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John McDonagh (JM) and Martin Galvin (MG) speak to award-winning Belfast journalist Suzanne Breen (SB) via telephone from Belfast who delivers insightful commentary on the future of government in The North of Ireland in the wake of the collapse of Stormont. (begins time stamp ~ 33:50)
JM: Well right now we’re going to head back to Belfast and speak with Suzanne Breen who writes for many publications north and south of the border and maybe she can give us an overall view of what’s going on. And I just want to remind our audience that: Here in New York City our population is eight point five million. We have fifty-one Council members to distribute the budget and to run the City of New York. Over in the Six Counties they are at one point six million. They have a hundred and eight MLAs at the moment; they’re going to reduce it to ninety people. So they have probably one of the greatest representations of the people living in a small area and for that little area it certainly causes a lot of problems. And Suzanne, are you on the line?
SB: I am indeed, John. Hi!
JM: Yeah I just wanted to go – when we have people over from Belfast and I take them down to City Hall and around they can’t believe how small our City Hall is and they’re comparing it to something like Stormont, which is this great edifice outside of Belfast. But it’s so grandiose – the people over there with the huge buildings and then the titles of ‘Lord Mayor’ and everything and then how many representatives are from just that small area of the island.
SB: Yes well, I mean Stormont is a stunningly beautiful building – gorgeous marble, corridors inside, chandeliers – it really looks the part. The problem is that what transpires inside is more like the end of a Christmas pantomime than serious politics so its inhabitants have very much let their surroundings down.
MG: Suzanne, this is Martin Galvin. I just was going through some of our old interviews and on November 21st there was a joint piece, it was put together by Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, it was printed in the Irish News and it said: ‘this is what delivery looks like’, ‘no gimmicks’, ‘no grandstanding’ just the ministers ‘getting on with the work’ and everything looked like the government would last for five years, they couldn’t have been working together more happily according to that piece, which was only about six weeks ago. And now we’re in a position where it looks like a British minister may be calling an election, where the government has completely collapsed, where Martin McGuinness has resigned. What happened in those few weeks?
SB: Well basically when Sinn Féin and the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) were saying everything was hunky dory they weren’t completely telling the truth because the DUP was not willing to share power in any meaningful, generous way with Sinn Féin but Sinn Féin seemed to be prepared to accept that kind of ‘back of the bus’ treatment just in order to ride the gravy train in Stormont which provides a whole heap of jobs, access to funding, patronage, pet projects that can be financed. But on key issues, like for example an Irish language act, like progressing equal rights for people regardless of their sexuality, the DUP were saying ‘no’ and it was able to employ what is called a Petition of Concern (PoC) whereby if they have the signatures of thirty of its members it could stop the wishes of the other seventy-eight members of the Assembly from having their say in a democratic vote. Basically what happened was there was this whole ‘cash for ash’ scandal. It was a botched energy project from beginning in 2012. It happened under Arlene Foster’s watch and in the latter part of last year details of this started drifting out into the media and it became a colossally big story and the DUP handled it very, very badly. They made what was a problem into a crisis. Sinn Féin asked for Arlene Foster to stand aside for four weeks to allow for an independent investigation and this was in many ways a very minor request…
MG: …Suzanne, that was compared – it just seemed like they were asking her to do what Peter Robinson had designed for himself as his rehabilitation from the ‘Irisgate’ scandal in 2010: He stepped aside, he said he was going to step aside for six weeks, he was back within three. Arlene Foster had that open to her. She could have come back and said: Now we’re past this, let’s move on and the scandal is over with.
SB: Well Sinn Féin was suggesting this just as Stormont closed naturally for the Christmas holidays. If Arlene had taken that up she would be back now in office. I mean it would be common procedure in other parliaments, in Westminster for example, for a minister who presided over the equivalent of this to step aside but Arlene Foster said that she wasn’t doing that. And she went to address the Assembly to give a personal statement even though she needed the approval of Martin McGuinness, who holds – even though he’s Deputy First Minister and she’s First Minister it’s meant to be a joint office – and then really something that inflamed and angered a lot of Nationalists was that on the eve of Christmas Eve the DUP cut fifty thousand pounds in funding to a project to send children from deprived, poor areas to the Gaeltacht. So given that the DUP had just effectively lost five hundred million pounds of public money this pulling fifty thousand pounds looked very, very petty and very nasty from a party that was facing its own crisis and it really seemed that this was another occasion for the DUP to poke Sinn Féin in the eye.
