When, in 1597, Shakespeare included the line “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” in Henry IV, Part II, he can hardly have imagined how relevant, how very pertinent and precise, his observation would be on this small island more than four centuries later.
The weekend announcement that the North’s Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, has cancelled a visit to the US for St Patrick’s Day celebrations to stay in the North to lead what increasingly looks like a last-ditch effort to reach a Stormont agreement on welfare reform, underlines the unavoidable and often unattractive obligations of leadership. That First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson earlier declared that he would not go to Washington if the welfare budget crisis was not resolved set the tone and underlines the deep seriousness of the situation — especially as much, much more than a relatively moderate programme of welfare reform is in play.
Stormont’s ability to show it can take the hard, unpleasant decisions that define functioning societies facing unwelcome, unattractive economic limitations is the real matter at hand. Are Stormont’s MLAs a grown-up, responsible government or still a cabal of drum-beating, partisan lobbyists? Can the diverse parties, trenchant enemies not so very long ago, realise the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity offered by their shotgun marriage or will they succumb to wishful thinking and denial? Will Sinn Féin insist on being Syriza on the Lagan to the DUP’s party of Germanic retrenchment?
Can an assembly democratically elected to represent people so utterly dependent on British taxpayers’ support really imagine that evolution and devolvement will not mean a reduction of support from London? Have they failed to communicate this smell-the-coffee message to their electorate?
The impasse has a relevance south of the border too. As Sinn Féin’s popularity grows and as a general election looms, this is a litmus test of how a party of protest can adapt to unrelenting demands of power; the welfare impasse is, or may be, an indication if the power so assiduously sought can be used without recourse to fantasy or denial.
South of the border, the Stormont welfare crisis runs in tandem with the latest shocking revelations about abuse and intimidation, revelations that differentiate the “republican movement” from what is acceptable in a normal society; from what might be tolerated in a real Republic.
Paudie McGahon’s, and earlier Maíria Cahill’s, terrible stories have shown “the republican movement” in an appalling light, where murder might be endorsed by a self-appointed tribunal more akin to the worst excesses of Sharia savagery than true republicanism. As the election comes ever closer, positions on Sinn Féin, the party leader’s credibility, and the unquestioning nature of his support become ever-more polarised. Emotion plays a disproportionate part in forming those opinions. Just as in Stormont, it is time to put emotions aside and rely on cold, hard assessment of what is true and untrue. Any such objective and fair judgement can come to few enough conclusions
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