Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland politics review of 2013

Attempts to disrupt Belfast city centre bookended 2013.

In January, the loyalist campaign of protest against Belfast City Council's vote to limit the flying of the union flag to designated days only was still at its height.

By December, attempts by dissident republicans to disrupt pre-Christmas trade captured the headlines.

In one shocking incident, a man set himself alight, apparently when a firebomb he intended to plant detonated prematurely.

From left to right: Vladimir Putin, David Cameron and Barack Obama wave for the cameras
The G8 summit in Fermanagh was acknowledged as the most peaceful in recent years

However, those seeking to cause disruption did not have matters all their own way. Fermanagh played host to what was commonly acknowledged to have been the most peaceful gathering of G8 leaders in recent years - an event quite unthinkable during the Troubles.

In Belfast's Waterfront Hall, the US president. Barack Obama, told 2,000 school pupils that the terms of peace might be negotiated by political leaders, but the fate of the peace process was up to everyone, young and old.

Meanwhile, Londonderry spent the year basking in its status as UK City of Culture. Early fears that Irish republican qualms about the city of culture's "UK" label would overshadow the year receded once the extraordinary procession of events, such as a musical hot air balloon overflight, a lumière lighting up the city, and the massive fleadh cheoil Irish folk festival got under way.

With no general elections to fight, 2013 might have been a year during which relationships between the main Stormont parties eased, enabling the power-sharing executive to make progress on a number of fronts.

In reality, the tensions raised by the Belfast union flag dispute prevented any mid-term détente, making it impossible to bridge policy gaps on outstanding issues like welfare reform.

Under pressure from the Northern Ireland Office and Downing Street, the first and deputy first ministers did make an ambitious sounding declaration - setting 2023 as their target date for bringing down Belfast's peace walls.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness also announced plans for new shared education campuses, and schemes intended to bring young Protestants and Catholics together in work placements or summer camps.

President waves to audience
US President Barack Obama addressed an audience of 2,000 schoolchildren in the Waterfront Hall

The payback from London came with confirmation that the G8 summit would take place in Northern Ireland and a package of financial assistance to the executive as they sought to provide prosperity and stability.

However, the big prize Stormont politicians still pursue, the devolution of corporation tax, was not forthcoming as the Treasury chose to delay any decision until after the Scottish independence referendum.

Even as they announced their 10-year target for bringing down the peace walls, the first and deputy first ministers acknowledged they had not been able to resolve the "tough issues": flags, parades and the past. They needed help from a neutral arbiter, so approached the respected former US envoy, Dr Richard Haass.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness
Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness had to hide their disagreements during a visit to New York

Before Dr Haass had a chance to start work, relations between Northern Ireland's leaders hit a new low.

During the summer, there were renewed tensions over Orange Order and other parades in Belfast, and a Sinn Féin commemoration for dead republicans in Castlederg, County Tyrone.

In a letter from his holiday home in Florida, Mr Robinson put on hold the executive's prestige Maze Peace Centre project. The decision infuriated Mr McGuinness and made for an awkward week in New York as the two politicians lobbied together for fresh investment, trying their best to hide their obvious disagreements.

For the Ulster Unionists, the DUP decision to halt the Maze centre was a cause for celebration. They had campaigned against the centre as a potential "shrine" to the IRA, and their leader, Mike Nesbitt, began his annual conference speech with a picture of the Maze behind his podium, just to drive home his tactical victory.

The hard line taken by the Ulster Unionists on the Maze followed the loss of two of their most liberal assembly members.

Basil McCrea and John McCallister opposed their party's decision to support a unionist unity candidate in a Westminster by-election in Mid Ulster in March. Sinn Féin's Francie Molloy won the election, replacing Mr McGuinness as an abstentionist MP.

John McCallister and Basil McCrea have launched a new party
John McCallister and Basil McCrea launched a new party, NI21

The articulate duo of McCrea and McCallister formed a new liberal unionist party, called NI21.

NI21 are new arrivals - the Traditional Unionists have been around a bit longer. 2013 was a good year for the TUV leader Jim Allister, who succeeded in getting his Special Advisers Bill passed.

Prompted by the outcry over the appointment of a Sinn Féin adviser convicted for her part in the murder of magistrate's daughter Mary Travers, the bill prevented anyone with such a serious conviction getting a similar job.

