After a big day for Irish nationalism it’s time to make the institutions they now lead actually work

Saturday was a big day for Nationalism, and few summed it up as well as the new Nationalist leader of the opposition, Matthew O’Toole:

As we walked down the stairs into the Great Hall, we passed the figure of James Craig, Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister — the man who built this Building and this state in his image.

Whatever one’s view of him, Craig was a far-sighted strategist, but even he was unlikely to have foreseen today’s events. The state that he constructed was not meant to have people like Michelle O’Neill in charge, but here she is — a republican woman taking the First Minister’s office.

Nationalist women now hold two of the most senior offices in Executive, First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Finance Minister Caoimhe Archibald after the DUP unexpectedly took Education.

Mrs O’Neill has come a long way since she hastily filled the ailing Martin McGuiness’ boots as dFM in early 2017, though thankfully we no longer have to endure a ‘de-capitalised’ d for Deputy First Minster.

Her natural warmth clearly played across all benches and allowed to play the role of First Minister in a way that no doubt made it easier for the DUP to play second fiddle to SF for the first time.

Thus it was right when Matthew O’Toole threw his googly asking both FM and DFM to undertake not to collapse the institutions it was the duly appointed First Minister Michelle O’Neill who answered.

These are small things and yet they matter. They demonstrate an acknowledgment of customs and manners, those things, as the poet Michael Longley reminds us, that are “the opposite of war”.

I thought the selection of Emma Pengelly as DFM was interesting, but not for the same reasons as Alex’s mum. As Agenda NI has noted, cooptions…

…accounted for 29 MLAs in the last mandate 58 per cent of which were from nationalist parties, with 21 per cent from unionist parties and 17 per cent from the ‘other’ designation.

There were four MLAs who were co-opted in and then left before the end of the mandate. These were Catherine Kelly, Karen Mullan, Martina Anderson (all from Sinn Féin) and Máire Hendron from the Alliance Party.

In reality in Northern Ireland mandates get passed around like sweeties, and 96% of them get reelected. What marked Saturday was not criticism but an oddly collective sense of humour.

In taking so prominent a role, it begs whether the DUP leader who (unlike the SDLP leader) was in the public gallery to see his replacement take the oath of office beside O’Neill ever means to return?

There was a call and response game with Jim Allister’s consistent call of No to almost every appointment, as most of the rest of the chamber repeated its thunderous Aye. They were having fun.

But it wasn’t as funny as Gerry Kelly’s senior moment when, in a Freudian slip to end all, nominated his constituency colleague and long time friend Carál Ní Chuilín to become Deputy Chief Constable.

Cue laughter around the chamber. In contrast to the young bright eyed women around him the once sure footed party spokesman (and rider on the bonnet of police vehicles) looked slow and out of time.

The jovial new DUP Speaker Edwin Poots passed the ball to Paula Bradshaw with “if you can follow that”. It wasn’t all humour though. Indeed this was less political theatre and more medieval pageant.

The supposed villain of the piece, Jim Allister was there to remind his fellow MLAs of what took us to this moment, and of the many hypocrisies that were being swallowed that day in the name of peace.

If his tone was bitter, so was the subject of his speech:

Now the leader of the DUP has his “Well done, Jeffrey” moment, as he gives us a First Minister who wallows in the glorification of terrorism and tells us that there was no alternative to the murder of our kith and kin: no alternative to La Mon; no alternative to Enniskillen; no alternative to Teebane; no alternative to Kingsmills or to Markethill; and no alternative to the incineration of a young woman in Ballymena in my constituency, Yvonne Dunlop, whose vile murderer, McElwee, Miss O’Neill celebrates every year. This year, she will do so as First Minister.

John Dunlop once warned us, ‘it would be callous for a community to travel into the future and leave grieving people behind’. It’s no bad thing to have someone free enough to say what must be said.

The larger truth is that Jeffrey has brought his party back to the place David Trimble (that unusual breed of unionist politician, the far seeing intellectual) foresaw for the wider unionist project: to make Northern Ireland a fit place for all who have ambitions and dreams regardless of their cultural identity.

What’s little recognised is that while John Hume was on his own long journey Trimble, too, had long espoused a robust structural partnership with nationalism that dated back to the late 1970s after, of all people, Bill Craig first advocated a voluntary coalition with nationalism.

In this regard, Saturday was a big day for unionism too. In taking the Communities Ministry the DUP will not only ensure balance in the shape of funding for the new national training centre its minister will deliver a brand spanking new Casement Park to the long estranged people of West Belfast.

The discord that Brexit brought to our still too easily divided collective door has been removed (for now and the foreseeable future). Oddly, in giving up control on the biggest offices (whilst holding on to it in Education and Communities) the DUP may buy itself a second chance with its own electorate.

As Ann Watt, director Pivotal Think Tank commenting on their new report noted on Nolan said things will have to change if we are to avoid the serial deadlock of the last 17 years, not least the ability to work across multiple departments, no matter who owns that brief and to agree common priorities.

Meantime, we also have a leader of the opposition. The SDLP’s leader in the Assembly has a natural aptitude for understanding and translating policy into terms that are readily understood by the common wo/man who has no time to sit and think about politics the way we obsessives do.

All in all, whilst the big two still retain their big boycott stick, next time they’re tempted to us you’d hope their opponents have the confidence and the opportunity to step into the space their larger rivals vacate rather than standing aside to complain about arrant behaviours that are beyond their control.

Anywhere else in the world that’s what’s known as politics. Even with the limitations of our ‘all shall have prizes’ Executive, there’s a little (albeit very little) space for growth. Now it’s time for work.

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