When I called in, the ex-leader of the UUP was visibly more relaxed and more openly less cautious in conversation than I had ever experienced.
The weight of trying to lead an at times fractious, wilful and fragmented group in the face of continuous onslaughts from the main Opposition can wear anyone down. As the conversation proceeded he confessed himself disillusioned with devolution and the NI Assembly.
This was quite an admission from an individual who had spent a lifetime in the UUP during the years when, following the imposition of Direct Rule, there had been internal debate over integration, devolution and even independence as a solution to Northern Ireland’s political and security problems.
To my knowledge this individual had never wavered in his preference for devolution and played a role in the Good Friday Agreement that had finally restored devolved structures at Stormont.
I suggested that many of the difficulties, which he identified within the NI Assembly, were maybe due to a number of reasons but principally, that too many of the MLAs had been elected beyond their capabilities. He did not disagree.
We did not get on to moral fibre.
From the current situation that now envelopes devolved governance in crisis and holds decision-makers to public ridicule, it would seen that some aspects and characteristics of the NI Assembly are little changed.
The Fresh Start set against lack of a Budget, and a Programme for Government, alongside the questionable allocation of Social Investment funding and the festering crisis of trust over the renewable heating scheme is beginning to look as if it is about to be derailed.
It doesn’t have to be this way if wise counsel and moral courage to put the common good above all other considerations emerge within the party of the First Minister.
When the First Minister chose to appear on the television to rebut the claims of her erstwhile party colleague Jonathan Bell MLA she put the matter into the public domain and it is there that the matter must now be aired.
Apart from the fact that it was an unwise action given that she had not heard the interview, which Jonathan Bell gave beforehand, her remarks and explanations lacked humility, were unnecessarily combative and defiant and at times incomplete.
Defiance clearly lends itself to a way of not seeing.
The appearance became an undignified race to the bottom where instinct for political survival and the retention of Office are being allowed to overwhelm the issues. It became an unheeding struggle for purely and partisan personal interests.
Abandoning the etiquette and ethics of her Office the First Minister became what she herself would refer to as a ‘ rogue Minister.’
If the interview she gave was on the advice of a SPAD then this goes a long way to explain the poor decision-making and ineptitude at Stormont. Mediocrity is raised to the status of a virtue.
The first duty of the First Minister is to appear before the Assembly and communicate openly and transparently to the electorate and respond to the questions of the elected members.
In view of the accusations made by Jonathan Bell and all of the issues arising she should have announced a Public Inquiry and stepped aside from Office for a set time. Instead the choreographed spin of the DUP and the determination to resist a reasonable and growing desire for accountability gives the impression of damage limitation.
It is not something new to an obdurate DUP where sniping is a matter or course when members come under scrutiny. It is the hallmark of a party that seeks a one-way flow of power and is lacking in any evident ethical and rational compassion for the country it leads. It constantly fails to see the big picture. Appreciation of the common good is missing and this informs what to liberate and what to suppress.
The present scenario is a classic example but this is not a matter that can be addressed within the scrutiny of a Public Accounts process.
Too many pieces do not fit.
With so many opposition parties calling for a Public Inquiry there is the risk of the DUP’s ‘laager mentality’ shaping resistance. Opposition within Stormont has been weak and this is their moment. Let them have it if it results in doing what has to be done.
The calls by Gerry Adams TD will not have had much influence. How can a politician who will not himself divulge sources, has selective recall and speaks of Trojan horses speak of political corruption? The words are delusional and contrived to satisfy an internal agenda.
None of this should be allowed to detract the DUP from steering the right course.
You grow more outside your comfort zone.
There are those within the DUP who must tell the First Minister that she needs to act with conscience and principle. If the aim is to create and maintain accountable government in Northern Ireland that is respected through adherence to high ethical standards of public service, it cannot be achieved through means that frustrate the ends.
Maybe through it all, we can look back to 1998 and realise the future we thought we were choosing.
One former leader of the UUP would probably agree.