Political Manoeuvres

The internecine warfare between the two Loyalist splinter organisations, the UVF and the LDF, appears to have subsided in the wake of mediation by clerics. Moreover, there are rumours that overtures may soon be made to the De Chastelain Commission to arrange the decommissioning of weaponry.

If such does occur it could be inferred that they had accepted the validity of the IRA weapon destruction so then, surely, the Unionist parties, particularly the DUP, must recognise that the time to make “make politics work” has arrived.

The coincidence of Tony Blair’s proposals to include 90 days of detention without charge in his Anti Terrorism bill for suspected terrorists while facilitating ‘runaways’ to be freed under licence has been criticised by the Tories and the Liberal Democrats for inconsistency. The ninety day period was defeated and a twenty eight day period approved, with a majority of ninety one, by a combination of Labour, Tory and Lib Dem MPs.

The ‘runaways’ are those on both sides suspected or charged with paramilitary activities who have fled the jurisdiction. The alleged offences relate to the period prior to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Under the terms of the legislation ‘runaways’ may, by a legal process, return to Northern Ireland and be freed under licence unless they reoffend.

Things may indeed be happening under the surface. Ian Paisley has forayed into the Republic to meet the Taoiseach while leaders of the main opposition party, Fine Gael, have travelled north to meet him there. So, in a complicated dancing around, northern and southern politicians are intertwined as they seek advantage from such contacts back in their respective jurisdictions.

One might well wonder how, when Taoiseach Bertie Ahern urges Paisley to join with Sinn Féin in the Northern Assembly Executive, he might counter when Paisley asks him why he as Taoiseach has so firmly ruled out any coalition with Sinn Féin in the event of his Fianna Fáil party failing to win an overall majority in the Republic’s general election in eighteen months time...

In an article in ‘Fortnight’, a current affairs and arts magazine in Northern ireland, a prominent Ulster Unionist, Chris McGimpsey, says that Paisley’s power has been much reduced since May 2005 and that his own Ulster Unionist Party, if it is to regain its previous influence, needs to establish alliances with British political parties.

McGimpsey suggests that while the Ulster Unionists are reorganising their party their best strategy is to sit back and let Paisley plough his own furrow knowing that he will eventually fail. When that happens the Unionist community will reassess its position.

In my view they would be mistaken to, in effect, do nothing and just wait for something to happen. I maintain that if they are serious about making the Belfast Agreement work they need to forge alliances with the two Nationalist parties and smaller groups and be prepared to formulate a broad political programme with them and face a general election based on it rather than linking up with Westminster parties.

So if we want to make peaceful progress all the parties north and south, bit by bit, need to move to a position of coordination and cooperation and develop programmes and policies in common, within the cross border institutions envisaged in the Belfast Agreement of 1998, applicable to the whole of Ireland.

Within the last few days the Crown prosecution Service has announced that the charges against three officials in Sinn Féin’s Stormont office, which brought about the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly three years ago, had been dropped. The court was directed that, as the prosecution was not offering any evidence in support of the charges, the three officials be acquitted.

The three men, who maintained throughout that they had not engaged in collecting intelligence useful to terrorists, are now alleging that the charges had been made for political motives, presumably to effect the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Had the suspension and subsequent publicity not taken place then the upsurge of support for the DUP in the May 2005 general elections may have been weaker. That is now water under the bridge, of course, and we have to accept that we are where we are.

I have not yet seen the recent proposals for a shake up and a completely new configuration of Northern Ireland’s local government suggesting that the present multiplicity of councils should be reduced to seven.

I assume therefore that under this scheme each of the Six Counties would constitute a county borough with requisite powers and responsibilities and that the seventh would be Belfast City.

In the main the papers in Northern Ireland have said that this format favours the Nationalist community at the expense of Unionists. The argument in support of these changes that with a population of just 1.75 million and with a plethora of councils and other public bodies, Northern Ireland is much over governed and is, on the face of it, much in need of structural reform.

Thus in Northern Ireland with the Assembly suspended the DUP may have shot themselves in the foot as their opportunities of input will not be as good as they might have wished under the structures proposed as they are at present under direct rule from Westminster.

Indeed, with the close relationship between the British and Irish governments, a sort of de facto condominium exists to which they and the Ulster Unionist Party are firmly opposed.

If my memory serves me right in the days of the John Major government there was some discussion within the DUP in respect of such a settlement rather than the one which developed out of the Labour government’s initiative leading to the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998.

It may be some time before there is any move back to Assembly government and I wonder if, bit by bit, we are moving in practice to a format which will supersede it via the sort of ideas the DUP once toyed with when one looks at some of their policy documents in the past.

And I can’t help wondering also how the framework I suggested in my submission to the Opsahl Independent Commission in 1992 might have been a better arrangement than the structure agreed in 1998 – it could have dovetailed easily into the new local government suggestions.

One thing needs to be borne in mind, that the 1998 Agreement had provision for a review after seven years. Bit by bit, surreptitiously, it is taking place and the local government proposals are a pointer to it. And the question is, are the northern parties fully aware of this possibility – and are they part of the action?

© : Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, Gwent, Wales, UK, 10 December 2005.

Samuel H. Boyd