Let us Hear the Pennies Drop

No spurious coins please!

In my last article I said that if we had our ears close to the ground we might, should the political groups reach a realistic appraisal of the situation, hear the sound of pennies dropping as they enter the negotiations to try to effect a return to devolved government.

They embark on these despite some communal disturbances which arose during this year's marching season. These marches were relatively quiet and peaceful compared to previous years.

But it all depends on the value of the coinage they have minted while the Assembly has been suspended, now two months short of two years, and whether the coins can pass a 'teeth test' and not be counterfeited out of the base metal of fundamentalist, sectarian bigotry.

Utterances from the Democratic Unionist Party's convert from the Ulster Unionist Party, Jeffrey Donaldston MP, at summer school locations suggest that they, having overtaken the Trimble Unionists as the largest party in the last Assembly elections, might be ready to proffer a few coins to the political slot.

However, we need to be cautiously sceptical about this, now that the old 'bull frog', Ian Paisly MP, has left his hospital sick bed, determined to take up actively again the reins of his party from the hands of his Deputy, Peter Robinson MP, who, it seems, had begun to consider a more pragmatic approach to the issues.

So if the head of Paisley is stamped out upon the Democratic Unionist Party's coins, these will not pass easily through the slots of reconciliation in the political coinbox. Apparently the Democratic Unionist Party wants a clear statement from the Republican movement (specifically the IRA) that "the war is over", publicly visible 'decommissioning' taking place and a decision to disband made. Then they would enter into government with Sinn Féin, with the proviso that they became a new party.

What this proviso means is unclear. For instance, if they merged with the Nationalist SDLP would that satisfy Paisley and his party and would they in turn try to encourage more defections to themselves from the Ulster Unionists? Or would they try to encorage defections from other Loyalist Unionist groups and persuade them to decommission their weapons for in the past Paisley seemed to be a mentor for these groups.

What they are doing, perhaps, is making demands that they know or expect that Republicans, including Sinn Féin, will find it difficult to meet immediately. Then they can shift the blame for a failure to reach agreement from themselves, obstinate recalcitrant diehards, to the Nationalist community as a whole. If Paisley is rampaging around with his old shibboleths and slogans it will be more difficult, if not impossible, to effect a rational compromise.

Tony Blair can only just wait in the wings for a possible formula to be found so that, along with Bertie Ahern, he can preside over a conference on the 17 / 18 September and a return to devolved government.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 included provisions for the review which has been taking place but it is still hard to see how any changes of a substantial nature can be agreed or effected.

True, it is still an international treaty between two governments and registered as such. It might be argued that it could be amended by their agreement to do so on the basis that the political parties in Northern Ireland had agreed to the changes.

However, before the Agreement could come into effect in 1998 it had to be approved by a referendum in both jurisdictions. Then it had to be approved (being a treaty) by the Republic's parliament for it required approval of the change in their constitution. In the Westminster parliament, of course, legislation was necessary to put it into effect.

So the question then arises (in my view) whether there are any major changes to its provisions that would make it necessary to have further referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

And if this was not done, could it be subject to a legal challenge? Or could the UK parliament, having the sole jurisdiction over the Six Counties simply pass a bill or Order in Council to put such changes into effect.

Finally, the 19th century German strategist, Clausewitz (1780-1831), said that war was simply politics with weapons.

Perhaps we could turn the statement on its head and say politics is war without weapons and bring the whole thing into focus and thus start to show that politics can and should be seen to work – and the North of Ireland come rapidly into the 21st. century.

© : Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran.

Published in The Green Dragon No 7, Summer, 1998.

Samuel H. Boyd