Page last updated at 11:01 GMT, Thursday, 1 January 2009

Paisley cast big shadow over 2008

Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley

By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

For decades in opposition and a memorable year in power, Ian Paisley Senior loomed over the Northern Ireland political scene like a unionist colossus.

2008 will be remembered as the year he finally stepped down as DUP leader.

Did he jump or was he pushed? The historians can debate that one.

But there's no getting away from the fact that DUP backbenchers grew increasingly impatient of the "Chuckle Brothers" relationship between the Big Man and Martin McGuinness, and the constant press reports about the activities of his son and Junior Minister, Ian Paisley Jr.

Although the Stormont Ombudsman subsequently ruled there was no evidence to suggest Ian Paisley Jr broke Assembly rules, by the end of May both he and his father had stepped down from their ministerial roles.

The new partnership did not get off to the best of starts

The common joke is that the "Chuckle Brothers" have been replaced by the "Brothers Grimm".

Martin McGuinness insists his personal relationship with Peter Robinson is good.

However, the new partnership did not get off to the best of starts.

Sinn Féin sources let it be known the party might not put Mr McGuinness's name forward again as deputy first minister unless the DUP gave them a commitment to a date for the devolution of justice.

Sinn Féin's refusal to re-nominate would have scuppered Mr Robinson's ascension to the first minister's job.

After a period of apparent quiescence, Gerry Adams seemed to be an influential mover in this drama as he made his way into Downing Street through a back door.

Aided by the personal intervention of Gordon Brown, the transition went ahead and Mr Robinson moved in to Stormont Castle.

The public attitude to the politicians appeared to be "a plague on all their houses" and, during the 150 days, the image of devolution took a nosedive

However, the wrangle over the devolution of justice festered, leading to a 150-day stand off during which the Ministerial Executive failed to meet.

Devolving justice is an important principle to republicans as the deal they sold to their extraordinary Ard Fheis back in January 2007 had essentially been to support the police on the proviso that they would soon be answerable to a justice minister from the island of Ireland.

However, as the stand-off continued many ordinary voters didn't appreciate that this concern should take priority over other pressing social and economic matters.

The public attitude to the politicians appeared to be "a plague on all their houses" and, during the 150 days, the image of devolution took a nosedive.

In November, the DUP and Sinn Féin reached an agreement which lifted the blockade on Executive meetings.

The deal involved the eventual appointment of a justice minister by a cross-community vote in the Assembly. Both the two big parties would count themselves out from applying for the job.

Finance Minister Nigel Dodds made a pre-Christmas "Santa statement"

This has led to speculation that an Alliance candidate will be appointed, although the first and deputy first ministers say the SDLP or Ulster Unionists shouldn't be ruled out.

No date for the appointment has been announced, but a process was agreed which some Stormont sources reckon will take months, not years.

Once the stand-off ended, the Executive wanted to convince voters it was getting back to business.

Announcements followed on the deferral of water charges, investment in a Titanic Quarter Signature Project and a green light for Belfast's Rapid Transit system, a bus operating on dedicated routes.

Finance Minister Nigel Dodds made a pre-Christmas "Santa statement" which adopted Margaret Ritchie's proposal for a fuel poverty credit, extending it to 100,000 vulnerable households.

However, relations between ministers weren't marked by a seasonal outbreak of peace and goodwill.

During the Sinn Féin-inspired break in Executive meetings, the SDLP minister had appeared alongside her unionist colleagues.

But in December, Margaret Ritchie's relationship with both the DUP and Sinn Fein hit a low point as she accused Finance Minister Nigel Dodds of raiding her social development budget to pay for other priorities.

The invective traded between the SDLP minister and Peter Robinson stirred memories of their 2007 clash over a UDA-linked conflict transformation initiative.

As the credit crunch began to bite, securing investment from the USA or anywhere else became harder to achieve

The fuel poverty credit was part of the Executive's response to the economic downturn.

In May, the Executive organised a big investment conference at Stormont to celebrate a year since the restoration of devolution.

Addressed by Gordon Brown and the New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, at the time the conference generated a buzz.

A short time later, the US President George Bush paid Stormont a flying visit.

But as the credit crunch began to bite, securing investment from the USA or anywhere else became harder to achieve whilst protecting existing jobs seemed an uphill task.

Looking ahead, the local parties are preparing for next June's European elections and the possibility of an early Westminster election.

The DUP has been sensitive to the challenge posed by the anti-power sharing MEP Jim Allister.

His Traditional Unionist Voice polled well in a council by-election in Dromore in February and there's speculation that the DUP would like to field a "big gun" to try to ensure they retake their Euro seat with a handsome margin.

The DUP reckons the new force could cost unionists Westminster seats if they contest every constituency rather than agreeing a voting pact
The UUP benefited from the TUV-DUP battle in Dromore but were unable to dent the DUP minister Arlene Foster who took the unusual step of contesting another council by-election in Enniskillen in September.

However, the Ulster Unionists did pull off a coup of sorts when they attracted the Conservative leader David Cameron as their keynote speaker at the UUP conference in December.

Mr Cameron's appearance put the seal on a revived partnership between his party and the Ulster Unionists.

The two parties plan to field a joint candidate in the European poll. The partners claim they are trying to build a new political force which will appeal across the traditional divide.

However, the DUP reckons the new force could cost unionists Westminster seats if they contest every constituency rather than agreeing a voting pact.

The Conservatives' decision to link up with the UUP followed the DUP's decision to support Labour over the proposed 42-day detention of terror suspects.

Controversial comments by the Strangford DUP MP Iris Robinson about the gay community may also have helped convince the Tories that the Ulster Unionists were the people to do business with.

With Fianna Fáil beginning to extend its grassroots organisation in south Armagh, the UUP-Conservative experiment will prove an interesting test of the contention that, ten years on from the Good Friday Agreement, the nature of local politics is bound to change.

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