Northern Ireland

2014 Northern Ireland politics review

Stormont politicians Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption The Stormont House Agreement was published after a 30-hour final push at the end of the talks

It was a tale of Christmas past and Christmas present.

The year was book-ended by two marathon negotiations, one a failure, the other a partial success.

The two agendas overlapped.

On New Year's Eve 2013, under the chairmanship of former US envoy Richard Haass, the five executive parties failed to resolve the contentious issues associated with parades, flag flying and the past.

Just before Christmas Eve 2014, the same Stormont parties, now under the chairmanship of Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, tackled the same difficulties, plus disputes over the Stormont budget, welfare reform and calls to restructure the power-sharing system.

This time they parked flag-flying and parades, but made substantial progress on the other items on their agenda.

So why did Theresa Villiers succeed where Richard Haass failed?

It was nothing to do with their respective diplomatic skills, but can be summed up in one word: Leverage.

Restrained

While the US diplomat could only appeal to the politicians' better nature, Ms Villiers came equipped with an array of carrots and sticks, including Treasury fines over welfare reform, extra borrowing for public sector redundancies, capital grants for shared education and other projects and the promise that Northern Ireland could in the future set its own rate of corporation tax.

Immediately after the conclusion of his talks, Mr Haass had been remarkably restrained in his public comments.

But in transatlantic TV interviews broadcast in January he sounded more forthright, telling BBC's The View that his proposed deal had been so good it had not even been a close call and the unionists and Alliance who did not endorse the package had some explaining to do.

If the Haass TV interviews had an impact on the political scene, that was nothing compared to two "appointment to view" documentaries also broadcast on the BBC in January.

In From Genesis to Revelation, the former first minister and DUP founder Ian Paisley and his wife Eileen opened their hearts to the broadcaster Eamonn Mallie.

The couple were scathing about their treatment at the hands of their colleagues and brethren in the DUP and the Free Presbyterian Church.

The DUP denied the Paisleys' account of Ian Snr being forced out of the party leadership.

Image caption In From Genesis to Revelation, the former first minister and DUP founder Ian Paisley and his wife Eileen opened their hearts to the broadcaster Eamonn Mallie

For the viewers, Eileen Paisley's colourful version of the episode made for one of the most compelling insights into politics "red in tooth and claw".

Eight months later the man who created his own party and his own church was dead.

The world passed its verdict on how Ulster's 'Dr No', the leader of so many protests against attempts to broker political deals, metamorphosed into 'Dr Yes', the leader of a government sharing power with his arch opponents from Sinn Féin.

The public commentary proceeded without the backdrop of the kind of state funeral accorded to Paisley's idol Edward Carson.

Instead the Paisleys held a strictly private funeral, later inviting some local politicians, but by no means all of them, to a memorial service at Belfast's Ulster Hall.

Ian Paisley was the best-known figure associated with Northern Ireland politics to pass away during 2014, but not the only one.

The well-liked independent unionist and former deputy assembly speaker David McClarty died in April.

The Ulster Unionists lost their former minister Sam Foster and former MLA George Savage.

Wrongful conviction

The well-respected former Labour Northern Ireland minister Paul Goggins died, as did the local businessman Lord Ballyedmond who was a major donor for the Conservatives.

Then there was Gerry Conlon, who devoted his life to campaigning for justice after his wrongful conviction for the Guildford bombings was overturned.

In February, another court case prompted enormous controversy, this time for different reasons.

Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption The John Downey court case caused huge controversy

John Downey walked free from a London court after facing charges connected to the IRA's 1982 Hyde Park bombing.

It transpired Mr Downey was one of more than 200 republicans to have received an "On The Run" letter from the government providing assurance they were not wanted by the authorities.

The revelation prompted angry exchanges between politicians regarding who knew what about the OTR scheme.

First Minister Peter Robinson threatened to resign if he didn't get a judicial inquiry into the matter - settling eventually for a review led by Lady Justice Heather Hallett.

The intersection between policing and justice and politics is a constant feature in Northern Ireland politics.

However, it is rarely so direct and personal as in May, when the police arrested the Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams for questioning about the murder and disappearance of the west Belfast mother of 10 children, Jean McConville.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Gerry Adams was arrested, then released without charge over the murder of Jean McConville

Impact

Angry Sinn Féin supporters accused the detectives responsible of trying to disrupt their campaign for May's council and European elections.

But when Mr Adams was released without charge, the impact seemed to energise Sinn Féin's campaign.

When the results came in, both the DUP and Sinn Féin continued to dominate the local scene, although the DUP may be nervous about the growing support for the Traditional Unionist Voice and UKIP.

The council elections provided some reasons for the Ulster Unionists to be cheerful, although their European result wasn't as promising.

The SDLP fell short of their own council targets, whilst Alliance didn't appear to suffer too badly as a result of the Belfast union flag dispute.

If there was one clear loser in the election, then it had to be the newest arrival, NI21.

Formed by two former Ulster Unionists, Basil McCrea and John McCallister, with high hopes of introducing a fresh style of politics, the new party imploded spectacularly amid wrangling over whether it should describe itself as unionist and controversy over allegations of inappropriate behaviour by Mr McCrea towards party staff.

Image caption NI21 was formed by ex-Ulster Unionists Basil McCrea and John McCallister

Against the odds, NI21 got one councillor elected, Lisburn's Johnny McCarthy.

In the summer there were fears about disorder on the streets as Orangemen and their supporters continued their campaign to make a return march past the Ardoyne shops in north Belfast.

