As the year 2001 is only five or so hours away there are a few loose ends in my commentaries to bring together and assess and also to speculate on what might, should and possibly will happen next year.
The refusal of the military personnel to attend in person the Bloody Sunday Inquiry in Derry was upheld by the court so, pending and further possible appeal to a higher level, this long awaited investigation of the events of that day when 13 unarmed civilians were shot and killed, allegedly by paratroopers, is still awaiting finality.
David Trimble, again reinstated as First Minister in the Stormont Assembly and after successfully fighting off attempts by the dissident members of his Ulster Unionist Party’s ruling council to introduce a February 2002 deadline for IRA decommissioning, has to face, along with his Deputy, Mark Durkan (SDLP), the next sixteen months of the Assembly’s term until May 2003 and make it work.
He obtained a 56% vote at his UUP council’s meeting
in support of his policy to continue to press for further arms destruction or putting beyond use without specifically dates by which it should take place, arguably on the basis that the Secretary of State had undertaken to review the Belfast Agreement under the terms incorporated within that agreement.
This decision showed clearly that at least a majority of his UUP Ruling Council were at last showing signs of a modicum of intelligence, realising, it seems, that setting fixed deadlines and ultimatums was not the best way of making progress.
Prime Minister Blair has interspersed his attention to the wider international problems with contacts with Irish Republic ministers and Northern Ireland political leaders but no definitive statements on whether progress has been made have emerged as yet.
The UK government do have some tricky explaining to do, hoist as it were with their own petard. Under their War on Terrorism legislation they have derogated from the European Convention on Human Rights (now incorporated in British law). They have taken power to arrest and detain without charge anyone suspected of terrorism even if there is little or no evidence which would stand up in court that they are so engaged. This, they say, only relates to those close to or part of Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Quaeda organisation.
When questioned about those suspected of being involved with the Real or Continuity IRA (declared illegal in the USA along with some Loyalist groups) they are unable, for obvious reasons, to apply this policy, needing specific evidence before suspects can be brought before the courts.
Nuala McLoan, the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman, preceded by leaks about its contents, has issued a critical report on events before and after the Omagh bombing in August 1998. I have not seen a copy of the report but the newspapers in their extracts claim that there were serious lapses in the Intelligence operations. It is alleged that, through (accredited) informers, they were given warnings that a serious incident was being organised and that local police had not been alerted. From her report it appears that there were flaws in the communications between the Special Branch (Intelligence) and the Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan.
Flanagan is greatly miffed and questions the validity of the research on which the report is based and is threatening to take legal action, believing his ability, dedication and application is being questioned, especially on the grounds that no one has yet been arraigned for the Omagh bombing which claimed 29 lives and injured many more.
Peter Mandelson MP has popped up again, denying that he has said that the IRA were freedom fighters. He was no great shakes in my view as Northern Ireland Secretary of State and, considering his very superficial acquaintance with the history and context in which ‘The Troubles’ need to be placed, it is difficult to understand why newspapers and broadcasters should take seriously his observations on the issues in Northern Ireland, or any other important matters. He’s a yesterday’s man.
The latest opinion poll in the Irish Republic suggests that in the general election in May 2002 Fianna Fáil will again be returned as the largest party but it will still need a coalition partner in government. Fine Gael is running badly and the poll also shows that the Progressive Democrats are not likely to remain in partnership with Fianna Fáil. There is al;so speculation that on the basis of their involvement in the Peace Process in Northern ireland and in the Northern Executive Sinn Féin may enhance their standing and gain seats in the election. If this should occur and they replace the PDs in the Republic’s coalition while also being in the Northern Ireland coalition it will make for an intriguing political situation.
It would be difficult to see this happening without further substantial and irrevocable putting of paramilitary arms beyond use. It would also raise serious problems on the Loyalist side as they might fear that things were rolling inevitably towards Irish unification.
Sinn Féin would also face a re-examination of their European stance as the Euro currency, to which the Republic of Ireland is committed, is settled in and the UK is not yet decided on entry.
So the year between May 2002 and May 2003 when the Northern Ireland election is due will be fraught with delicate tricky decisions and making politics work will intelligence on all sides to sidle and navigate the known and unknown currents.
Sinn Féin, now that they have obtained office space and facilities at Westminster, will not take their seats but will have to keep three balls in the air at the same time - Westminster, Northern Ireland and Dublin - and perhaps Europe in their sights.
Can a political organisation with limited experience of democratic politics, overcome a paramilitary background and rise to the occasion in this labyrinth of political intricacies and convince its erstwhile enemies that it has and can lead them into the new territory of 2002 - 21st century politics.
The prospects are very problematical, but whatever the difficulties there should be no reversion, that way is closed, there is no way back, only forward. But, of course, they are not the only players and all parties will need to reschedule themselves to face the future.
Strange and previously unthinkable alliances may be formed. We, those of us who are young enough (at 82 plus I’m not) will have to become more involved and develop an understanding of systems and policies if democracy is to both work and survive.
Despite my age, as long as I can I will take an interest and, when I can, do a little to help things along. I watch the space to be filled in 2002 - perhaps read forward and backward - it means 20/20 vision - we will, I think, need intelligent use of political insights.