Deal or no Deal?
The Northern Ireland political situation is a bit like the TV programme ‘Big Brother’, where the inmates of the house activate themselves in one-to-one dialogue, encounters, group performances, contests and discarded inhibitions whilst millions of viewers watch them carry out tasks set by programme makers.
Are asked to vote by text or telephone on who should have to leave the house to the point where only one of the collection remains to receive a financial reward.
Northern Ireland politicians, in respect of the Good Friday Agreement, have so conducted themselves that they have all been turfed out of the Assembly, not by the people voting but by Big Brother Westminster with the concurrence of Little Brother Dublin. This has happened on three occasions and at other times some of them have taken the huff and absented themselves, making devolved government unworkable.
During the Christmas recess and since much talk centred around the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill which had been subject to discussion many months previously at Weston Park (Shropshire). There the parameters of the proposed legislation were hammered out and then we had the fallout when Sinn Féin objected to the inclusion of the security services within the scope of the bill.
I touched upon this in my previous article and was of the opinion that if progress in the peace process was their aim and intention it was a strange way of doing it. It was most peculiar that the forces wanting to implement the 1998 agreement had arrived at consensus on the ‘Runaways’ bill with those who have opposed and obstructed that agreement. Have the lunatics really taken over the asylum!?
Since the late 1960s twelve or more Secretaries of State, with supporting ministers, First Ministers, Deputy First Ministers, hosts of civil servants and advisers have wrestled with the vagaries and nuances of Northern Ireland’s ‘body politic’, up to and including the circumlocution around the Accord of Good Friday 1998.
They have moved, sometimes gingerly and circumspectly as well as with crass stupidity, through the labyrinth of the Northern Political Hinterland. Bewitched, bothered, frustrated and bewildered they have been deceiving themselves and others that they know what they’re about.
We have now got twists in the complicated convolutions, with Sinn Féin, plus all the other Northern Ireland political parties, objecting to the runaways legislation. Westminster opposition parties are also joining the motley band of objectors so that in a statement to the House of Commons on January 11 2006 Peter Hain, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, announced that the bill was to be withdrawn.
Prior to that statement, in reply to an earlier question by the Conservative MP for South West Bedfordshire, Peter Hain said that the goal of the government was to close the door on Northern Ireland’s paramilitary past, otherwise the future would be constantly dogged, disrupted and dragged back by and to it. After that statement he said that the issues with which the proposed bill had been concerned still needed to be resolved.
Then what should we make of a speech by Gerry Kelly, speaking last month for Sinn Féin, when he said that they might be prepared to examine the role of the Northern Ireland Police Board? Is this a straw in the wind, a glimmer of light in the labyrinth tunnel, a diversion, or just talk about it to stave off the suggestion by Peter Hain that if the Assembly isn’t working why should its members continue to receive their salaries. Payment might well be terminated in the next few months if progress towards restarting the Assembly and a power-sharing Executive could not soon be achieved.
At other times in Irish history the differences between the parties at Westminster, division within them and conflicting veins in the Irish parties have botched and frustrated progress. We seem to have arrived once more in that sort of situation, which militates dangerously against all the efforts to reach a final settlement.
As the stalemate continues, further chapters in the never ending saga of Northern Ireland’s political convolutions emerge with the rolling out of a programme announced by the Chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Hugh Orde, that an investigation, headed by a former high ranking police officer, is being set up to reexamine the 2000 plus unsolved killings which occurred during more than three decades of Six County violence. In my view, the value of this is very questionable in respect of the goal expressed by Peter Hain of trying to put the past behind in order to avoid contaminating the future and the chances of a return to devolved government.
While there is no doubt that there are many families in each community that have suffered greatly and would like closure by finding out how, why and by whom their relatives and friends were killed, the investigations and the publicity arising from them will run counter to the goal of the British and Irish governments as expressed by Peter Hain to fully implement the Belfast Agreement of April 1998.
Some might say that the failure to take those who committed crimes and killings prior to that date through the courts is also an obstacle to settlement and I can understand the families concerned feeling aggrieved. However, on balance I think the furtherance of the peace process will be more delayed and obstructed by trawling over the many horrendous events of the past 30 or more years.
There is, as I have hinted previously, a tendency to transpose proceedings applicable in other areas of post conflict conditions, such as that of South Africa, into the situation in Northern Ireland.
Of course, there are or were similar elements of colonization in pre-partition Ireland prior to the Treaty in the early 1920s. After partition, in the whole island as well as in the Six Counties, discrimination was practised by the majority against the minority.
In South Africa, however, the opposite was the case in that there was a minority discriminating against and restricting the rights of the majority, with of course the ethnic difference and colour. With the change to government by the black majority there was a need to ensure reconciliation of the white population to the change and to encourage the black communities to accept the continued presence and participation of their former rulers.
In Ireland generally and in particular in the Six Counties, long memories have bedevilled efforts to make the transition easy. The time lapse since large-scale violence is not long enough for those searing memories to fade into the distance. They still fiercely burn and raking over the ashes by the proposed investigations will re-ignite and oxygenate the flames and stifle progress.
Listening to the leader of the DUP’es, the Reverend Ian Paisley, being interviewed on RTE Radio 1 at 1.00 pm on Sunday 5 February it was clear that any objective unbiased listener would realize who is the main obstacle to progress.
Like Henry Ford, who said he would provide any colour of vehicle so long as it was black, it is clear that Paisley will not compromise. In effect he says that you can have any settlement you like so long as it is his and is coloured orange.
So I see no immediate chance of movement in the talks starting today between the two governments and the Northern Ireland parties when paisley so unequivocally said that he would never sit in the same room with Sinn Féin. In answer to the question on that point he loudly said, “Never! Never!”
He discounted the alteration to clauses 2 and 3 of the Republic’s constitution that changed their position on reunification so it is obvious that he is also opposed to that part of the Belfast Agreement which contains procedures by which if the people of the Six Counties desired to be part of a united Ireland this could be effected.
By implication, therefore, he is also opposed to any closer involvement with the Republic, as provided for in that accord. Unionists, he says, can never agree with Republicans and vice versa. He and his colleagues are determined to be part of the United Kingdom. So, as long as he is there, it will be a long haul without end with bawling and bellowing of “No Surrender!”
If this attitude persists, then at some time in the future, patience in the rest of the United Kingdom might be exhausted and the Unionists may be told that they can only remain in the Union on the acceptance of terms similar to those of the 1998 Agreement.
To some extent this warning was given by my late brother Tom in a speech at the old Stormont Parliament in January 1969.
Unfortunately, in my view, there will be no perceptible progress in the near future arising from the talks starting today.
But, unlike the mobile phone company’s advert, the future must not, can not be Orange but a combination with Green.
©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, Wales, 6 February 2006.