Northern Ireland politics: An A-Z of a busy 2017

By Gareth Gordon
BBC News NI Political Correspondent

Image source, Reuters/AFP/Press Eye/Pacemaker/PA

From Stormont's collapse in January, to talks, talks and more talks - it's been a busy political year even by Northern Ireland's standards.

Here's an alphabetical rundown of some of the stories that made headlines in 2017.

A is for Assembly

Last seen in the vicinity of Stormont on 24 January (if you discount 13 March when 90 newly-elected MLAs signed in).

If anyone knows of its whereabouts, would they please contact: J Brokenshire, care of Stormont House, Stormont Estate, Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast, BT4 3SH.

B is for Border

Nationalists and republicans who don't want a border across the middle of Ireland say Brexit will mean we've got one; unionists, who've always wanted a border, say after Brexit we won't have one.

This Brexit business can be confusing. Never has something so frictionless led to so much friction.

C is for Crocodile

Another run-of-the-mill election campaign launch was winding down when one last question was invited from an otherwise underwhelmed press corps.

As everything else had been covered, the journalist took a punt on the Irish Language Act.

Image caption,
Arlene Foster and Gerry Adams made headlines with their snappy exchange

To his, and our, great surprise, Arlene Foster bit - hard - just like the aforesaid crocodile might have done, by saying she would never agree to such an act.

She added the immortal line: "If you feed a crocodile, they're going to keep coming back and looking for more."

In response Gerry Adams said: "See you later, alligator." Never bite the hand that feeds you your election slogan.....

D is for Dinosaurs

The bigger you are, the more people want to take a pop.

One of the (un)kinder things said about the DUP in the wake of their blockbusting £1bn deal to save the Tories was a barb from Green Party leader Caroline Lucas in the House of Commons.

She called them "dinosaurs" - meaning, according to the dictionary, "a person or thing that is outdated or has become obsolete because of failure to adapt to changing circumstances", as opposed to the other kind which roamed the earth several billion years ago.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson took exception and complained that such language was "unparliamentary".

E is for Election(s)

In keeping with the crocodile theme, we had two snap elections.

Image source, Getty/Press Eye
Image caption,
Spot the difference: The DUP and its leader had a disappointing assembly election (left) but bounced back in the Westminster election (right)

In the first - for the Assembly in what may or may not have been at least a partially crocodile-linked self-harming incident - the republican/nationalist vote was sufficiently motivated to inflict grievous injuries on unionists who, for the first time in Stormont's history, lost their overall majority.

In the second - June's general election - a badly-wounded unionist electorate retaliated and handed the DUP a record toll of 10 MPs and the balance of power at Westminster.

F is for Foster

The story of the DUP leader's year is largely the story of those two elections. Then there's:

  • The fall of the executive
  • The loss of her cherished position as first minister
  • Sinn Féin demands for her to step aside
  • Claims about her competence
  • Claims from her that she was the victim of misogyny
  • And, finally, her emergence after the general election as arguably the second most important female politician in the UK bolted on either side

G is for 'Glide Path'

In his limpet-like refusal to use the words "direct" and "rule" consecutively in case anyone would actually think the Westminster government was contemplating pulling the Stormont plug, the Northern Ireland Secretary came up with a new favourite phrase to talk about the future.

Image caption,
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's one of James Brokenshire's favourite phrases

He said that Northern Ireland was on a "glide path" to government intervention.

In fact, he liked it so much he used it over and over and over, like a plane circling the runway - ugh, it's catching...

H is for Holiday

Everyone needs a good break and DUP MP Ian Paisley allegedly got two of them, all expenses paid.

The holidays for he and his family - worth a cool £100,000 - came from the Sri Lankan government, according to the Daily Telegraph, which splashed the story all over its front page.

On Twitter he said the story was "devoid of fact or logic".

The Parliamentary Standards Commissioner is investigating.

I is for Irish Language Act (see also 'C is for Crocodile')

It is doubtful that this would have become the most important red line in Sinn Féin's list of demands for the restoration of devolution before Arlene Foster helped make it so with her vehement rejection of the idea.

Image caption,
The Irish Language Act has become one of Northern Ireland's biggest political issues

But, over the past year, it has come to symbolise the party's rights and respect agenda to the extent that Gerry Adams said that without an Irish Language Act there would be no return of the Assembly.

J is for James

The most criticised secretary of state, at least since the last one, James Brokenshire plods on along his glide path, seemingly impervious to the slings and arrows coming his way from those who know how they would do it differently if only those people in the DUP and Sinn Fein would listen etc.

It has to be said, however, that with each ministerial sacking or resignation, it becomes more apparent there may be worse things than being a safe pair of hands who can talk all day without giving those pesky journos anything to bite on.

K is for Kilclooney

A late convert to Twitter, the former Ulster Unionist Stormont minister and MP John Taylor has taken to it with relish.

Image caption,
Lord Kilclooney made the headlines with his comments on Twitter

The man who once said he wouldn't touch the then unfinished Good Friday Agreement with a 40-foot bargepole touches his keyboard at regular intervals - to the annoyance of many.

His most memorable moment was referring to Taoiseach (Irish PM) Leo Varadkar as "the Indian".

L is for Laird

One of our most "colourful" peers - the man who, as chairman of the Ulster-Scots Agency, once spent hundreds of pounds of public money taking taxis by claiming his practice of wearing a kilt to official functions was a security issue and drew attention to him - was back in the news.

