NI politics 2018: Personalities, policies and principles

By Mark Devenport
BBC News NI Political Editor

  • Published
Westminster and Stormont chambers
Image caption,
Business continued apace at Westminster, while the Stormont chamber remained empty

Is politics about clashing personalities or wider policies and principles?

There was plenty of action on both fronts in 2018.

When it came to personalities, there was the tale of the two MPs who got into high-profile difficulties.

Commentators sometimes talk about bread and butter politics but no-one had in mind an MP balancing a loaf on top of his head.

The social media joke backfired on Barry McElduff as his stunt - involving a Kingsmill loaf - coincided with the anniversary of the Kingsmills atrocity.

Families of the victims regarded the video taken by the MP as a slur.

Image source, Twitter
Image caption,
Barry McElduff posing with the loaf on his head

The West Tyrone MP quit and was replaced in a by-election but he ended 2018 announcing his return as a Sinn Féin council candidate.

Another MP - the DUP's Ian Paisley - also got into hot water.

The North Antrim man was suspended from the House of Commons for 30 days for failing to declare a family holiday in Sri Lanka.

The Commons standards commissioner took a dim view of Mr Paisley accepting hospitality from and lobbying for a government that has been accused of war crimes.

Image source, Pacemaker
Image caption,
Ian Paisley failed to declare two luxury holidays paid for by the Sri Lankan government

The suspension triggered the UK's first recall petition.

But fewer than 10% of North Antrim constituents signed it, meaning Mr Paisley didn't have to fight a by-election, an outcome he described as a "miracle".

However, the year ended with more questions for him as the BBC's Spotlight programme highlighted another undeclared family holiday - this time in a luxury resort in the Maldives.

When it came to policies, the new Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley declared her number one priority was to restore power sharing at Stormont.

Sinn Féin also seemed optimistic about restoring devolution when they chose their new leader Mary Lou McDonald to succeed Gerry Adams at a special conference in February.

Sometimes embarrassing

Within days, though, that hope went up in smoke when the DUP walked away from a draft deal.

The parties disagreed about how advanced their negotiations were but the publication of a detailed text revealed how much work had been completed.

Not for the first time, the question of how to legislate for the needs of Irish language speakers proved the key obstacle.

At Westminster, the DUP enjoyed unprecedented influence but back at Stormont the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal exposed the party's inner tensions.

A series of ministers, their advisers and civil servants recounted their contrasting and sometimes embarrassing accounts of what went wrong.

Image source, Pacemaker
Image caption,
The RHI public inquiry is chaired by Sir Patrick Coghlin

Retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin and his panel appeared increasingly dismayed by what they discovered had passed for governance under the old Stormont regime.

In November, the DUP leader Arlene Foster made a public apology for her party's handling of the RHI affair at her annual conference.

She acknowledged that behaviour would have to improve in the future.

Stormont stand-off

As the deadlock between the parties continued, the civil servants were left in charge of maintaining public services.

Ms Bradley passed a budget through Westminster and belatedly reduced MLAs' wages.

But she steadfastly refused to get involved in individual policy areas, including the plight of historical institutional abuse survivors, whose hope of financial compensation has been stymied by the Stormont stand off.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Staffordshire Moorlands MP Karen Bradley was appointed NI secretary in January

Over time senior officials slowly expanded their role to make up, in part, for the lack of elected ministers.

A senior civil servant approved a decision to grant planning permission for major incinerator in County Antrim.

But a challenge from environmental campaigners succeeded, drastically curtailing officials' room for manoeuvre.

Emergency legislation was rushed through to shore up their authority and absolve the secretary of state of her responsibility to call another election.

Shadow of Brexit

Brexit overshadowed everything and Prime Minister Theresa May wrestled with contradictory demands.

The Irish government's call for a cast-iron guarantee that there will be no hard border was pitted against the DUP's insistence that Northern Ireland must be treated in exactly the same way as the rest of the UK.

In March, Mrs May and the DUP seemed as one - both rejecting an EU proposal that Northern Ireland and Great Britain should be treated as separate customs territories.

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Arlene Foster and Theresa May

At the Conservative Party conference, the prime minister continued to insist that she would not countenance the creation of a new economic border down the Irish Sea.

But in November, Mrs May and the EU agreed a draft deal, which both the DUP and Conservative Brexiteers denounced as a betrayal.

The DUP argued that any concessions the prime minister had won from the EU on customs were insufficient as Northern Ireland could still be treated in a radically different way when it came to trade regulations.

Abstentionist policy

While the DUP angrily criticised the EU withdrawal agreement, other Stormont parties rallied to the proposed "Brexit backstop" as the bare minimum to protect Northern Ireland from a hard no-deal Brexit.

The majority of business organisations also voiced their support for Mrs May's approach, prompting the DUP MP Sammy Wilson to label them as government "puppets".

Image source, HOC
Image caption,
Lady Sylvia Hermon, seen standing at right hand side, speaking in the House of Commons

Fifty-six percent of Northern Ireland's people may have voted to remain in the EU but given Sinn Féin's abstentionist policy the only local voice in favour of the backstop in the commons chamber was that of North Down MP Lady Hermon.

Against her, the 10 DUP MPs' voices were amplified by their pivotal position, holding the balance of power in a hung Parliament.

The Stormont chamber remained silent, with few rating the chances of any break in the deadlock before the full repercussions of Brexit become clear.

As 2018 closed no-one could predict with certainty whether the prime minister would find a way of resolving the conundrum posed by the border backstop or if Northern Ireland might prove the fatal flaw in the entire Brexit project.