Northern Ireland

NI Assembly election: Huge characters have left stage

NI Assembly portrait
Image caption The original assembly portrait was ahead of its time in many ways

The changing face of politics at Stormont can be seen in the absence from the forthcoming election of Northern Ireland's two best known politicians - Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams.

A quick look at the official portrait of the 1998 assembly shows that most of the key players from the original power-sharing executive have now left the Stormont stage, including Nobel Peace Prize winners John Hume and David Trimble.

They made their exit before the last election. Now, Mr Paisley and Mr Adams have decided not to contest the 2011 election and are off to pastures new - one to the House of Lords in London, the other to the Irish Parliament in Dublin.

You don't need a masters in Irish history to work out which one is which.

Looking back at the original portrait, it is noticeable that many of the most colourful characters of Northern Ireland politics are no longer involved in assembly politics - whether it be Seamus Mallon of the SDLP, Ian Paisley Jnr of the DUP, Bob McCartney of the UK Unionist Party or John Taylor of the Ulster Unionist Party.

When it came to passionate political debate, few could touch them - not even with "a 40ft barge-pole", in the case of Mr Taylor.

Sound-bite king

The untimely passing of the former PUP leader David Ervine robbed the assembly of the king of the media sound-bites. The back-benches have never quite been the same since.

However, what is striking about the 1998 portrait is how the Belfast artist Noel Murphy predicted the future by putting Peter Robinson and Sammy Wilson right at the heart of the picture, in the middle of the front row, five years before they became first minister and finance minister.

At the time, they were not prepared to talk to Sinn Fein, and boycotted meetings of the power-sharing executive.

They wanted to give the appearance of being detached from the assembly, but the oil-canvas portrait told a very different story. In many ways, the picture was ahead of its time.

Another example of this was how Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness was portrayed.

Unlike most of his party colleagues, he was painted facing the unionists head-on and engaging with them.

Friendship

No-one looking at the portrait when it was painted in 2003 could have foreseen the former IRA commander's eventual friendship with Ian Paisley but, with hindsight, the picture offers some clues.

Mr McGuinness also ended up enjoying a relatively warm relationship with Peter Robinson as they worked together in the offices of the first and deputy first minister.

All that warmth could go cold if Sinn Fein outpolls the DUP in the May election and Mr McGuinness earns the right to lose the 'deputy' title and become first minister.

The truth is, looking at the election form guide, this is unlikely to happen. If there is going to be a change of personnel in the top office, it is likely to be in the 2015 election.

That does not necessarily mean that Sinn Fein will overtake the DUP by then, but the likelihood is that both Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson will be considering retirement from Stormont.

In four years' time, Mr Robinson will be 66 and Mr McGuinness will be 65. They may want a quieter life, and concentrate on their hobbies, cycling and fishing respectively.

So will they hand over to, say, Arlene Foster and Conor Murphy? Or Sammy Wilson and Gerry Kelly? Or will there be an SDLP and Ulster Unionist resurgence?

Whatever happens, there is plenty of time for members of the next assembly to make a name for themselves, and for new colourful characters to emerge.

The changing political agenda, with economic and social issues to the fore, means there is a chance for a bright, young number-cruncher to rise through the political ranks.

New faces

There will be plenty of new faces after the election, but what the assembly could also do with is new ideas.

The Stormont chamber finally has a feeling of permanence, after being in perpetual crisis-mode for most of the past 13 years.

Yes, there is likely to be more political fighting and mud-slinging in the next assembly but it is difficult to imagine it all falling apart.

Most of the key figures of Northern Ireland's recent history have left Stormont, yet the big house on the hill seems more secure than ever.

The question is no longer - can the assembly survive? The issue is - can Stormont thrive?