Northern Ireland

Four elections, an historic Royal visit and a popstar causing a storm

Image caption The bad weather last Christmas was followed by a political storm at the start of 2011.

The year began with Stormont in crisis. That is not exactly a first, but this time it was a crisis with a difference - one triggered by freezing temperatures rather than political instability.

Engineers battled against the elements to restore the water supply to the tens of thousands cut off by the severe freeze and rapid thaw.

Northern Ireland Water's poor communications enraged the publicly owned company's customers, and chief executive Laurence McKenzie paid with his job.

Some argued the crisis bolstered the case for water charges, others disagreed. Either way, the main parties maintained their opposition to the charges, with only the centre ground Alliance claiming Stormont needed to consider the option to balance its books.

The assembly elections were set for May, but months before that Sinn Fein hit the campaign trail south of the border, as the clock ticked down on Brian Cowen's beleaguered Fianna Fail-Green coalition.

The writing had been on the wall for the Cowen government ever since it was forced to accept an 85m euros bail-out in November 2010.

Sinn Fein sought to maximise its ability to prosper at Fianna Fail's expense by switching its President Gerry Adams from West Belfast to Louth, just south of the Irish border. Despite questions about his IRA past, Mr Adams topped the poll in the constituency with more than 15,000 votes.

Moving south

Sinn Fein became the fourth largest party in the Dail, with 14 TDs, not far behind Fianna Fail's 20. Enda Kenny's Fine Gael formed a coalition with Labour, whilst the Greens were annihilated.

The economy dominated discussions north and south. But April provided a sad reminder that some groups continue to believe they have the right to resort to violence to pursue their ends. Republican dissidents placed a booby trap bomb under the car of a young Catholic PSNI constable, Ronan Kerr, murdering him when he got into the vehicle.

Image caption Tom Elliott and Danny Kennedy with Tyrone GAA manager Mickey Harte at Ronan Kerr's funeral

Stormont ministers united in condemning the 25-year-old's murder. The Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott and minister Danny Kennedy were amongst the politicians who attended Constable Kerr's funeral, in defiance of an Orange Order rule preventing members from taking part in Catholic masses.

The image of the young constable's fellow GAA members and PSNI colleagues taking turns to carry his coffin sent a powerful message to those unwilling to accept the new vision for policing.

In May the voters rewarded the two biggest parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, by strengthening their hold on Stormont. The DUP restored its position as biggest party, confounding some who believed Sinn Fein might close the gap at the top.

Unionist changes

The former DUP leader Ian Paisley was one of a number of MLAs who stood down at the election. The Ulster Unionists suffered big losses on Belfast council, whilst their reverses in the assembly put their second ministerial seat in peril.

For a few days some UUP members pinned their hopes on the East Londonderry MLA David McClarty returning to the fold. After being deselected by local UUP activists, Mr McClarty had stood successfully as an independent.

With a typical dramatic flourish, the former deputy speaker confirmed on TV that he would not return. His decision led to the curious situation that Alliance, with just eight seats, got two ministries, while the UUP, with 16, took just one.

The anomaly was down to the fact that Alliance hold the justice department as a result of a cross-community vote - a different method to the other departmental allocations.

The departmental hand-out was publicised live by the executive on Twitter. But if the identity of the new ministers was of great interest to Stormont watchers, it was the choice of a ministerial adviser which caused the biggest furore. The new Culture Minister Carál Ní Chuilín, picked former IRA prisoner Mary McArdle to assist her.

Ms McArdle was convicted of involvement in one of the Troubles' most shocking murders. She was caught trying to smuggle guns away after IRA men killed 23-year-old magistrate's daughter Mary Travers as she left church in south Belfast. The victim's sister, Ann Travers, took to the air waves to remind people of her family's awful loss. But Sinn Fein refused to reconsider the appointment.

Image caption The Queen and Irish President Mary McAleese at the Irish War Memorial Garden, Islandbridge.

A fortnight after the Assembly election, the Queen touched down in Dublin for her first ever state visit to the Republic. Sinn Fein declined to meet the Queen, but her appearance alongside President McAleese at the Garden of Remembrance was widely viewed as a potent symbol of Anglo-Irish reconciliation.