This time, he said his conscience was clear about claiming almost £50,000 in expenses despite only voting twice in the House of Lords last year.

The former Ulster Unionist peer said his frail health meant his office was too far away to attend each vote.

M is for McGuinness

His final political act was to resign as deputy first minister in January. What we didn't know then was that he would not live to see the spring.

His funeral was attended by the great and the good, including former US President Bill Clinton. And it featured a temporary thaw in relations between Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill, with that handshake between the two.

He leaves an enormous hole for Sinn Féin to fill.

Image caption,
This handshake between Michelle O'Neill and Arlene Foster during Martin McGuinness' funeral offered brief, as yet unfulfilled, hope for Stormont's future

N is for Nesbitt

Former Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt endured a year marked by two big falls.

One saw him resign in the middle of an election count, after the party lost six seats in the Assembly election.

Fall number two saw him splashed across myriad news outlets after being photographed face down in the carpet of the Stormont Hotel in an event since described as "a bit of banter".

O is for O'Neill

When Martin McGuinness had to stand aside, Michelle O'Neill was perhaps a surprising choice to replace him.

Maybe we should have seen it coming. After all, Sinn Féin chose her for one of the most difficult jobs in the last executive - that of health minister.

Image source, Pacemaker
Image caption,
Michelle O'Neill was chosen to replace Martin McGuinness as Sinn Féin's leader in Northern Ireland

Her critics dismissed her as a puppet of Gerry Adams; others have lampooned her for talking too fast; and Arlene Foster used the word "blonde" to describe her in a word-association game for a Dublin Sunday newspaper.

It sometimes can appear as if she is heavily scripted, but she has left no hostages to fortune.

P is for Pay

MLA salaries are to be cut by a third. Well, they are if James Brokenshire agrees with the advice he's been given.

In other words, nothing may happen fast and the Northern Ireland secretary is going to consider the matter "carefully". That's the least surprising thing we'll ever hear.

Q is for Quitting

Gerry Adams announced he will stand down as Sinn Féin president after 34 years. It possibly clears the way for a run for the Irish presidency next year.

But, an even more interesting question is how his departure will effect the party's fortunes at the polls?

R is for Ruane

There is a time for everything and for everything there is a time - including a time to resign. And if you're a former Sinn Féin minister then quitting a few hours after Jim Allister calls on you go is undoubtedly not it.

For seven months after an election in which she didn't even stand, Caitriona Ruane continued to draw her £55,000 salary as principal deputy speaker in an Assembly that never sat.

She says she gave the money to an LGBT group and organisation for the elderly, among others. Enter the TUV leader calling for her to resign; Sinn Féin responded not by slamming Mr Allister but by saying any arrangements she made with the Assembly were her own affair.

And 20 minutes later, Ms Ruane said she had come to the conclusion that "now is the time to tender my resignation". If only she'd done it a day earlier...

S is for Shithole

One moment, Bangor is revelling in its reputation as the capital of Northern Ireland's Gold Coast - the next it is dismissed as a "shithole" by the former Sinn Féin Mayor of Newry, Mourne and Down District Council Naomi Bailie.

Image source, Rossographer/CC Geograph
Image caption,
Bangor: Not universally popular

She took to Facebook after witnessing a junior Orange parade during a visit to the town and said: "I will never in my life again go near that shithole that is Bangor."

You know how this ends - yes, she apologised.

T is for Transparency

The government moved to finally publish the names of donors to Northern Ireland's political parties. The problem was, it was only backdated to 1 July 2017, and not January 2014 as the Electoral Commission, among others, wanted.

Labour narrowly failed to block the legislation, claiming the Conservatives were protecting the DUP over the £435,000 donation it received from the Constitutional Research Council during the EU referendum.

U is for Union

It's either been copper-fastened by Brexit, or it's under threat like never before.

"Vote for the Union" was the DUP slogan at the general election and it worked. At least it did after an Assembly election in which unionists lost their overall majority at Stormont for the first time ever.

V is for Varadkar

One thing you can say about the Republic's first openly gay Taoiseach is that he's no Enda Kenny.

Image caption,
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has made a major impact in his first few months in office

Determined to make a big impression from the get-go, he attended an event at the Belfast Pride festival and then upset unionists (and large swathes of the Tory press) by threatening to block the Brexit talks from moving to the second phase unless he got a written guarantee from the UK that there would be no hard border.

He was called an Indian on Twitter by the former Ulster Unionist Peer Lord Kilclooney (see K) and a cowboy by DUP MP Sammy Wilson (to be precise he and his Tánaiste Simon Coveney were called "a pair of cowboys").

W is for Westminster

More and more, the Houses of parliament are is the centre of our political world, in the absence of a functioning executive at Stormont.

X is for 'X marks the spot'

After one snap Westminster election, could we be in for another in the new year? It would require the government to be defeated in a confidence vote. Unlikely, but these are strange times...

Y is for Yates

Former Fine Gael TD Ivan Yates wouldn't normally feature in our end-of-year round-up. But the now radio host qualifies after ventilating his dislike of "Nordies" (that's people from Northern Ireland, just in case you're unaware).

He wasn't partisan about it either. Both sides qualified when he said: "They are still caught in this time warp between the tricolour and Union Jack." Shocking, we know.

Z is for Zero

That's how many Westminster seats the Ulster Unionists and SDLP have between them after June's snap election.