Opinion Piece: Stormont is the problem to all our answers.

In the years since the New Decade New Approach agreement in 2020, politics in Northern Ireland has reverted to stalling progress on the things that really matter in society…

By Edward Ferrin…

I must say that as a student interested in politics, life in Northern Ireland is not easy – there is many a day when I would love to put my fist through the TV screen when some unelected, arrogant or self-styled so-and-so gets in front of the TV cameras and dictates how things should be done here. The funny thing is that sometimes that unelected so-and-so is probably an MLA at Stormont as between 2017 and the May 2022 election, there were 29 co-options into Assembly. The most spectacular ones included Foyle when Sinn Fein forced Martina Anderson and Karen Mullan to resign and make way for new MLAs to give them an incumbency boost before the May election and Edwin Poots lifting sticks from his Lagan Valley seat to take the late Christopher Stalford’s seat in Belfast South having failed to win the election nomination of his party for South Down.

Then of course you get the usual squad of “commentators” who try to represent voters outside of campaigns for the various unionist, nationalist or other tribes in this region. Sometimes, it escapes the minds of some people that political debates at Queen’s are just as bitter, divisive and problematic as those that take place in television studios, podcast rooms or council chambers across Northern Ireland today. I specifically excluded Stormont there as they are right now playing the role of useless, good-for-nothing layabouts who are sitting on salaries with straight faces. I include all of the MLAs, even if they wish to form an executive or not as they are legitimising the boycott of some by not resigning their seats (and refuse to nominate co-options) and taking their salaries.

Naomi Long resigned as an MLA in 2019 to serve as an MEP before being co-opted back into the Assembly in 2020.

I have no specific political preference in Northern Ireland – there isn’t one party out there which represents any great deal of the change I wish to see in this place. I have voted once for a certain party out of personal support for a specific candidate (they lost their seat), yet I will not be voting for that party next time as outside of that one person, they don’t appeal to me or my ambitions for the future. Political activism at university doesn’t appeal to me either – in my personal dealings with activists on campus, they are quite simply far too idealistic to be serious in their crusade to build a better future for this place. Let’s get real – we elect politicians who simply are far too cowardly to do the right thing. We have far too many people voting in Northern Ireland out of sheer stupidity and outwardly sectarian reasons.

The DUP election poster for the 2001 General Election attacking former UUP leader David Trimble.

Politics in the normal sense is about the possibility – how can we make it possible so that we have the best education system we can have, the best hospitals and medical care we can have, the best economy we can build and the best government we can create. Northern Ireland politics is about whether we can divide the most unionists and nationalists apart, whether one side gets more than the other and whether we can elect the laziest, most arrogant and extreme politician to public office there is out there. This place is not going to change until a generation stands up and slaps the sectarian society we have in the face and bring an end to debates on flags, language and cultural identity and more on roads, railways, sport, schools, doctors, nurses, civil rights and liberties and new, well-paid and skilled jobs.

Northern Ireland has around 1.8 million people living within its borders – whether it is a part of the United Kingdom or a United Ireland, it will still exist, and it won’t go away you know. A change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional position is not going to solve the problems around health, education and infrastructure – it is a misguided position to state that it does, or it will at some point in the future. There is not one Ulster unionist/loyalist, nor one Irish nationalist/republican who can provide me with a future sketch of Northern Ireland within the UK or in a UI which provides clarity on the major problems we face as a region – how can we reverse the large economic inactivity within Northern Ireland? How can we sustain Northern Ireland’s environment and agricultural production in our net zero targets? How can we end the huge financial subvention each year to Westminster (or in case of a UI, Leinster House)? How can we keep our young people and future generations in skilled, well-paid jobs within Northern Ireland? How do we provide people with the opportunities to own their own homes, start their own family, be free to express themselves in whichever way they like and ensure respect for every opinion and culture?

Stormont may or may not be in existence in the event of a united Ireland – that decision has still to be even mentioned by groups like Ireland’s Future or the mainstream parties like Sinn Fein or the SDLP. It is in existence (or at least in theory, it should be) while Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom. Therefore, Stormont is the epicentre of the future that will shape Northern Ireland for generations to come. The DUP is boycotting Stormont because it now perceives a devolved assembly and executive as a threat to the defence of the union – I think that just sums up the dismal performance of the DUP as the leading unionist party since the days of Trimble as it does for Stormont’s once historical significance as the centre of Ulster Unionism.

