I listened to Ian Paisley being interviewed on RTÉ Radio One on Sunday 27 February. he was clearly in a jovial and benevolent mood, radiating sweetness and light, if you can believe it of the abominable no man.
Responding to the interviewer he said that provided armed action, like punishment beatings and other unlawful pursuits linked to Republicans ceased, and decommissioning had demonstrably occurred he had no problem with Sinn Féin, who had an electoral mandate, serving alongside the DUP in the governing executive.
He did, however, acknowledge that there might be occasions when incidents might take place, for after long years of turmoil, such matters could not be terminated like turning off tap water.
It is hard to accept the sheer effrontery of this man, seeming to exude a desire for reconciliation. He is still remembered for denouncing, in the 1960s, the liberal like approach of Terence O’Neill, the former Unionist Prime Minister in the old Stormont regime, as Lundyism. He is also remembered for calling O’Neill a traitor, vowing to remove him from office, which was duly achieved by forcing a resignation.
The same Ian Paisley, who hinted darkly at a third force, was seen on television with shadowy figures dedicated to ensuring the dominance of Ulster Protestantism in the Six Counties. In short, he was associating with Loyalist paramilitaries while disclaiming any direct membership of their organisation.
While sporting an honorary doctorate from a Bible belt so called university (Bobby Jones) in the USA he has ranted and raved for decades and set his face against positive moves towards remedying the injustices of the old Stormont regime and against those who pressed for change. So he was often known as Doctor No.
It has to be acknowledged at present that the peace process is in serious crisis. However, Sinn Féin, at their Ard Fheis on March 5 / 6th, argued that they are still committed to this objective which might best be described as a determination to achieve a settlement within the terms of the 1998 agreement.
Following a meeting with Tony Blair, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern issued a statement that both he and the British Prime Minister accepted that all the leaders of the northern parties wanted to achieve a settlement. The two governments were, he said, also agreed that all paramilitary and unlawful activities had to cease before there could be a return to devolved government.
Although there is still some flack directed at SinnFéin from the December 2004 Northern Bank raid, now, despite their denials, universally blamed on the IRA, investigations over many months will be required to produce evidence upon which anyone could be charged or which could directly link them and Sinn Féin to the robbery. No decisive conclusion is likely before the local elections in the Republic and the parliamentary elections in the UK, expected in early May.
The effect of the raid plus the fallout from the murder, allegedly by members of the IRA, of a Catholic in a pub in East Belfast in late January on Sinn Féin’s electoral support is hard to predict. The death of Robert McCartney, a father of two from the Short Strand, a Republican stronghold, whose family and himself were Sinn Féin supporters, has outraged many beyond and within the Republican movement.
Robert McCartney’s sisters have carried out a campaign to seek action from the IRA and Sinn Féin to bring their brother’s killers to court. They have attended the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, spoken to newspapers, radio and television, asked the Republican movement and those who were in the pub at the time the killing occurred to give information to the authorities.
The IRA and Sinn Féin have issued statements that those who were involved or have information should give it to a solicitor or to the Police Ombudsman. The IRA has even offered to shoot whoever carried out the murder. This offer has been rejected by the family who want those responsible to be brought to court. The offer from the IRA has generally been greeted with astonishment, that it is tantamount to running a summary legal system in parallel with that of the state.
Opinion polls in the Republic indicate a reduction of only one per cent in support for Sinn Féin, but a serious drop of 20% for Gerry Adams. However, the two Dáil by-elections which took place on March 11th did not appear to have affected Sinn Féin support in County Meath where they ran a candidate. They increased their share of the poll by 30% (at 12%) on a poll of about 40%. A recent opinion poll conducted by the Belfast Telegraph (a pro Unionist paper) also shows a still strong core of support for Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland.
The decision by the Westminster parliament to withhold office and service funds from the four Sinn Féin MPs was taken before the Republic ’ s by election but may not have had time to affect the voters in Meath. Whether it will have subsequent effects is uncertain in a perverse way it might even strengthen their support as being discrimination from a ‘foreign government’.
In such situations it is often difficult to read the minds of the players in this protracted game of political manoeuvering.
Tony Blair ’s strategy seems to depend on hoping that the SDLP will beat off Sinn Féin’s attempt to to retain and increase their numbers elected to Westminster, with perhaps an Ulster Unionist revival against the DUP at Westminster also. In my view this is a forlorn hope in both cases.
The British government felt that following the bank raid they needed to satisfy the public that they were doing something to punish Republicans, so they decided to withhold funds which are available to all elected Members of Parliament, whether they take their seats or not. Sinn Féin do not receive parliamentary salaries. The government has not seen or has ignored the possibility that it is more likely to retain electoral support for Sinn Féin.
It seems to be calculating that by attacking the Republican leadership with the full force of the media they will diminish their standing, forgetting that these are exactly the same people they need to try to retrieve the peace process from the impasse.
It is generally accepted that there is no possibility of an end to the current IRA ceasefire and a return to violence. The new Anti Terrorism Act, which has pingponged between Commons and Lords and gives wide ranging powers reminiscent of the 1920 Special Powers Act can now be invoked. This could raise a new form of internment on to the agenda.
All parties, including governments, should heed the advice given by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Dennis Healy: “When in a hole stop digging!’.
©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, Wales, 18 February 2005.