A moment to savour for Sinn Fein

By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)

It was a very relaxed and smiling Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness who rested their elbows on the assembly Speaker’s dais as they waved to spectators in the gallery and watched the inevitable unfolding as the vast majority of MLAs trooped through the assembly lobby in support of the transfer of policing and justice powers to the north’s executive.

Both men were entitled to savour the moment as they reflected on the years it had taken to get to this crucial juncture and to get there amazingly in partnership with the DUP - a party that had made its name campaigning to smash Sinn Fein.

Ian Paisley snr, Martin McGuinness and junior minister Gerry Kelly had keenly taken their seats in the chamber early, ahead of all the other MLAs, for the start of one of the most important debates to be had in the assembly’s short history. Placed out in front of Paisley snr was what looked like a Bible. It may not have been but in times past he has said he takes his Bible with him everywhere and reads it for guidance.

He carefully selected a page and there it remained opened for quite some time.

I wondered was he seeking Biblical direction even at this late hour as he pondered what his party was about to agree to supporting the transfer of policing powers with Sinn Fein. He needed little direction to sit beside his new leader Peter Robinson which he pointedly did for most of the three-hour debate to occupy the empty space that other senior DUP figures studiously avoided taking up. This was a tough call - a job for the old guard, for the Paisley/Robinson joint leadership that led the DUP for most of its 40 years.

Paisley now a lively octogenarian and Robinson a less troubled looking middle-aged figure, despite his recent personal difficulties.

This was clearly an awkward moment for some in the DUP although 33 of their MLAs backed the transfer motion.

Not so for the pretender to Paisley snr’s North Antrim throne - his son lan Og.

Fresh from being declared the heir apparent by the DUP the normally flippant, brash ‘jack-the lad’ spoke in an emotional and nervous voice as he appealed for unanimity for the motion in the hope of sending a message that would “unite this divided country” - the six counties that is, not this island.

But nonetheless it was an unseen and quality side to a politician who, with the surname Paisley. could be around Irish politics lor another 40 ye41’S il he has his lather’s longevity.

If it was difficult for the DUP then so too for Sinn Fein as John O’Dowd - one of Sinn Fein’s most able debaters and parliamentarians - made clear, surrounded as he was by at least to Sinn Fein MLAs who are former political prisoners with first hand experience of the war-style policing of the RUC and justice system.

Some in the DUP could not refrain from lapsing into their old ways by reassuring their voters that Sinn Fein would never hold the justice portfolio yet it seemed obvious to me that MLAs Martina Anderson, Alex Maskey, Daithi Mc Kay, Gerry Kelly or Raymond McCartney, with their special interest in policing, were possible candidates and likely to be available for the post courtesy of the electorate should the need arise in the next assembly term. Big occasions, as this was, always have their detractors and there was a fair amount of competition between the UUP and the SDLP as to whose moanometer would register the highest in their campaign of whinging respectively about the DUP and Sinn Fein.

It was a close-run contest between Danny Kennedy of the UUP and the SDLP’s new leader Margaret Ritchie for that honour, although the finger-wagging Alex Attwood was also a contender. The debate was acrimonious at times but not without good humour as politicians exchanged jibes and insults across the chamber and tried to outdo each other with the pithiest put-down. It was a time for leaders who neither “dithered nor dallied”, Peter Robinson said. “Leadership is not about saying: ‘After you’. It it is about saying: ‘Follow me’.”

And follow they did.

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