Stormont stalemate: 541 days on the hill without government

By Jayne McCormack
BBC News NI Political Reporter

Stormont at nightImage source, NurPhoto
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Northern Ireland has been without devolved government since a power-sharing deal between the parties collapsed 19 months ago

Earlier this week as I headed through the doors of Northern Ireland's parliament buildings, a security guard joked with me: "No news for us?"

I replied that I was rather hoping they had some whispers of political gossip for me instead.

Unsurprisingly, things move slower at Stormont these days, after devolved government collapsed more than 500 days ago.

This weekend marks a new date in the history books as it sees Northern Ireland surpass Belgium for the longest period without a government in peacetime (Belgium lasted 541 days in the end).

As we previously reported, the unusual accolade won't break a new Guinness world record because some laws for Northern Ireland can still be passed by Westminster.

That being said, the stalemate means no new laws have been passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly, big decisions are stalled without ministers in place and there's been a total absence of debates in the assembly chamber for 19 months.

Image source, PETER MUHLY
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Stormont is quieter than normal, but there are still daily visits by tourists to the great hall and around Parliament Buildings

At Stormont, the lights are still on - but not everyone is home.

Assembly staff who found themselves without a role when devolution collapsed have been out-posted to other government departments and councils.

And with the 90 politicians mostly confined to their rooms overlooking the hill, or in many cases even preferring to work out of their constituency offices now, it feels like a political ghost town.

But there are still some glimmers of life within the walls of Parliament Buildings.

Despite the lack of law-making, it is still a popular spot for tourists, with up to 1,000 people being escorted through the building each week.

In the great hall, I joined a group of about 50 visitors being greeted by tour guide Simon, who has worked at the assembly for 17 years.

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Visitors from Denmark, America, Germany and parts of the Republic of Ireland lined up to get a tour around Parliament Buildings

While some were surprised to hear Northern Ireland hasn't had a government in more than 500 days, others were well aware of the political problems.

One woman from Wicklow said: "Nineteen months is a long time, for the good of the people they should be trying to come to some sort of arrangement."

While another tourist who plans to make a return visit to Stormont next year joked: "Maybe the next time I come, they'll be back in business."

Eleven-year-old Matthew Moon from Houston, Texas, was one of the day's youngest visitors to Stormont.

While he wasn't up to speed on the political nuances, he said it had changed his opinion that Northern Ireland only had "the Titanic and Game of Thrones".

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The tours take visitors through different parts of the building where they can see first-hand how the assembly works

It's also not just tourists who come through the revolving doors every day: go behind the scenes and it's clear there are still things happening without the MLAs.

Maintaining the estate grounds, the assembly library and the building's various food outlets means there are staff with important jobs to do.

'One giant recess'

For David Lynn, who's been the head of building services for 13 years, the 19-month deadlock has allowed his team to complete an entire refurbishment of the roof.

"We can't make noise in the building while there's business taking place, so it's been a great opportunity to carry out a lot of work we've needed to do," he said.

"The building opened in 1932 so it's not terribly old compared to Westminster, but it's still old in terms of construction.

"Normally, recesses are an opportunity to carry out work in the building we can't do when there's parliamentary business going on, so up until now I've been treating this as one giant recess."

Carrying out repairs to Parliament Buildings is a challenge in itself, but it is going to take much more work to fix the political cracks at Stormont.

Anyone planning a visit in the near future is unlikely to catch a glimpse of a big debate or party press conference under way.

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James Craig was the first prime minister of Northern Ireland - a lifesize bronze statue of him resides in Stormont's great hall

But at least the visitors I met at Stormont departed on their tour buses, having learned a more unusual fact about Northern Ireland's first prime minister, James Craig.

Tour guide Simon revealed that the late politician was "a large man, he was 6ft 7ins".

It could certainly be a tall order to get Stormont up and running again.