MG: Now Suzanne, you’ve written in a number of articles that this was – that Martin McGuinness’ decision to resign – Sinn Féin is very much a top-ordered, they pretty much set the agenda, they’re viewed as very successful in bringing along the grassroots – you’ve written in both the Belfast Telegraph and the Irish Independent that the decision to resign came from the grassroots or was driven by the grassroots. Why do you say that?
SB: Well just before Christmas, even after Arlene Foster had done all this, the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) has a Motion of No Confidence before the chamber in Stormont and Sinn Féin refused to support it. Sinn Féin’s words were very tolerant, very mild and they were really attempting to give Arlene Foster a way out. Sinn Féin alone hasn’t called for a public inquiry into RHI (Renewable Heat Incentive) and it calls for public inquiries all the time into all sorts of things – RHI is this botched energy scheme that is at the heart of the ‘cash for ash’ scandal. So while the likes of parties such as Alliance, the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP, regarded as far less radical than Sinn Féin, were demanding a public inquiry Sinn Féin wasn’t. Sinn Féin was very much trying to let the DUP off the hook. But over the Christmas period they got a lot of abuse from their grassroots who said that this was just a further example of them accepting second-class treatment from the DUP. So Sinn Féin returned to Stormont very much needing to take a much stronger line with the DUP and with Arlene Foster. Again, the DUP refused any attempt to compromise so Sinn Féin said that Martin McGuinness was resigning as Deputy First Minister and that effectively pulled the Executive down. Now that’s something that the DUP had calculated Sinn Féin would never do because they thought that Sinn Féin enjoyed riding the gravy train too much and also that Martin McGuinness, unlike Gerry Adams, wasn’t a very egotistical man and that he was prepared to take kind of the put downs and not getting his way and you know Martin would stay regardless. So the DUP thought they had the measure of Sinn Féin – these guys will never pull out – and Sinn Féin called their bluff.
JM: Well Suzanne, you talk about the gravy train – it looks like it’s going to be getting a lot shorter in the next election. There’s a hundred and eight MLAs to represent the one point six million. They’re reducing it down to ninety. What will the in-fighting be like within the Loyalist political parties, within Sinn Féin? Certain people are going to have to lose their seats within these political parties and will they go for younger people to be representatives? Or will they just try to keep in the old guard? I mean, how is that going to play out?
SB: Well, one in six Assembly members aren’t coming back so, for example, I know that there are people, for example in the DUP, who are just elected – basically elected a handful of months who have maybe given up other careers to pursue this in Stormont, who have young families, who have mortgages to pay and who now face the prospect of unemployment and they’re not happy. And some of these people in the DUP, they’re saying: Look, this isn’t our mess. We didn’t create this. It’s our leadership who took these decisions that has brought Northern Ireland to political crisis. Why should we be paying the price? But as all the parties decide that they’re running fewer candidates and select certain people and if certain people aren’t selected that will cause bad feeling and that will cause resentment. Now I think that’s very much more the case with the DUP than with Sinn Féin. The opposite is true at the moment with Sinn Fein. Even though logically I don’t think Sinn Féin can defend the switch from a very moderate position to an apparently hard line position now their grassroots really are buying it – people are returning to their ranks, that were disillusioned, they’re energised and they’re saying: There’s an election. Bring it on! Let’s get out there! And they’re very much looking forward to an election where the DUP now, for all its bluster and bravado in the past, is really, really on the back foot and it’s very worried about facing the electorate – a very angry electorate, not just in Nationalist areas but in Unionist areas at the loss of public money and at the apparent arrogance of Arlene Foster. What the DUP will try to do in coming weeks is to sectarianise the election and to try and push the old buttons that bring the Unionist voters back into their ranks.
MG: Alright Suzanne, what effect do you think this will have on the fact that Arlene Foster is the person who’s viewed as responsible for the RHI scandal? Do you think that that will have an impact in terms of the Democratic Unionist Party within the Unionist community? Do you think it’s going to cause a shift in favour of, say, Jim Allister or in favour of the Ulster Unionists or do you think their voters are going to come back to them in terms of the election results?