Unionist politicians headed off an immediate crisis by joining together in a theatrical ceremony deliberately reminiscent of the Ulster Covenant.

They demanded an inquiry into the marching dispute in north Belfast.

Much talk of a graduated response from unionists died away when the secretary of state agreed to set up a parading panel.

Setbacks

Nationalists objected to the panel, and eventually Ms Villiers abandoned the idea, making the announcement on the coat tails of the Stormont House deal.

Although Mr Robinson no doubt considered the Stormont House agreement a job well done, 2014 brought the first minister a number of setbacks.

Immediately after the election count he became embroiled in a controversy surrounding the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle preacher Pastor James McConnell, who told his congregation he did not trust Muslims.

Interviewed by the Irish News, Mr Robinson defended the preacher, and the first minister's comment that he would trust Muslims to "go to the shops" led to a backlash.

Mr Robinson later visited Belfast's Islamic Centre to apologise in person for any hurt caused.

Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Peter Robinson visited Belfast Islamic Centre and apologised for any hurt he had caused

Rumours about internal tensions within the DUP were fuelled when Health Minister Edwin Poots told the BBC's Nolan show it was public knowledge his leader intended to step down after the 2015 Westminster election.

Mr Robinson swiftly denied the assertion and hit out at those in the DUP who he claimed had "the strategic vision of a lemming".

Soon afterwards, the DUP reshuffled its ministers and committee chairs, a shake-up which saw Mr Poots replaced at the health department by Jim Wells.

Sinn Féin did not have to deal with the same internal tensions, although the departure of senior official Leo Green prompted speculation about ideological splits.

Questions

The party enjoyed dominance within northern nationalism and a rapid surge in support in the Republic of Ireland, where it prospered partially as a result of its opposition to water charges.

But the republican movement had serious questions to answer after the BBC Spotlight programme broadcast an interview with Maíria Cahill, whose uncle Joe Cahill had been one of the founders of the Provisional IRA.

Ms Cahill claimed she had been forced to give evidence about her alleged rape by an IRA man to an internal republican "kangaroo court".

Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Maíria Cahill claimed she had been forced to give evidence about her alleged rape by an IRA man to an internal republican "kangaroo court"

Ms Cahill won support from the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny for her campaign for justice and some politicians called for a cross-border inquiry into the movement of alleged sex abusers across the Irish border.

While the Stormont House deal at the end of 2014 was an example of the DUP and Sinn Féin working together, the year was punctuated by examples of the two major parties at loggerheads.

DUP MP Gregory Campbell riled Irish language speakers when he parodied the use of the language in the Stormont chamber with his deliberately disparaging "Curry My Yoghurt" pronunciation of the Irish for thank you.

As Sinn Féin MLAs demanded an apology, their leader Gerry Adams and Fermanagh South Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew got into some linguistic hot water of their own by using a couple of crude words beginning with the letter "b" at a public meeting in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh.

The stand-off between the parties was manifested in the DUP's reluctance to fulfil a previous deal by voting for Sinn Féin's Mitchel McLaughlin as new Stormont Speaker.

Image caption Gregory Campbell made reference to the 'curry my yoghurt' row at the DUP conference

The incumbent, the DUP Foyle MLA Willie Hay, stepped down after suffering a bout of ill health.

This occurred shortly after the speaker suspended a member of his staff after the BBC Spotlight team brought to his attention some questionable expenses claims.

Despite frequent angry clashes in the assembly chamber, there were occasions when the parties worked together.

Moral issues

Lord Morrow's Human Trafficking Bill will make Northern Ireland the first place in the UK to ban paying for sex. The private member's bill would almost certainly not have made it into law if Sinn Féin had opposed the DUP peer's proposal.

There are other moral issues, however, that have pitted the DUP against Sinn Féin.

After the Christian bakers Ashers refused to make a cake iced with a pro-gay marriage message, the Human Rights Commission decided to take the bakery to court.

Sinn Féin MLAs backed the commission's decision, but the DUP wants a new "conscience clause" grafted on to discrimination law.

Although much of the year was spent debating budgetary issues and a series of increasingly painful cuts to public services, there was a reminder of what politics used to be like as people marked the 20th anniversary of the 1994 IRA and loyalist ceasefires.

In September, Scotland provided a vibrant example of how to settle fundamental constitutional issues without resorting to bloodshed.

Unionists breathed a sigh of relief at the "no" vote across the water. Nationalists could at least take some solace in the continuing strength of the SNP which, like Sinn Féin and the SDLP, backs the maximum devolution of powers from London.

The Queen celebrated the positive state of east-west relations by hosting the Irish President Michael D Higgins at a state banquet in Windsor Castle in April, attended by Stormont politicians.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The Queen was presented with a miniature version of the Iron Throne, which features in Game of Thrones during a visit to Belfast in June

At another meal, this time in Belfast City Hall in June, she revealed to Belfast's SDLP Mayor Nicola Mallon that she avoids putting on too much weight at these recurrent banquets by moving her haute cuisine stealthily around her plate without touching most of it.

The cook may have reason to be offended, but others might conclude that it was far better for the British monarch and a nationalist mayor to have such a light-hearted conversation inside the city hall than to have a repeat of the violent scenes over the union flag which had characterised the building in previous years.

Certainly Northern Ireland continued to leave its impression on the Queen, as evidenced by her reference to her visits to the Game of Thrones set and Belfast's Crumlin Road jail in her Christmas message, watched by more than seven million viewers.

She described the transformation of the prison as an example of reconciliation in action, in her words "a reminder of what is possible when people reach to one another".

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