Suspended – But Little Animation

Major international events, the Madrid bomb outrage — killing 190 people and injuring hundreds more, increasing resistance to the coalition occupation across Iraq, the Israeli / Palestine conflict and the growing political concern in the USA and elsewhere about it, the accusations of ill treatment of prisoners of war by UK and US forces, have overshadowed ongoing efforts to reach accommodation between contending political parties in Northern Ireland to facilitate a return to devolved government.

The Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister, in between visits to Spain for the funeral service of the victims of the Madrid bombings, to Brussels for discussions on the proposed EU Constitution and the celebratory events in Dublin to mark the accession of ten more countries to the EU have consulted Northern Ireland's political leaders but no settlement has been reached in respect of the review of the 1998 Agreement.

I questioned the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Paul Murphy MP, at a private function early in March about what progress was being made. He simply exzpressed the view that some hope might lie in proposals coming from the DUP which would involve the Assembly acting without an executive, if the other parties agreed, of course.

My advice to him was that on no account should any changes be made which in effect would separate Sinn Féin from any proportionate participation in the operation of the Assembly in the event of its suspension being lifted following the review. For we need to remember also that the Good Friday Agreement is an international treaty subject to the usual protocol when amendments are being considered.

On Saturday 27th March at its annual general meeting the Ulster Unionist Party re‑elected David Trimble as leader with 59% support, an improvement no doubt because of the departure of Jeffrey Donaldson and other dissidents to the DUP.This leaves the Westminster MP, David Burside, as its main dissident. He is very disaffected and may be contemplating defection to the Paisley camp.

Ian Paisley, showing signs of age and ill health, a shadow of his former bullfrog persona, has alleged that Tony Blair has reached a secret understanding with David Trimble. I have heard no comment from Trimble, but perhaps Ian is on a fishing expedition or setting a hare off, to see if it will run.

However, on the BBC’s ‘Any Questions’ programme on Friday 23rd April, broadcast from Queen’s University campus in Belfast, the connection between the IRA and Sinn Féin was raised from the audience. Trimble’s response was that unless the connection was ended Sinn Féin should not be re‑admitted to the Executive and that Unionists would not work with them until severance had occurred.

What Trimble and others refuse to acknowledge is that it was this connection, the political leadership’s dominance, which, although not technically in compliance with the Agreement, made it possible for it to be forged in 1998.

What they also will not acknowledge is that until politicsis really given a chance to consolidate that dominance, by a sustained operation of Assembly government, the connection between the two segments of the Republican movement will remain. Only when the Assembly is materialised in Assembly and Executive function will the inevitable natural decay in the connection be speeded up and paramilitarism lose its relevance.

On the other hand the Sinn Féin leadership should also realise that they are playing into the hands of Unionists by not asserting themselves more forcibly in respect of the beatings and intimidation by paramilitary groups. Unless these cease it will put in question which section of Republicanism is in ascendancy and won't show that politics works.

Six years have passed since the heady days of April 10th 1998 when the ‘hand of history’ was said to have shaped events and signed the ‘Good Friday Agreement’. But the ‘stop go’, ‘off on’, ‘now it is’, ‘now it isn’t’ has prevented its functioning to much effect with the current suspension heading towards a two year mark. The Taoiseach says it should be re‑activated by October whist Tony Blair suggested it will be functioning by the end of the year.

Much water, I fear, will flow under the bridges before then (hopefully nothing more colourful) although the Easter marching and commemorations by both communities appear to have passed off quietly.

The European election campaigns have kicked off quietly also, so nothing much is likely to happen about the Assembly until this is out of the way, and then of course we will have the Orange marching season under way.

Tony Blair, within a year of the expected British general election, won’t relish a continuing Assembly suspension hanging round his neck, prior to his effort to have a third term, in addition to Iraq, the Middle East and the EU Constitution referendum. All will be coming together around the seventh anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, if it be still moribund or even quite dead.

So, come the end of August, someone might breathe life into the North’s comatose body politic and galvanise the Llilliputian brains of its political leaders into considering their positions.

As I recall, when Sir James Craig (Lord Craigavon), long incumbent as Prime Minister, had problems he went on a long Mediterranean cruise and was said to take an interest in gulls. He was alleged to say that this was sparked off by the fact that there were many orange ones back home in Northern Ireland.

Well might one say that there are many still there and not just of one political colour, but as yet no Gulliver has appeared to turn them into doves of peace.

There clearly is a vacant post there, so who is going to apply for the job. Ian Paisley Junior or Senior or Crusoe Robinson need not apply — I see no one of the Republican side with the necessary qualifications either — and Trimble, when the opportunity arose, dropped the ball in a knock on in front of the posts.

© : Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, 7 May 2004.

Samuel H. Boyd