Northern Ireland - The Long Long Tale / Tail Unwinding
Over the last six months much media attention has been focused on the ravages of the foot and mouth virus in sheep and cattle speculating whether, even with the massive cull, there might be a long tail to the disease.
The problems in Northern Ireland might, in human terms, be likened to Foot and Mouth in that we have had the long war and its deaths so the question arises, is the impasse in the Peace Process with sporadic outbreaks and flareups as displayed at the foot of the Cave Hill in North Belfast and other areas recently, a prelude to the long awaited peace? Or is it a recurrence of the communal sectarian rioting that sparked off the violence and killings of the last 30 years which most people hoped had been ended by the Belfast Accord (1998).
Before the package from the two governments (said to be non-negotiable) based on what pro-agreement parties had said at Weston Park were published on 1st August Ulster Unionists were condemning it in advance although they had only an imprecise knowledge of its likely contents.
David Trimble, former or ex- First Minister, has publicly stated on radio and television before and subsequent to its publication, that unless there is a positive move by the (Provisional) IRA to put weapons irretrievably beyond use he and his party will no longer participate in government with Sinn Féin. He has also said that if there is no progress in that direction the review of the Agreement, as set out in its text in April 1998, should be implemented.
His precarious hold on the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party has been further undermined by two of his Westminster colleagues, Jeffrey Donaldson (possible contender for that job) and David Burnside (South Antrim, who, although he failed to win the seat at the bye-election on the death of its sitting member, regained the seat for the Ulster Unionists at the general election on 7th June) who have both disassociated themselves from support for the Good Friday Agreement.
The package from the 2 governments, a fairly short statement of 22 paragraphs, has not been well received by pro as well as anti agreement Unionists nor with any great enthusiasm by Nationalists and Republicans. Sinn Féin, at a special Executive meeting to consider the proposals, indicated that their full response is not likely to be given by Monday 6th August, the deadline set by both governments.
Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin President, has called for the publication of a detailed document associated with the implementation of the package so that they can give full consideration to its acceptance or rejection and makes it clear that the time for response should be extended.
The Ulster Unionists’ initial response is that the package is orientated towards Nationalists and Republicans and see nothing substantial in it for themselves and reiterate that decommissioning is the central question and that unless the paramilitaries, the IRA in particular, begin measures satisfactory to the De Chastelain Commission they will be withdrawing co-operation in government and the ball will be firmly in the Westminster government’s court.
The Ulster Unionist strategy (using decommissioning as the excuse), the slowing down or delaying of the full implementation of the Patten Report and Trimble’s post-dated resignation hoping for a change of government at Westminster has signally failed.
What they find unacceptable in the package are proposals contained in paragraphs 8,9,10 and 11 which in essence promise a more specific application of the Patten Report on Policing, rather more than the watered down measures introduced by the former Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson. In my view, expressed previously on this website, his lack of understanding, shown in his statements and actions and in his lack of a sense of the content and complexity of the problem, made him unsuitable for the post.
Sinn féin are also calling for more specific details on what the term ‘demilitarisation’ means in respect of paragraph 15 concerning measures by which the military presence, bases and observation towers can be reduced and / or removed.
As ever in the previous stages of the Peace Process over the years paradoxes abound. The Ulster Unionists have pushed the question of decommissioning to the top of the agenda mainly for internal party reasons (despite their denials) and to maintain the slight edge the have at present over the DUPs.
By so doing, to put Republicans under pressure on the issue, they make it difficult for them to yield which strengthens the ploy of the dissidents in the Real IRA who are thought to be behind the recent bomb in Ealing as a warning sign of their presence to the Provisionals as well as everyone else, making it more tricky for Sinn Féin to persuade the IRA (Provos) towards the disposal of weapons.
And Unionists, while pushing on the weapons issue, are complaining that the Package document is full of concessions to Nationalists and Republicans and see nothing of any value to themselves, claiming that they have conceded more than enough already.
They are still not prepared to accept that if the history of 50 years of ‘The old Stormont regime’ is to be finally set aside the structural changes contained in the Good Friday Agreement, the Patten proposals and the items in the Package must, to redress those discriminatory years, produce, for want of a better phrase, a ‘green tinge’ to all the documents.
By raising the profile of decommissioning they raise the necessity for reassurances to Nationalists and Republicans to persuade them to accept more firmly the idea, which is the thrust of the Package, that ‘politics works’. Thus it is hoped to reduce or minimise the appeal of the Real IRA and help the Provos and Sinn Féin to be more inclined to move to decommission.
paradoxically also, if the Ulster Unionists insist on rejecting the Package their rejection and arguments strengthen the argument for acceptance by Nationalists and Republicans.
So unless there are further incidents involving Loyalist paramilitaries to halt further progress (they seem to have the same goal in that respect as the Real IRA) it ,may be that David Trimble’s strategy may have strengthened Sinn féin’s position (not his intention!), especially if there is a specific Provisional IRA action on weapon disposal.
If this should take place he will no doubt claim credit for it, not fully realising that this unintended outcome, a strengthened Sinn féin, is the result of his maladroit handling of the issue.
There are rumours that the IRA may, if they get some additional assurances with regard to the latest Package (if they have not already been given them), make some move. However it is not likely just yet so that it will require more time before before they make a move.
In the meantime, the idea of a one day suspension of the Assembly is gaining strength, designed as a means of extending time for consideration, postponing decisions.
The Package, said to be non-negotiable, will in effect be a consultative document, clarifications will abound and maybe a satisfactory compromise in September. This is the optimistic view.
On the other hand, this may fail to happen and the melting pot of fresh elections change the entire landscape, detrimentally.
It may be thus a sad tale of lost opportunities – a long tail unwinding.