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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 September 2006, 17:42 GMT 18:42 UK
DUP miss partner for political dance
Martina Purdy
By Martina Purdy
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent

In the 1960s, at the height of his success, acclaimed author Truman Capote threw a glittering black and white ball at New York's Plaza Hotel to celebrate his good fortune.

Every detail of the gala was carefully planned as its nervous host attempted to dazzle America's elite.

On the night of the ball, a few hours into the evening, someone reputedly enquired whether the party had been a success only to be told it was too early to tell.

History at such events, said the man, was only made after midnight.

Stormont
The DUP missed serious opposition in Stormont debate

As the Assembly Speaker sat in her own black and white suit for day two of this week's economic debate, observing Peter Robinson in his monochrone suit, might she have wondered about her role in the drama being played out at Stormont?

Was this event going to be a flop before midnight - or was history still to be made? How could the Assembly possibly fail given the feverish efforts aimed at making it a success?

The debate was, after all, held in the grand setting of Parliament Buildings, with its elegant walnut panelled chamber.

The members had turned up with polished speeches and hopes of showing off withering debating skills, wit and wisdom.

There was even some mild political flirting between the Speaker, Eileen Bell, and the DUP's William McCrea.

When she interrupted his impassioned speech to ask if his remarks were being addressed through her, Mr McCrea dramatically declared to much mirth: "Madam Speaker, I would not want to bypass you in any shape or form."

Toe-rag question

And there was even at the outset a lesson in etiquette from the Speaker.

She pointedly informed members that if they intended to criticise any elected member from another chamber they must only refer to their job title, and not their name.

This, she advised, would ensure that the criticism was not personalised.

Ian Paisley Jr, as incredulous as his father beside him, interjected.

Eileen Bell
Bye-play between Eileen Bell and William McCrea caused some mirth

He asked with mock innocence if this meant that members "could then describe the secretary of state as an unhelpful toe-rag but could not say that Peter Hain was an unhelpful toe-rag?"

As for Mr McCrea he was not alone in his party in delivering a polished and amusing performance.

Sammy Wilson, and Peter Robinson were also among those who made heroic efforts to entertain.

Indeed, Ian Paisley roared with laughter when Peter Robinson teased his DUP colleague Nigel Dodds about the fact that Mr Dodds was not there to hear his wife, Diane deliver her maiden speech.

"I don't want to fuel any domestic difficulties," said Mr Robinson," but I was here for my wife's maiden speech."

On a more serious note, Mr Robinson went on to condemn the "missing members".

And there lies the crux of the DUP's problem: it had no serious dance partner with which to share its enthusiasm.

Indeed, what was so striking about the end of the debate was the DUP's leadership's presence opposite rows and rows of empty Sinn Fein benches.

The DUP leader Ian Paisley, his deputy, Peter Robinson as well as MPs Nigel Dodds and William McCrea were front and centre and were the only leadership team there for the vote.

The message seemed clear: the DUP leadership are the ones who care most about the success of the assembly in its present form.

Aside from a sprinkling of Ulster Unionist backbenchers, the debate closed with just four members of the SDLP present, all looking rather bored, the party leader Mark Durkan having bowed out rather glumly moments earlier.

Empty benches

The DUP might have been grateful for the SDLP's indulgence to ensure the debate could take place, but it is often those who don't turn up that get the most notice.

And in this case, several DUP members lamented Sinn Fein's absence.

Without Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and their team the debate seemed flatter, weaker, and rather more pointless.

Sinn Fein members had left their benches empty while they attended their own party meeting: a brainstorming session on how to build momentum in the run up to 24 November.

Perhaps, after midnight on that date, real history will be made. But few harbour any real hopes of an historic accommodation between Sinn Fein and the DUP.

Rather most believe that far from the glittering success of Capote's ball, this assembly is doomed, destined to leave those who care most about it with a rather long and painful hangover.


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