Northern Ireland: Raking over the Ashes

At this time of the year most of us, after the hustle and bustle of shopping, sorting who has to get a card sent or a present, and feasting on whatever takes our fancy, drinking or not drinking as the case may be, tend towards nostalgia and wondering what the New Year might bring.
I recall that at the year's end my mother, as many others of her day, raked out the last embers of the fire and examined the ashes and read them according to her own method to see, as she said, what the next year would bring. She stopped this practice eventually as unwanted events occurred, preferring not to know, for anticipating tended to double the effect if and when the worst did happen.
I never placed any credence in any of the forecasts as I moved into my , even earlier, and I'm sure, with the advent of gas and central heating, there's not much ash reading going on these days, even in Ireland.
Nevertheless, in a way, those of us involved or interested in national or international affairs interest ourselves in trying to anticipate, forecast and speculate on what developments there will be on and around the trouble spots of the world.
At present the world stage is occupied by the threat of war with Iraq, with or without sanction and control by the United Nation's Security Council or General Assembly, while the impasse in Northern Ireland is relegated to small newscopy, but it hasn't gone away either.
Just before the UK Fire Services went on their eight day strike the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, urged them to get around the table and negotiate — "Talk don't walk" he said .
On the 30th November 2002, at his Democratic Unionist Party's conference, the old 'Bull Frog' Ian Paisley MP, warned delegates, party members, MPs, AMs and all, that if they were caught talking to Sinn Féin or Republicans they would be expelled as traitors — "Talk and you walk" was his message.
So, although the Westminster Government is trying to get all the parties into talks, the leader of the DUPes is determined to ensure that his gang of anti-Agreement diehards are free of contamination from contact with Republicans.
It is of course essential, as Secretary of State Murphy says, that at least those parties which had been instrumental in achieving the Good Friday (1998) Accord and its referendum acceptance in Northern Ireland, should try together to effect its full implementation.
At Westminster's Northern ireland Question Time, Wednesday 27th November, Paul murphy, secretary of State, Jane Kennedy, Minister of State, and Ian pearson, under Secretary of State, faced questions on a range of issues.
From the replies given the British Government's position could be summarised as follows:-

1. As outlined in the Weston Park talks in 2001 commitments will fully reflect the Patten recommendations.
2. Efforts would continue to achieve a 50/50 Catholic/Protestant ratio in recruitment to the Northern ireland Police Service.
3. They are still committed to the up-dated Patten proposals published in August 2001.
4. They are working along with the Irish Government to try to focus on the creation of trust between the parties involved in making the 1998 Agreement as well as other parties, as without such trust it cannot work.
5. In respect of a review of the Agreement, which is dealt with in its Paragraph 7, all parties in the Assembly have the opportunity of making representations, including the matter of members' designations.
6. All the issues discussed at Weston Park, including amnesties which were subject to acts of completion, would form the agenda at meetings between the parties in any review.
7. There is no immediate plan to alter the date of the Northern Ireland Assembly election due May 1st 2003 - the government hoped to see the restoration of the Assembly at an early in 2003.
8. The government is committed to the implementation of the recommendations of the Independent Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland, but as the Prime minister said (17/ 10/2002) the concept of Republicans being on the Policing Board while maintaining an active paramilitary organisation was an absurdity.

