By Patrick Markey
STORMONT, Northern Ireland — It should have been a bright day in the future of Northern Ireland. But instead it descended into a tragic, political farce — for only the second time in its troubled history the divided province had a power-sharing Executive, for all of two minutes.
With the world’s press camped outside, Northern Ireland’s new assembly met on Thursday to nominate a cross-community Executive that would lead to the devolution of power from London to Stormont.
But it was not to be.
Five miles away in the Ulster Unionist Party headquarters on Glengall Street, David Trimble was holding a press conference to explain why his party had decided to boycott the nominations and send the stalled peace process spiraling into a summer review.
"The process should not be crashed. It should be parked. We do not want to leave here today with the message of hopelessness. Things are still possible," the UUP leader said.
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Back at Stormont Castle, the rest of the assembly could do nothing more than go through the motions as they took their seats at 10:30 a.m.
Addressing a row of empty, leather-backed seats where the Unionists should have sat, Assembly speaker Lord John Alderdice, in keeping with procedure, asked an absent Trimble to nominate his party’s people for the executive.
To the chuckles of a few assembly members, Alderdice gave the Unionists five minutes.
With the Unionists out, and the Democratic Unionist Party refusing to nominate, Northern Ireland’s first executive in 25 years began its brief life. Nice titles if only for a few moments — Mark Durkan, SDLP, minister for finance; Bairbre De Brun, Sinn Fein, minister of trade; Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein, minister for agriculture.
The DUP was having a ball, full of victorious fervor on the collapse of the new government before it exhaled its first breath.
It was left to Seamus Mallon, deputy assembly leader and SDLP, to add a touch of class to the otherwise tawdry proceedings.
Standing to give a personal statement, Mallon told the assembly he had little choice but to resign. Barely concealing his anger at the UUP’s failure to show up, Mallon said the Unionists had bled the process dry.
"What they are doing it worse than failing to operate an inclusive executive, They are actually preventing its creation. They are dishonoring the agreement, They are insulting its principles," Mallon said.
Then came a statement by British Northern Secretary Mo Mowlam, who said the assembly should not meet until further notice, bringing the new Executive to a halt.
In the hall outside, a bank of TV camera crews waited, chomping on Stormont canteen sandwiches, for the expected avalanche of post-collapse comment. They were not disappointed — first the Rev, Ian Paisley railed that it was great day for Ulster, then Gerry Adams and, finally, SDLP leader John Hume added their comment on the failure of the new government.
As the camera crews packed up their tripods and rolled in their cables, outside one Stormont guard summed up what seemed to be the general mood of resignation:
"That’s it then. It’s over, is it?"