SB: Well I think what’s going on is huge. The DUP had been saying they weren’t worried about an election at all you know and they had done the maths. They were so far ahead because they are twice as big as their nearest Unionist rival, the Ulster Unionists, and they have I think it’s two hundred and six thousand votes compared I think, off the top of my head, to eighty-six thousand votes for Mike Nesbitt of the Ulster Unionist Party – so that’s a colossal lead and it’s very, very hard for the smaller Unionist parties – who I think actually will do well – but it’s very, very hard for them to catch up with the DUP.
The Ulster Unionists have some very strong candidates running in constituencies but there would be a feeling that Mike Nesbitt, their leader, while he’s a very good media performer just really hasn’t managed to touch the hearts of ordinary Unionists. That they don’t see him as ‘one of us’ – that he somehow just seems to be a little detached or perhaps lives in another class. Jim Allister of the TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice) is very much the opposite. He would be in tune with many ordinary Unionists’ thinking. He would be by far and away the best political performer at Stormont, very much on the ball, shoots from the hip. The problem he has is that he hasn’t been able to build a credible party and that he doesn’t have credible candidates to run and basically the organisational structures locally to fight a good election. But the DUP will also have to challenge the apathy that there’ll be – a lot of Unionists might say: Do you know what? I’m not coming out to vote for any of you boys and girls. And this election will take place in the heart of winter, I mean most likely in February – you know, a very, very different feeling to a February election than to a May or June one. Now I think the Alliance centre-ground moderate party – it’s leader says she’s neither Unionist or Nationalist, Naomi Long, I think they’ll have a very good election but they mightn’t pick up any more seats because the gap between them and the larger parties is just too huge. I think the SDLP are in trouble in this election. They have a team of very young and talented MLAs but with Sinn Féin taking a much more militant line, and that going down well with Nationalist grassroots, the SDLP will very much be up against it.
MG: Alright, Suzanne, just what happens if we get basically the same results: That the DUP is still the leading Unionist party, Sinn Féin is still the leading Nationalist party. You get two parties, Arlene Foster is still the head of the DUP will come together and Arlene Foster says she’s not going to stand aside for any investigation which is the position that she has taken, what happens then in terms of the legalities of forming a government in The North?
SB: Well both are probably still going to emerge as the largest party but it does depend on the number of seats that they win, Martin. For example, the DUP at the moment is at thirty-eight and Sinn Féin’s at twenty-eight. The DUP is still ahead but not that much ahead. Then it really does have to adopt a more conciliatory approach to Sinn Féin and the number we should all be focusing on is ‘thirty’. Thirty is the number – if the DUP gets thirty or more it’s able to use the Petition of Concern which is a very strong weapon in the Assembly. If the DUP falls behind thirty then it can’t use that weapon. Certainly after any election, I don’t think it’s just going to be a few weeks of negotiations between Sinn Féin, the DUP and the two governments. I think this could go on for months and months if not years and years and we are in for quite a long period of direct rule. Sinn Féin are saying at the moment that they want to negotiate – the whole structure and all the agreements – they want a re-negotiation, they want to go back to the start and they want to ensure the protections and promises that were made to them at the Good Friday Agreement are actually finally delivered. So at the moment everything is up in the air but this will be a very, very interesting election. And as well there will be groups like People Before Profit in Doire and in Belfast attempting to say: Look, a plague on all your houses and pointing out to Sinn Féin’s own record in government and saying to working-class communities, you know: Give us a chance. People Before Profit may well run two candidates, as opposed to just one, in West Belfast and that would put them in a very powerful position if it is successful – they would have won two of the five seats in West Belfast, the jewel in Sinn Féin’s crown.
MG: Alright, Suzanne, we’re going to have to leave it there with the programme. We want to thank you and hopefully we’ll be reading you in the Belfast Telegraph and the Irish Independent and some of the other papers that you write for just to keep us up-to-date on this. Thank you very much, Suzanne Breen, the noted, award-winning Belfast-based journalist. Thank you, Suzanne.
SB: Thanks, Martin. (ends time stamp ~ 50:37)