The DUP have now fallen victim to their very own design – Jeffrey Donaldson has now led to the party to an identity crisis. The party no longer stands whole-heartedly for devolution at Stormont, yet it’s also cautious to embrace integration with Westminster, while the Conservatives are proving ever more untrustworthy on issues like the Northern Ireland Protocol, Brexit, the economy and commitments to international agreements. The party may now be polling 27%, it is still 5% behind Sinn Fein and still in the dangerous position of juggling a boycott of devolution and highlighting its effectiveness in the current Westminster setup.

The Good Friday Agreement didn’t end the debate on Northern Ireland’s place in a changing world constitutionally – there is no provision for what may or may not be a part of a united Ireland. The politicians who forged the 1998 agreement – Hume, Trimble, Mallon, Mowlam, Ervine and McGuiness must all be watching upon today’s circus with huge disgust – the politicians have failed to keep negotiating round the table and seek solutions to the problems that the future may bring up in the event of huge change. St. Andrews turned us back, not forward – the DUP thought that changing the rules on nominating a First Minister would cement their position within unionism in 2007, only to find that in 2022 they would be beaten with their very own stick.

We have failed to grasp so many opportunities from devolved government at Stormont – we have failed to build strong, international air connectivity from our three airports. Aldergrove Airport has now become the getaway to the Costa del Sol than to the business gateway to the United States having lost the United Airlines connection to Newark, New Jersey in 2018. When it comes to air passenger traffic, Dublin, Shannon and Cork airports are all embarrassing Northern Ireland hands down.

The Irish government has been successful in ensuring US “pre-clearance” for border control on flights between Dublin or Shannon airports to the United States – Northern Ireland’s political representatives didn’t have the intelligence or the foresight to even consider such a dramatic move in international air travel with the US or Canada.

A United Airlines flight landing at Belfast Aldergrove in January 2017.

We failed to build a state of the art, 38,000-seater stadium to host a Euro 2028 match as part of a joint-British Isles bid as host nations. One simple plan from 2009 – the “Maze” Stadium. One, multi-purpose sports stadium built in Lisburn – just a few minutes from the M1 motorway and close enough for the construction of a feeder railway line to connect the stadium to Belfast and Dublin – the arena could have hosted Ulster rugby, Antrim GAA and Lisburn Distillery matches one week, the Irish Cup final, Rugby Challenge Cup final and Ulster GAA final the next and a Northern Ireland football match, Irish rugby international the next. Northern Ireland could have hosted some of the biggest sports events of the year – a UEFA Europa League or UEFA Conference League final perhaps or a game in the final rounds of the Rugby Union World Cup.

An architect’s sketch of the once proposed Maze Stadium for use in football, rugby and Gaelic games.

But no – Northern Ireland couldn’t agree on that exciting, ground-breaking prospect – instead, we built a refurbished Kingspan Stadium for Ulster Rugby (18,000), Windsor Park for the IFA and Linfield FC (16,500) which did host the 2021 UEFA Super Cup final and the non-existent Casement Park (capacity to be confirmed) for Antrim and Ulster GAA. Northern Ireland is now betting its hopes to host a EURO 2028 match on a stadium that is yet to be built. Our MLAs at Stormont couldn’t agree on the stadium because of the proposal to build a “Peace and Reconciliation” centre on the site of one of the former “H-Blocks” that existed on the former prison site. As like with the 2022 FIFA World Cup, sports in Northern Ireland usually provokes history and politics.

Arlene Foster at the newly developed Windsor Park.

Northern Ireland needs to get ahead of the game and build for the future – the politicians at Stormont stand in the way of that. Every MLA at Stormont is complicit in legitimising the boycott of responsibility and public office by a minority while taking their salaries to be an MLA. If they had any real sense of leadership or public duty, they would all resign their seats and refuse to nominate a co-option and force the British and Irish governments into knocking their heads together and produce a new way for devolved government to work in Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Assembly hasn’t functioned properly since the DUP refused to nominate a Speaker after the May 2022 election.

Why are you not angry? I know it’s easy to close your eyes and turn off when politics hits you up the face – be the one who stands up to the MLAs not doing their job, the MPs not listening to you and build the future Northern Ireland that you need for that job you always wanted, that home you always dreamed of, that health service you need to stay well, that education system you need to excel in your talents and that broadband, railway, bus, greenway, renewable energy that will make your life better in the future. Why should you leave Northern Ireland to do those things, and leave idiots in charge of Northern Ireland while you leave? Stay here, build here, believe in this small plot of land and get the politicians to come to a clear conclusion: either you listen up and build for the future or find no place in the future!

It’s time for Jeffrey Donaldson, Naomi Long, Doug Beattie, Colum Eastwood and Michelle O’Neill to stand up and do their job – use your power to build the best Northern Ireland can offer!

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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