By now many of us should be used to the peculiar turns, twists and logical illogicalities in the Northern Ireland decision making processes.
The Secretary of State, after outlining various options, made an announcement that the Assembly would be suspended (as I anticipated) for a short period coinciding with the weekend (when it wouldn’t be meeting anyway) then, like a Gilbert and Sullivan scenario or a Brian Rix Whitehall farce, issued a further statement after 24 hours lifting the suspension – risible indeed, if the situation were not so serious or critical.
However, this device engineered a six week’s respite, a temporary reprieve (of which two weeks have now gone) in the hope that the deadlock on decommissioning and the reselection of First Minister and Deputy First Minister might be overcome.
During this period the ‘non negotiable’ joint government package will be mulled over, dissected, explained and/or clarified, not so much in itself, but the details in respect of policing, the composition of the new Police Authority and its powers, disqualification criteria for intending candidates, the phasing out of interrogation centres, the use of plastic baton rounds, names, flags and emblems as well as cross border job exchanges for serving police officers.
The above elements were submitted to both pro and anti Agreement parties who were given three days to respond to them, by noon on Tuesday 14th August by the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Dr. John Reid.
After meeting specially on the issues the nationalist SDLP have indicated they will support the proposals and will appoint members to the Police Authority.
The Ulster Unionist are not yet prepared to follow suit and, it appears, may seek changes to the proposals and the anti Agreement DUP remain opposed to the document and are clearly hoping that the Ulster Unionist Party will join them in that stance.
Sinn féin have rejected the policing document and have expressed dissatisfaction with the contents of the joint government proposals and have published 20 reasons why they were not supporting the plans on policing – among these, the role of the Chief Constable in deciding the pace at which security would be scaled down, the role of the Special Branch and the use of plastic bullets.
They apparently want policing arrangements to be considered in relation to the dismantling of observation towers and deployment of the military, which they feel are still too observable, especially in border areas.
Unionists are concerned about proposals that paramilitaries on the run, sought for actions prior to the Good Friday Agreement, might be given amnesties.
The Secretary of State now has a problem as to how, after the SDLP has accepted the policing proposals, he could accede to changes that Unionists are asking for, unless they could also be acceptable to the SDLP. If he departed any further from the recommendations of the Patten Report (as Peter Mandelson did) to satisfy the Unionists the SDLP might reconsider their position and join up again with Sinn féin in opposition to them.
In the middle of all these uncertainties up pops the story of the arrest of three republican activists in the South American republic of Columbia. They are being charged with entering the state using false passports and may also be charged with training the rebels there in the use of urban warfare tactics against the Columbian government.
While Sinn féin find it difficult to explain the presence of these alleged ‘Che Guevara’ sort of characters it is, I believe, stretching things too far to suggest that the commitment to the ceasefire in Northern ireland and the UK mainland by the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin is affected by the three under arrest in Columbia.
The Ulster Unionist (and Orangeman) the Reverend Martin Smyth, MP, seems to think so for he has said that even if there were some movement on the weapons question the Ulster Unionists should not enter into government which includes Sinn féin unless there is clear proof that they are not involved in any way in Columbia which could link into the Northern Ireland situation. But of course he is not a wholehearted supporter of the Good Friday Agreement anyway and has sometimes been interested in running for the leadership of the party.
In the next four weeks what will occur is still very problematical. All the parties and organisations, both anti and pro Agreement from their particular standpoints, seem to be concentrating on their own agendas while supposedly being associated with the Peace Process.
The SDLP, supported by the Catholic hierarchy, have stolen a march on the Ulster Unionists in recommending young Catholics to join the new police force, so the Unionists are caught on the one foot if they try to change the proposals.
The support for the proposals as they stand puts them directly in opposition to Sinn féin and the SDLP think this enhances their chances to maintain their electoral edge over them.
But on the basis that all the parties have to be involved in the proposed organisations it is difficult to ensure that they will work effectively if some remain out of the structures.
During the six weeks to September 23 the main question is: will each read successfully the minds of the other side and respond in a way not to confirm them in their thoughts or intentions but to contribute to an easement in the situation towards implementation of the Agreement in full, an accommodation free of duress or intimations of surrender.
As a contribution to such action it would help to persuade the Republican paramilitaries to reconnect with the De Chastelain Commission if the Unionists could moderate their stance on the policing proposals.
By making their joint document non negotiable it is difficult to see how the two governments can alter the proposals in any way whatever – whoever may want changes.
It is clear therefore, that being so, that we may find, when the September day arrives, the other options may have to be considered – a long suspension, fresh elections and the whole Agreement scrapped. The consequences of this will be the complete halt to the Peace Process, which all parties want to avoid, but if they continue on their present agendas it is unavoidable.
Recently in the press and radio there was an item of news that a woman in the Republic is setting in motion a campaign against an existing old law that deaf people can be considered Mad unless they can prove otherwise.
It seems to me that despite the long tortuous process towards peace in Northern Ireland the wishes of the people for a free, peaceful and equal society are falling on deaf ears as far as the political decision makers are concerned, so mad they must be not to heed these wishes and they risk losing support from the populace who may become maddenly angry at their failure to respond positively to their needs.