Mr Allister also impressed in his cross-examination of the DUP Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland who faced questions about his handling of some Housing Executive contracts.

Both the SDLP and the DUP promoted some younger faces during 2013.

The DUP replaced its East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson with its Strangford MLA Simon Hamilton at the finance department. Whether Mr Wilson decides to give up his Westminster seat or his Stormont post in 2015 will be an interesting pointer not just to the future of the DUP but also where senior politicians believe the centre of gravity now lies.

The SDLP replaced their environment minister Alex Attwood with one of their Foyle MLAs, Mark Durkan, nephew of the party's MP of the same name. The young minister proved his mettle when he withdrew a major planning bill rather than allow the DUP and Sinn Féin to graft on major amendments that he opposed.

However, the most unexpected development, so far as the SDLP was concerned, was not Mr Durkan's promotion, but the dramatic fall from public life of a man widely predicted to be a future party leader.

When the BBC initially questioned Conall McDevitt about using his wife's firm for assembly research, the matter seemed a little local difficulty. But when it emerged that Mr McDevitt had also not disclosed some earnings from a public relations firm at the outset of his career in the assembly, the South Belfast MLA decided he had no option but to quit politics entirely.

The economy and traditional green/orange concerns dominated Stormont proceedings. But the politics of health and morality also drew considerable attention.

Health Minister Edwin Poots of the DUP faced criticism over plans to close care homes for the elderly. He also found himself centre stage after losing a court case challenging his policy preventing blood donations from gay men.

Conall McDevitt
Conall McDevitt, who was tipped as a future SDLP leader, quit politics in 2013

Then there was his department's delay in issuing new abortion guidelines - and the legal confusion highlighted by cases of pregnant women having to travel to England for terminations even though they had been advised their baby had no chance of survival.

The issue posed challenges not just for Mr Poots but also for the Alliance Justice Minister David Ford, who announced his desire to consult on changes to the abortion law.

Another moral matter that involved both Mr Ford and the DUP was human trafficking and prostitution. DUP peer Lord Morrow is keen on introducing a Swedish-style ban on paying for sexual services, but Mr Ford remains unconvinced.

The Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams might no longer sit in the assembly, but his name continued to feature strongly in Stormont exchanges.

Gerry Adams
Gerry Adams faced criticism on a number of issues during the year

Many of these concentrated on the conviction of Mr Adams' brother Liam for the rape and abuse of his daughter Aine. Unionist MLAs accused Mr Adams of not doing enough to report his brother's abuse - a claim he strongly denied.

Mr Adams also faced criticism of his alleged involvement in the IRA's abduction and murder of one of the Disappeared, Jean McConville, and his comments about the "laissez faire" attitude of two RUC officers whose deaths were investigated by the Smithwick tribunal.

The publication of the Smithwick report and the broadcast of a powerful BBC/RTE documentary on the families of the Disappeared served as a reminder of the darkest days of the Troubles.

Those memories were also on display in their most raw sense as survivors and the relatives of victims marked the 10th anniversaries of the IRA's Shankill bomb and the UFF Greysteel shooting.

When Dr Haass started his work in earnest in September, most commentators believed he and his co-chair Meghan O'Sullivan might make progress on two items on their agenda, flags and parades.

Architecture

However, dealing with the past seemed too traumatic and too complex. That impression was strengthened by the furore that followed a suggestion from the Attorney General, John Larkin, that Troubles prosecutions should be brought to an end.

Yet as 2013 came to a close, a surprise appeared in store. Stormont politicians remained deadlocked over flag flying. But there seemed to be more agreement on replacing the much criticised Parades Commission and designing an entirely new architecture to deal with the past.

The Haass blueprint brought together several different agencies tackling aspects of the past into a single 'Historical Investigations Unit'. Alongside the unit an 'Independent Commission for Information Retrieval' would have the power, when a victims' family gave the go ahead, to offer limited immunity to anyone who came forward with information that might answer the family's questions.

However, despite many gruelling hours of negotiations the US talks team were not able to broker a compromise. Both Sinn Féin and the SDLP indicated they would back the Haass proposals but unionists remained concerned about a new code of conduct on parades and the proposed examination of broad themes related to the Troubles such as collusion.

Dr Haass hoped his proposals would eventually gain acceptance, but he boarded his plane home to New York without the New Year's Eve peace deal he must have really wanted to achieve.