Some republican protests took place, but they were small, whilst those who met the Queen in Cork and Dublin appeared genuinely delighted. The First Minister Peter Robinson attended the state banquet given in the Queen's honour, together with his wife Iris - her first public appearance since her withdrawal from political life.

In their assembly manifestoes the DUP and Sinn Fein had ruled out both water charges and higher tuition fees. Even though Alliance took the department responsible for higher education, the first and deputy first ministers made it clear to the Alliance minister Stephen Farry in July that he would have to budget on nothing more than an inflation linked increase in tuition fees.

Presidential election

Sinn Fein normally hold their Ard Fheis in the spring, but it was moved because of the combination of Dail and Stormont elections. In September it went ahead with a big difference - the venue was Belfast's Waterfront Hall - the first time the gathering had taken place north of the border.

On the opening evening, all eyes focused on the Presbyterian minister David Latimer who praised Martin McGuinness as one of the great modern leaders. But soon media attention switched to whether Mr McGuinness might abandon Stormont for a new challenge - the race to succeed Mary McAleese as Irish President.

The rumour was confirmed within days, and the deputy first minister returned from a jobs trip to the USA to get his campaign underway. Education Minister John O'Dowd stood in temporarily as Mr McGuinness canvassed throughout Ireland.

The newspapers questioned whether Mr McGuinness's role as an IRA commander made him a fit and proper person to become head of the Irish state. The McGuinness camp accused the media of being obsessed with the past, and tried to shift the focus to their man's pledge to forego most of his salary. However, they couldn't shrug off a confrontation in Athlone between the candidate and the son of an Irish soldier killed in a shoot-out with the IRA in 1983.

Image caption Michael D Higgins is inaugurated as the ninth President of Ireland.

The negative publicity may have played a part in Martin McGuinness getting less than 14% of the vote. But Sinn Fein took heart from being well ahead of Fine Gael and playing a key role as king-maker in the election.

During an eve of poll TV debate Mr McGuinness questioned the independent candidate Sean Gallagher about his involvement in raising money for Fianna Fail. The intervention is widely believed to have gifted the victory to Labour's Michael D Higgins.

The drama surrounding the Irish Presidential election served to keep an internal SDLP leadership battle away from the headlines. Over the summer it became clear support was building within the SDLP for a leadership heave against Margaret Ritchie. First, the BBC reported that Ms Ritchie's deputy Patsy McGlone was prepared to enter the race, then in September Ms Ritchie confirmed that she would resign.

In November the South Belfast MP Alasdair McDonnell beat three other contenders to the job. His young constituency colleague Conall McDevitt finished a strong second. Dr McDonnell lived up to his "bull in a china shop" image by promising SDLP activists a smashing time with a new surge of grass roots re-organisation.

But his bid to create momentum suffered an immediate reverse during a disastrous maiden leadership speech in which the MP was blinded by TV lights and had to stop several times to ask for them to be turned off.

Image caption Rihanna caught the eye of farmer and DUP councillor Alan Graham.

Rihanna ruckus

Later that month the Stormont executive published a programme for government pledging to create 25,000 jobs. One significant element was a pledge to reduce the 26 local councils to just 11 - this fulfilled an agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein, but ran counter to the wishes of the SDLP Environment minister Alex Attwood, who favours 15.

As the year ends the council re-organisation is yet to take place. Also pending is a shake-up in Westminster boundaries, reducing the number of constituencies from 18 to 16, which could spell the end for the South Belfast seat and major surgery in the west of the country.

On the economic front, Stormont and Westminster politicians are still trying to agree a price tag for the transfer of powers over corporation tax - a move favoured by most of the local parties and business leaders but opposed by the trade unions.

In the courts, the prime minister is to face a challenge to his decision not to order an inquiry into the murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane - a move which left the lawyer's widow Geraldine almost speechless with anger in Downing Street.

With no elections expected in 2012 (the next European contest is due in 2014), local politicians may have more time to concentrate on law-making and tackling Northern Ireland's many social and economic problems.

One prediction seems safe - during the next 12 months none of our elected representatives is likely to repeat the experience of DUP councillor, Alan Graham, who hired his land out to a film crew shooting a pop video.

However, the councillor cried "enough" when he noticed superstar Rihanna strolling through his north Down wheat field wearing nothing on top.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness may remain the figure heads at Stormont, but this bizarre encounter briefly made farmer Graham Northern Ireland's best-known politician.

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