In a previous article I outlined what I understood to be the position in respect of the due date of the next Northern Ireland Assembly election. Following this I wrote to my MP, Hugh Edwards(Monmouth), who raised the matter with the Northern Ireland Office. He received a reply, dated 27 July 2000, from George Howarth MP, Parliamentary under Secretary of State.
It appears that although the initial elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly were in June 1998 it would seem that, according to George Howarth MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, the four year term did not start from 25 June of that year. This is not the usual position for bodies elected within the UK>
Whilst I accept that with the electoral system in the regional assemblies their make-up is problematical and have a bearing on the life of particular assemblies, it would in my view be better if the four year term was mandatory and especially in Northern Ireland, because of its unique features and the need for cross-community inclusiveness.
However, my concern regarding the possible coincidence of the Northern Ireland and UK election dates (which should not be later than spring 2002) has been addressed in the minister’s reply.
In my last article (Prisoners of History) I said that if we could survive the flashpoints of the summer marching season and the various commemorations things might quieten down so that the inclusive administration could begin to function and bed down. Simmering away, of course, were the pots of potential violent possibilities as internal struggles for hegemony were taking place within and between paramilitary loyalist groups, some supporting and others opposing the Good Friday Agreement (1998).
This has exploded on to the streets of Shankill Road (West Belfast) involving the Ulster Freedom Fighters, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association, leaving three dead and others injured, an arson attack on the home of one of the victims and now an eleven year-old schoolgirl seriously injured in Coleraine by shots fired into her home. The political leaders of the Ulster Democratic Party and the Progressive Unionist Party are struggling to bring things back under control while troops for the first time in two years are again deployed on the streets in support of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
The position is still fluid and tense, revolving around whether they support or oppose the implementation of the Belfast Agreement of Easter 1998, which underwrites the Peace process, as agreed between Unionists, Nationalists and Republicans.
The British Conservative spokesperson, Andrew McKie, has called for the return to prison of those paramilitaries recently released as part of the accord. On the basis that Johnie Adair, a loyalist commander, has breached his conditions of release the Secretary of State has had him returned to prison.
Although religious leaders in the area have offered to mediate between the warring groups those close to and well informed of the attitudes which exercise the loyalist paramilitaries express the view that until there is an equality of damage inflicted on each group there is little chance of mediation being accepted. At present two are dead on one side and only one on the other ...
The annual Twelfth of July Orange parades and the Apprentice Boys’ demonstration in Derry passed off with only a few minor difficulties and the marchers on the Lower Ormeau Road in Belfast complied (under protest) with the restrictions imposed by the Parades Commission.
The flashpoints which occurred in the Shankill road arose from marches of particular paramilitary groups parading in military formation and distinctive apparel. This is an activity outside the scope of the Parades Commission and must be causing concern to the security authorities.
Such a parade would not be permitted in any other part of the UK as the Act introduced in the 1930s, when Moseley’s Blackshirts paraded, forbids the wearing of uniforms in such parades.
The position is still delicate and tense so that action on a blanket basis to return the prisoners to custody without taking them through the courts on firm conclusive evidence could precipitate more difficulties and start to unravel the whole peace process.
It is this problematical aspect hanging over the situation which forces caution and circumspection on the authorities and the security forces and, paradoxically, encourages continuing displays by paramilitaries to show their numbers in strength on the streets.
We should soon be at the end of the Orange marches – the last Saturday in August will have seen the main remaining one of the larger parades as the ‘Royal Black Preceptory’, colloquially called the ‘Black Men’ round off the season. The Drumcree situation is still a permanent bone of contention.
I swing between pessimism and hope that as the inclusive Executive begins to function recent events are the dying throes of the conflict and that the issues of building a prosperous thriving tolerant society will become the dominant preoccupation of both communities.