In my last article I wrote about the deafness, acute lack of hearing, of politicians in Northern Ireland, metaphorically speaking. Since then I have myself had an actual ear infection which affected my hearing, happily returning to normal. I wonder if their political auditory antennae are also hearing the sounds of sanity.
It would appear that some sections of the residents of North Belfast are still deafened by their own antagonisms when armoured cars, with police and army personnel, have been lined up every morning to protect Catholic primary school pupils taking the shortest route, walking through a ‘Protestant’ housing estate, through a ranting belligerent crowd.
In miniature, a scene reminiscent of 1969 when British Army personnel were deployed in Belfast, Derry and other towns to stop loyalist mobs attacking houses occupied by Catholics, in Bombay Street for instance. At the time of writing, despite efforts made by some politicians on both sides to help the residents to a reasonable accommodation, there has been no resolution. The salience of the issue has diminished as the tragic events of the 11th September in New York and Washington burst so dramatically on TV, radio and the media generally.
We are within a few days of Saturday the 22nd September, the end of the six weeks’ breathing or thinking space obtained by the device of 24 hours’ suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly whereby the impasse on decommissioning and the re-election of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister might be overcome.
It seems that the IRA has reconnected with the De Chastelain Commission and may have some proposal on the putting of arms irretrievably out of use. There is no confirmation of any specific action and the Ulster Unionists, among others, are still not prepared to renominate David Trimble as First Minister. Unless there is, then on Saturday next the Secretary of State has to decide on whether another 24 hour or longer suspension would allow more time to reach a settlement or hold fresh elections.
That would have been the main media preoccupation but since 11th September the momentous event, the enormous shock to the USA, when hijackers took over four American internal scheduled aircraft and crashed two of them, visible to millions of television viewers around the world, into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. Another was deliberately crashed into the centre of USA military might, the Pentagon in Washington. Another hijacked plane, on its way to another target, crashed into a field near Pittsburgh. Apparently passengers had struggled with the hijackers which prevented it reaching its target.
All those on board the planes died, as did thousands of workers and visitors of many nationalities, including Britain and Ireland, as the Twin Towers became a tangled mass of metal and rubble when they collapsed like a pack of cards, with people struggling down the stairways whilst fire and rescue personnel struggled up to attack the flames.
The full casualty figures have not been tabulated as yet, but the enormity of the atrocity can be judged by the fact that the number of dead and injured in the tragedy, in about an hour or less, and still mounting, greatly exceeds at least by a factor of two, the losses in life in over thirty years of the Northern Ireland troubles.
There is some speculation that the devastation and nature of the event might give some pause and thought to those involved in seeking compromise in the deadlock in the Northern Ireland peace process.
The preoccupation of national leaders around the world and the statements that an international coalition via NATO is to wage war on terrorism has meant that the British and Irish prime ministers have not been able to concentrate much attention on the difficulties of the Northern Ireland political situation.
Time is short and whether the IRA has a positive proposal in time for a Unionist rethink or acceptance that progress has been made is problematical And whether the IRA proposal would still stand and not be withdrawn were a short Assembly suspension to be made is an open question at the moment.
However, against the background of the international situation there is a slight possibility that a holding operation might allow agreement to be reached soon for none of the parties would want to see fresh elections at the moment or, in the present national and international climate, a total collapse of the Assembly and the painstakingly developed structures ‘rubbleised’ like New York’s Twin Towers.