they didn’t want to be where they’ve found themselves, but agree to now make the best of it?

DT: McGuinness is capable of doing that. I don’t know about Robinson.

AK: What about Robinson’s possible successor, maybe in a few months time?

DT: He would have retired before now if he was able to get anyone to take the job! Anyway, because the leadership of the party can’t give an honest account of how it got where it is and Robinson spends half his time barking at republicans and denouncing them, he feeds that mindset.

You’re not going to see a change of attitude in the DUP until you see it coming from the leadership first. And that doesn’t appear to be on the horizon at the moment. But yes, the public are getting quite irritated with the politicians and unfortunately that also means getting irritated with Stormont – and that’s not a healthy state of affairs.

Also, because republicans are not giving an honest account of how they got where they are they are having trouble with their grassroots and supporters, who are saying, “you were fighting for a united Ireland and now you’re in Stormont, so how are you going to get it”?

And Sinn Fein is replying, “demography and taking power north and south” – which isn’t working. And some of them thought that the decision to create a Scottish Parliament in 1997 would lead to the break-up of the UK which would play into their hands … I’m not following [Scotland] that closely. I prefer to keep myself detached …

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London