BELFAST, Northern Ireland — As usual, Mairtin O Muilleoir was struggling to make a point.
"Lord Mayor! Lord Mayor!" he shouted into his hand-held microphone. Over and over, delivered as though to an impertinent pup, came the cold reply: "Sit down , you."
When the Roman Catholic city councilor finally gave up and flopped exasperated onto his padded bench, from across the chamber divide his Protestant peers enjoyed a good, hearty laugh.
Such is the polarized state of democracy, Ulster-style. For those who doubt that political reforms will ever bring harmony to Northern Ireland, you just can't beat Belfast City Hall for a sobering illustration.
Councils in Northern Ireland today operate under severe restrictions, having been stripped in 1972 of much of their power by the British government when local rule--long geared toward discriminating against Catholic residents--proved unable to cope with the rising violence.
Britain closed Northern Ireland's Protestant-dominated Parliament, Stormont, as well, and in its place installed direct rule from London. Since then, the Northern Ireland Office has seen initiative after initiative shot down by local political parties mired in mutual mistrust.
Landmark talks begun here last week and expected to last into July are to bring together Protestant and Catholic representatives from Northern Ireland, Britain and the Republic of Ireland for face-to-face talks on restoring stronger local government to the province. Most commentators agree that the greatest obstacle to any new arrangement is not London-Dublin relations but the diametrically opposed aspirations of Northern Ireland's Protestants and Catholics.
Symptomatic of that friction is the Belfast council, technically the largest power-sharing, democratic forum in the six counties of Northern Ireland.
In practice, however, the council is hardly that. Housed in a grandiose Victorian capital dome that dominates the downtown skyline, the council's 50 members meet monthly to rubber-stamp legislation hammered out in private committee. Every committee chairman and vice chairman is, and has always been, a Protestant Unionist.
The council maintains a facade of industriousness despite its relatively few responsibilities. Overstaffed committees ensure that parks are clean, sports centers are equipped, garbage gets collected and the dog catcher is appointed.
Not exactly the stuff of grand political intrigue. Most councilors are left with a lot of idle time on their hands to hone their demagoguery. As a result, councilors from all sides of the Northern Irish divide do agree on one point--in public session, the Belfast council is a circus.
"Ninety-nine percent of the goings-on here are utter nonsense. Some of 'em don't have anything more substantial to do than to pick away at each other. It can be very mean-spirited," said Steve McBride of the centrist Alliance Party--the only political grouping that maintains a cross-community appeal. "If nothing else," he added philosophically, "the council makes for good theater."
Above the ornately oak-engraved and burgundy-leathered chamber, citizens sit at two public viewing galleries. On this occasion they appear to have voluntarily segregated themselves along Catholic-Protestant lines: One clump of sandy-haired men in suits and ties bellows at the Unionist politicians' wisecracks, while at the other viewers' box, the mostly dark-locked, leather-jacketed men sit beside a priest in glum silence, coming to life only when "their" representatives go briefly on the verbal offensive.
Below, by most accounts, lies even less harmony.
The two factions--Protestant and Catholic, the pro-British versus the pro-Irish--directly face each other: six varieties of Unionists on the one side, three political groupings of nationalists on the other, including eight members of Sinn Fein (pronounced shin fane), the party that supports the Irish Republican Army. Shoehorned to their right is the six-strong Alliance Party camp, looking resolutely middle-class and friendless. Reporters uncomfortably seated in the no-man's-land between the opposing benches move their heads back and forth to the unfolding tennis match.
Each meeting begins with the proper pomp, as the lord mayor, currently the thickly spectacled Official Unionist Fred Cobain, walks in, escorted by a tuxedo-clad, top-hatted aide hefting a weighty mace. The Sinn Fein members arrive en masse a few minutes late; more than half of their rivals from the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which opposes violence in the Catholic-nationalist cause, do not show up at all.
Unable to set its own public-housing policy or make an economic plan for the surrounding downtown, the council seems to devote most of its time to highly partisan diatribes.