The parliament building at Stormont is 365ft wide, representing one foot for each day of the year, but if she lasts in the job long enough it may also refer to the number of times Karen Bradley, Northern Ireland’s secretary of state, puts her foot in it.
Politicians in Northern Ireland have lost count, but agree she outdid herself last week by telling Westminster that security force killings during the Troubles were “not crimes” but the actions of people “fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way”.
Her subsequent apologies did not douse a clamour for her resignation. But few in Stormont think her departure would solve much. Northern Ireland has had no functioning elected government since power sharing between the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) and Sinn Féin collapsed in January 2017. Civil servants are left to run things but cannot make key decisions.
“If you’re on autopilot you know your speed, direction and destination and we know none of those things,” said Mike Nesbitt, an assembly member and former leader of the Ulster Unionist party (UUP). “What’s surprising to me is we’re a third year into the breakdown and the public doesn’t seem to care very much.”
Stormont, sited on an estate outside Belfast, looks formidable. A mile-long drive of red-twigged lime trees leads to an imposing building in the Greek classical style made of English Portland stone mounted on a granite base. Commissioned in 1922 for the newly formed state, it has six columns and six storeys, representing Northern Ireland’s six counties, plus ornate ceilings, chandeliers and marbled halls.
So much grandeur, wasted. The main chamber is mothballed, its benches empty. Some assembly members still work from their offices but on really quiet days, one member confided, it can feel like the Overlook hotel in The Shining.
“We’re at zombie level,” said Claire Hanna, of the Social Democratic and Labour party. “There’s a loss of belief that we can solve our own problems. The electorate has been conditioned to the idea that the place is ungovernable. Polarisation has never been more alive. The vacuum is delegitimising politics.”