Stop-start year for northern politics

Northern Ireland: Peter Robinson’s exit as leader of DUP among most significant events in 2015

Stormont Finance Minister Arlene Foster. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Stormont Finance Minister Arlene Foster. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

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Last December, we thought we were where we are now. In March we discovered we were not. As ever Northern Ireland politics can be a wearisome muddle. However, Stormont is at least back on track, seeking to cast off its dysfunctional reputation.

There were several times in the course of the past 12 months that it seemed like curtains for the Northern Executive. And yet the year had kicked off auspiciously, following the post-Christmas Stormont House agreement.

The deal covered welfare reform, corporation tax, a huge public service redundancy scheme, an additional £2 billion spending for the Northern Executive, a promise to help victims and survivors of the Troubles, and more besides.

In March, however, Martin McGuinness cast a bolt from the blue, saying Sinn Féin could not live with the welfare cuts – a move that put Stormont back into its default position, which is crisis mode.

In May, the situation darkened after former IRA commander Gerard “Jock” Davison was shot dead in the Markets in city- centre Belfast. In August, a revenge attack left Belfast republican Kevin McGuigan dead.

Charges of IRA involvement were quickly made. Sinn Féin Northern chairman Bobby Storey, who was arrested about the killing, but quickly released, was adamant the IRA was a “butterfly” that had flown away.

Following an investigation, Police Service of Northern Ireland chief constable, George Hamilton made clear, however, that the IRA still did exist and that some of its people had been involved in the killing.

Having inspected PSNI and MI5 files, a three-strong expert group agreed, but went further: the IRA army council was still operating, it declared, though it added that the council did so generally with benign intent.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt upped the ante, pulling his single Minister from the Executive.

First Minister Peter Robinson was put on the back foot, stepping aside from office and pulling his people out, before putting them back in again.

In the past, unionist leaders would have quit at the first sign of evidence of IRA action, but Robinson turned politics on its head by somehow seeing positivity in the PSNI-MI5-informed report.

In his swan song year, he was prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to keep Stormont and his legacy intact. It was enough to ensure that a deal could be done between London and Dublin and the DUP and Sinn Féin.

The SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance muttered powerlessly in the background; though, in truth, they were probably not minded to block the subsequent Fresh Start agreement, even if they had been able to.

Again, there are hopes that this the deal will hold.

Meanwhile, the SDLP elected a new leader, with Colum Eastwood from Derry replacing Dr Alasdair McDonnell from Belfast. In the Westminster elections Sinn Féin dropped from five to four seats losing Fermanagh-South Tyrone, a bad blow for the party.

The DUP regained East Belfast from Alliance’s Naomi Long, but lost South Antrim.

It was a good year for Ulster Unionists; they won two seats, bringing them back into the House of Commons for the first time since 2010.

Some things never change. There is no sign of an end to the impasse over Orangemen seeking to march past the Ardoyne shops on the Twelfth of July, with more violence in north Belfast this past Twelfth.

But some things do, finally. For the first time a very narrow majority voted in favour of same-sex marriage – though the DUP was able to block the vote from becoming policy by using its Assembly veto.

A judge said abortion should be permitted in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest.

Another judge in the so-called gay cake case said Asher’s Baking Company was wrong to refuse to bake a cake iced with pro-gay marriage messages.

Meanwhile, the NI Public Prosecution Service was found to have failed Mairia Cahill and two other women who alleged they were sexually abused by an IRA member–- one of a number of stories during the year about alleged sexual abuse involving IRA members.

However, 2015 may be most memorable for marking the end of Peter Robinson’s leadership, a decision spurred, perhaps, by a heart attack in May, but, also, by clear signs that he no longer wanted the daily grind.

Time brings an end to all battles.

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