At Prime Minister's Question Time, 27/11/2002, DUP leader Ian Paisley asked what was meant by an 'Act of Completion'? In reply Prime Minister Blair said, "It is not merely a statement, a declaration, or words. It means giving up violence completely in a way that satisfies everyone and gives them confidence that the IRA has ceased its campaign and enables us to move the democratic process forward, with every party that wants to be in government abiding by the same democratic rules".
I have, I believe, extracted from the answers from ministers and the verbatim above from Tony Blair and gauged accurately the stance of the Westminster Government in any discussions by which the suspension of the Assembly might be lifted, as published on pages 298 - 310 in Hansard Volume 395 No. 10 - 27/11/2002.
Until now there is no indication that meetings held by the Secretary of State have pushed the parties forward from those which precipitated the suspension. Unionist leader Trimble has attended and then walked out. He has popped up on radio and television and answered questions on the idea of the Ulster Unionists merging with the British Conservatives, in fact going back to the original position when it was the Conservative and Unionist Party. He didn't seem opposed to the possibility and maybe an opportunity to serve as a shadow minister and even run for leadership.
The Ulster Unionists are due to reconsider their attitude to serving in the Executive with Sinn Féin on January 18th and who knows, the question of a leadership contest might arrive again.
I heard an interesting interview on RTE Radio on Sunday 22 December when Jeffrey Donaldson, the dissident Ulster Unionist MP, was questioned on his attitude to Republicans in government as well as the role being played by the Democratic Unionists and, believe it or not, between them and Sinn Féin, which of course leads us back to the demands made by Ian Paisley to his party members. Donaldson seems to favour some sort of arrangement between the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party for Unionist divisions were weakening the Unionist cause. There was quite a good similarity between his view of action required from Republicans and that expressed by Prime Minister Blair.
There have been suggestions that public support in the Assembly election (1/5/2003) would result in the DUP being the largest Unionist party and on current trends Sinn Féin as the largest Nationalist party, thus throwing focus on the method of electing the First and the Deputy First Minister.
When questioned on the BBC News programme 31/12/2002 Martin McGuinness said that Sinn Féin was committed to discussing the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and accepted that he, as a leading Republican, recognised the need to participate in furthering the peace process with other parties and the two governments and in seeing how the dissolved institutions could be restored.
It was not the Republicans who had been responsible in the last year for the Loyalist paramilitaries had been responsible for most of it, especially in their internal feuding and killings - sometimes of uninvolved people.
The Unionist parties and the Westminster government had also to face up to their responsibilities. The Agreement was the way forward, in effect the only game in town, it would seem. He had no knowledge of a possible major gesture by the IRA, but he was sure that they also were committed to the peace process.
On the same programme Secretary of State Paul Murphy expressed some optimism that an important corner had been turned and expressed views in line with those contained in answers at Westminster Question Time in respect of the restoration of trust.
The main players still seem to be fixed in the same mode which brought about the Assembly and Executive suspension. Like most people trying to assess how the situation might develop I have no crystal ball and hope that none of us are as yore, sifting through and trying to read the ashes of the Belfast Agreement. We can only speculate on the options open, based on the known attitudes of the protagonists.
The British and Irish governments would like to see successful talks to get things back on the rails and the election in Northern Ireland take place at the same time as those of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.
The Ulster Unionists are divided with Jeffrey Donaldson, the prospective alternative leader, trying to forge a link with the DUPes, maybe to form a common agenda for a review of the Agreement. Sinn Féin, I think, prefers it to remain substantially the same and the SDLP is, I believe, still wondering how they might work with Trimble without affecting their own electoral prospects vis a vis Sinn Féin.
Martin McGuinness (Sinn Féin) has said that the next four or five weeks are crucial in the efforts to continue the peace process and consolidate the Agreement.
So what are the prospects of a breakthrough and a lifting of the suspension?
If there is no change in the attitude of both the main Unionist parties to serving with Sinn Féin that unless there is a declaration from the IRA that the war is over, that they are disposing of more arms, or that they are isbanding the Organisation, Unionists will not serve with them, then, unless something tangible occurs in these areas, I cannot see a restoration of the Assembly.
The difficulty when such demands are made (and Unionists are aware of it) is that it makes it well nigh impossible to get it as Republicans want to avoid splits and run the risk of large-scale violence again. They see also that Loyalist paramilitaries represent a danger to Catholic communities and are only realky kept in check by the existence of thei Republican conterparts. In short, a Northern ireland example of Catch 22.
On the Unionist side there seems to be a developing agenda between the UUP and the DUP which indeed might be achieved more easily if the control and influence of Ian Paisley was further diminished - he seemed to be very lacklustre and weak in his appearance at Prime Minister's Question Time.
In my view, looking at the misty scenario (as if it was one of those shaken snow scenes in a glass ball) the Westminster government's bottom line would be the holding of the election on the due date, even without the current suspension being lifted.
There is no possibility of agreement on altering the machinery for electing the First and Deputy Prime Minister in the discussions between the parties so close to the election. Neither is it likely that any changes to the designation system could be effected for the same reason.
And although Paragraph 7 of the Good friday Agreement allows for representation on such matters (mentioned previously), they could not be progressed in time through legislation at Westminster where the programme has already been laid out in the Queen's Speech. It would also require agreement with the Irish Government.
I envisage that on the basis of the Westminster Government agreeing to a review of the Belfast Agreement the Northern ireland Assembly will convene briefly in order to set procedures for the election in motion.
Then the parties will set out their agendas and campaign during the election around the changes they wish to see in that Agreement. On the basis of the support they each receive it will be argued that there is a mandate for such changes so the election will also function as a referendum.
To facilitate this separate votes on the issues concerning structures and representation on the Executive and its composition could be introduced and candidates and parties couls state their positions on these matters.
This is one way of approaching the present impasse, although I'm not sure that the electorate is sophisticated enough to accept the suggestion, but it would make a coalition still possible on an agreed basis and not mandatory as at present.
Changes recommended by a newly elected assembly after discussion, though democratically decided, would still have to be subject to Westminster approval and consultation with the Irish government. But it would have moved, on the basis of the popular vote, to an ascendancy of politics over the gun, and we could, if successful, see finally the latter policy indeed turn to ashes and disposed of at last.

Post Script

I had the privilege in early December to be presented to the President of the Irish Republic, Mary McAleese, when she visited the Consulate General of Ireland in wales, Cardiff.
Listening that evening to her address, articulate, interesting, laced with humour while dealing with many issues and then, around Christmas, listening to a BBC Radio interview with her predecessor and former United Nations Humaman Rights Commissioner, Mary Robinson, it confirmed my view of the superiority of the electoral method over the hereditary principle.
I know of no British monarch over the last 300 years or any of the current Royals who have or could come up to the standard, competence and ability in respect of their nation's problems and needs and international questions as displayed by both of these two outstanding Irish women.

©: Samuel H. Boyd, 4 January 2003.

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