Page last updated at 09:23 GMT, Saturday, 2 August 2008 10:23 UK

Tension mounts as backlog builds

By Martina Purdy
BBC NI political correspondent

Tex Ritter
Tex Ritter's rendition of High Noon could be the assembly anthem

Stormont is a bit of a ghost-town these days, although if you wait around long enough, you might see a few familiar faces.

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister, is beavering away in the Office of First and Deputy First Minister as is Jeffrey Donaldson the DUP junior minister.

But amid the silence of the Great Hall, one can almost imagine the clock above the chamber striking high noon, Tex Ritter's plantive melody, "Do not forsake me, oh my darling," and the protagonists strutting in, ready to do battle.

While there's no tumbleweed, which memorably flew about in the famous 1953 Western, there has been a flurry of press statements.

They were coming in thick and fast last weekend.

The latest DUP missive - rebuffing an invitation from Dublin to join a parliamentary committee on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement - is bound to inflame Sinn Fein as well as Dublin and the SDLP.

At Stormont, the tension has been mounting for some time as the backlog of work builds up.

Yet, it is clear that any high noon showdown will have to wait.

McGuinness and Donaldson don't seem to fit the bill these days of sworn enemies, a la Gary Cooper and Lee Van Cleef.

So the real confrontation, if it happens, requires the return of Peter Robinson and Gerry Adams from their summer break.

In fact, they seem to get along just fine and appear committed to carrying on with power-sharing.

So the real confrontation, if it happens, requires the return of Peter Robinson and Gerry Adams from their summer break.

What will their mood be when they come back?

Is this calm at Stormont a mere lull before the storm - or is all this talk of crisis just a storm in a Stormont teacup.

Certainly, when I bumped into one senior Sinn Fein figure at Stormont the other day, he was having none of my questions about there being a crisis.

He just shook his head and declared: "Do you know who I blame?"

I could have guessed he wouldn't say the DUP, but I let him go on.

"I blame the media."

So, it's all the media's fault - although I might have pointed out that the media is only reporting the comments of his party leader who likes to use words such as "meltdown."

At least the guns are out of the equation.

Indeed the weapon of choice seems to be the implied threat of an election.

While some MLAs are worried, many are convinced Sinn Fein is bluffing about pulling the plug as the party has no great appetite for an election.


While some MLAs are worried, many are convinced Sinn Fein is bluffing about pulling the plug as the party has no great appetite for an election.


One sign that the DUP and Sinn Fein may be heading for compromise is junior minister Gerry Kelly's apparent shift last weekend when, during an interview for Inside, he said his party was open to discussing the possibility of an Alliance justice minister elected on a cross-community vote.

That is certainly different from his remarks a few years back about his party not colluding in its own exclusion.

Despite deadlock over the Maze, education reform, and the Irish language, to name a few, there seems to be a certain underlying confidence in some quarters that all will be well.

One seasoned hack declared privately this week: "Sure, you know how it will go. We'll be stuck up there for two nights at Stormont and then it will all blow over."

Indeed, Sir Reg Empey says he expects the prime minister to hold talks in September.

Another reporter - half joking - suggested some days ago that the DUP and Sinn Fein were having a sham fight for Gordon Brown to see what they can get out of him.

While this is perhaps a bit far-fetched, the two parties are no doubt attempting to draw advantage from their disagreement as they are summoned to Downing Street and talks with the prime minister.

Some insiders are, in the meantime, trying to read Sinn Fein.

Is there a disagreement at the top over strategy? Is Gerry Adams asserting his authority?

Those who respond positively to this question suggest Gerry Adams wants to rattle the DUP cage.

Mr Adams insists he is standing up for equality - Nigel Dodds insists this is code for the Sinn Fein president wanting his own way.

Has Sinn Fein already decided how this is going to play? Or are they keeping their options open?

Sir Reg Empey, speaking on Inside Politics, says Stormont is heading for compromise.

"I don't think we are in a 'crisis, crisis'," is how he put it.

We will known soon enough - perhaps by noon 18 September when the executive is due to meet.



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