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Too often in this place we take too much for granted.

The idea that Stormont can fall to rise again is one such example.

On that bitterly cold winter’s night in January 2020, the parties here did not rescue the political institutions.

It was then Secretary of State Julian Smith and Tanaiste Simon Coveney who produced the compromise document New Decade, New Approach and dared them to reject it.

Julian Smith

Julian Smith

Photographer Kelvin Boyes captured Smith and Coveney in the political dark, just hours before new light on that Stormont hill overlooking Belfast.

Now, it is dark again – the brokenness so obvious and too obvious.

For three years, between January 2017 and January 2020, the pantomime of Stormont was tolerated – the pretence of politics; the patheticness of that parliament.



In negotiations, demands and documents were recycled more times than the yoghurt pots and milk containers in our bins.

The talks became a copy-and-paste type process. Like cogging homework, you can play with the words. I write about this in my new book ‘POLITICAL PURGATORY’.

With their take-it-or-leave-it paper of January 2020, the then Secretary of State and Tanaiste ended the game of ‘clever dictionary’.

This place only functions when the two governments are engaged in joint effort and enterprise. It can’t work on its own. It won’t work on its own.

Look at it now, as it rewinds to past arguments – such as Irish language and North-South meetings – and the poison of politics filters into policing and on to the streets.

Those in politics calling on the Chief Constable Simon Byrne to resign, should have a good look in the mirror before repeating that demand.

Policing is a problem because politics is a bigger problem.



Today, the pandemic is the thread on which the Executive hangs.

Those who shouted loudest for Brexit, now shout louder about their fears for the Union. All of this in the Northern Ireland centenary year.

It is as if the Irish Sea border just happened, rather than it being part of a design and deal agreed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

For all his bluster about the Union and Northern Ireland, Brexit was the higher and highest priority.

Look how he ran into this place to steal a slice of the Smith-Coveney success in January 2020 only to sack the Secretary of State in a Cabinet reshuffle weeks later.

I write in my book that the shallowness of Johnson and the influence of Dominic Cummings were both evident in that decision.

Johnson cares little for this place. His actions speak so much louder than his garbled words.



Those who thought he could be trusted were wrong.

There was a time when the DUP were needed for their votes at Westminster, but not anymore.

If the political whispers become the political reality, that the Executive could fall again, then Stormont will have blown its last chance.

Who wants another negotiation about the Irish language, legacy and North-South bodies? There will be little or no appetite for that.

In this Northern Ireland centenary year, the ‘New Ireland’ arguments get louder. The sea border has created further distance and difference between this place and the rest of the UK.

Brexit, believing in Boris, knowing better than everyone else – were all spectacular own goals.

There were many in the unionist/loyalist community who could see the Johnson play; that Northern Ireland would be thrown under a bus.

That’s the real issue. Everything else is a distraction.

The dictionary definition of purgatory describes a place or state of temporary suffering or misery.

That is this place in a nutshell.

Could the protocol turn our Political Purgatory into Political Hell?


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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process. His latest book (published by Merrion Press) POLITICAL PURGATORY – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland is now available at www.merrionpress.ie


  1. The period 1972-2000 when Northern Ireland had no local Politicians in charge -save for a few months in early 1974-were the best years.Public Expenditure and Modernisation of services by Direct Rule Ministers whilst not perfect was better than what we have seen since.
    Time to face facts-there should be no local Assembly-NI to be governed as if it was like any other part of England-same laws taxes etc-If Dublin wants a role then it must financially contribute-not a small amount but billions of Euro a year-might give them a taste of what the future could look like
    If people want to leave UK for Unity State then they can vote for it-though the advocates for this would need to put forward a costed plan-something they have yet to do
    Finally as Mr Rowan says local media should boycott any future crisis talks to revive a dead Assembly and give local politicians illusions of relevance
    Local Assembly is over stop forcing politicians who fundamentally disagree to work together-that failed strategy has got us to where we are today

  2. If Stormont collapses again, just stick a fork in it… but what should happen next? A few ideas;

    – dissolve the Assembly permanently and turn Parliament Buildings into a hotel and golf course

    – integrate NI completely into the United Kingdom by amending the Acts of Union

    – give the province it’s full proportional compliment of MP’s at Westminster (around 30+)

    – repeal wholesale the Good Friday Agreement and all its institutions

    – have an ‘Ulster votes for Ulster laws’ mechanism at Westminster to preserve some semblance of democracy

    – have a NI Secretary of State who actually comes from NI and understands the place and its people

    – put the future of the Protocol to a referendum of the NI people and abide by the decision

    – tell Dublin to get stuffed with regards any consultation in the affairs of NI

    Of course, if they’d taken that approach a century ago, just maybe we all could have been saved a lot of troubles (in all senses!), alas…

  3. Gerry Mander on

    The current system at Stormont is the very definition of insanity… the same broken system reinstated over and over again and expecting a different and better result!

    Neither is a reinstatement of Direct Rule (an utterly iniquitous system of governance) nor full integration into the UK the answer to the continued political paralysis and dysfunction in the governance of NI…. the answer is and always was clear; a unitary Ireland with a written Constitution protecting the rights of all as a whole (without succumbing to identity politics) and a bicameral legislature elected on proportional representation so everyone has both a voice and a stake in the nation… unlike now, where we in NI can’t even vote for parties that rule us at Westminster!

    I come from a staunchly Unionist family, and I’ve wrestled with the constitutional question a long time. I’ve equivocated, wavered, questioned, and went back and forth many times… and it always comes back to only one logical, viable solution; if partition had not happened and Ireland as a whole had been granted independence with Dominion status in 1922. We likely would have taken a short-term hit in economic terms but long-term we would have had a peaceful and prosperous unitary nation state increasingly at ease with itself, with good relations between it and the ‘mother country’, no 30-year bloodbath as happened, no continued political deadlock and dysfunction, and no paramilitary leeches to suck the life out of their communities.

    Was it an unrealistic prospect a century ago? Probably, but that doesn’t make it any less right. I have no problem with being called Irish, no problem with the Irish language, no problem with the Tricolour, and certainly no problem leaving a nation that has been continually trying to put us at the end of a (very) long finger from the moment they roped us into the Union for entirely short-term reasons over two centuries ago.

    Stormont is likely broken beyond any repair, but that’s because it’s built on an inherently unstable and unworkable premise whose roots lie in the way NI was created in the first place… the only way to solve the problem is to tear those roots out.

    How we do that without causing a northern civil war is anyone’s guess… dear God, what a mess we’ve made of this little place…

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