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Deal or no deal?

As Northern Ireland moves closer to the endgame Kevin Meagher says Labour should call Paisley’s bluff.

When the dust settles and the historians pick up their pens, the cultivation of the Northern Ireland political process will stand out as one of this Government’s shining achievements. Yet an endgame remains tantalisingly elusive.

A hardy perennial in the Prime Minister’s in-tray, Tony Blair’s joint statement last April with the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, set out the two governments’ considered view of how to implement the remainder of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and get Northern Ireland’s mothballed assembly back up and running.

The Government’s decision in October 2002 to suspend the assembly in the wake of the murky IRA spy ring saga centring on the role of British agent, Denis Donaldson, saw the entire political process grind to a halt.

The hope is that if the Assembly can establish a cross-community Executive by the deadline of 24th November, the show can be put back on the road.

If not, the assembly will be put into ‘cold storage’ and salaries and expenses for the 108 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) will be suspended with the British and Irish Governments navigating towards uncharted waters in terms of joint working.

In a bid to chivvy things along, the recent summit in St. Andrews between the two governments and the major parties sought to finesse the choreography for kick-starting the devolved assembly.

The November 24th date is sacrosanct, but the Governments have asked all parties to consult over the “confidence building measures” discussed at St. Andrews before November 10th with the possibility of a referendum in March to lock in agreement.

Despite the early promise of a substantive deal following the signing and successful ratification of the Good Friday Agreement, the process has now been reduced to appealing to the financial self-interest of Northern Ireland’s atypical political class.

So how are the parties responding to this ultimatum? Well, republicans have pressed on with their ‘post-war’ strategy of embracing political means to achieve their historical ends. Although the decommissioning of the IRA’s weapons has been a difficult rubicon to cross, this has now taken place. In their joint statement from April, Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair stated that they were “convinced the IRA no longer represents a terrorist threat.”

This makes Unionist resistance about working with ‘men of violence’ (code for representatives of Sinn Fein) all the more absurd, especially when the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) – the body set up to monitor paramilitaries - has found clear commitment by Sinn Fein and the republican movement to pursuing a peaceful, political strategy, echoing this view in a series of reports.

The latest report, published on 4th October, was ‘firmly of the view that PIRA is set on the political path.’ It found that the IRA leadership had ‘instructed its members not to undertake violence’ and ‘seeks to stop criminal activity by [its] members.’

But, as ever with Northern Ireland politics, when things look bad, there is still plenty of scope for them to get worse.

If political progress since 1998 has been slim, the emergence of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as the main vehicle for Northern Ireland ’s unionist community, has seen the prospects for advancement become positively anorexic.

Paisley ’s position is simple: he wants to be First Minister in a devolved assembly, but not if the price is power sharing with Sinn Fein. Despite the IRA’s historic break with the armed struggle and the verified decommissioning of its arsenal, Paisley sets the bar to progress a notch higher with each demand.

Over the years Irish republicans have been told the price of inclusion in the political process has been to declare whether their ceasefire was permanent, then told to decommission their weapons, then forgo all residual ‘criminal’ activity and now to swear oaths of allegiance to the police service. The goalposts have not so much shifted as been wheeled up and down the touchline on castors. Yet, slowly but surely, each condition is met.

But what galls republicans (and indeed, many in Britain ) is that unionists, time and again, are rewarded for their obduracy and lack of political vision.

For years, David Trimble, erstwhile leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), put off a ‘Clause Four moment’ with his party – a face off with his party’s grassroots in order to deal with the new political realities thrown up by a fast-changing political process.

As a result of his tepid leadership, unionist myopia was never sufficiently challenged and Trimble found himself unable to command a party that didn’t intellectually accept the need to move with the times. He quickly found himself neutered by party hardliners, unable to take the statesmanlike leaps that history demanded.

Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party has much simpler DNA. The DUP came into existence three decades ago to challenge the UUP’s soggy middle-of-the-road politics. Its opposition to the Good Friday Agreement comes from its collective gut. For that matter, the DUP has opposed every other attempt at power sharing for the past 30 years.

Paisley, perhaps the worst ever advertisement for organised Christianity, has made his name as a Catholic-baiting demogogue for forty years.

It is the supreme expression of hope over reality to think that a hard-boiled moral literalist like Ian Kyle Paisley will ever find it within himself to share power with his political – and, as he sees it, religious enemies.

For despite the best hopes of the other players, come November it is highly likely that Ian Paisley will shrug the hand of history off his shoulder and retreat into the insular, blinkered mindset of old. He is now willing to do a deal with the moderate SDLP, but there is simply no incentive for Ian Paisley to countenance sharing power with Sinn Fein, now or ever.

Paisley’s brand of unionism simply cannot take the intellectual leap from being a party sniping from the sidelines at mainstream unionism’s ‘sellout’ to having to follow the same pragmatic path he has ritually denounced others for taking.

The outlook for November is therefore bleak indeed. But this time things must be different. This time there should be consequences for non-cooperation. Instead of allowing hardline unionism a veto over political progress, the Government should press ahead with the parts of the agreement within its gift to pursue.

This is expressly the ‘North-South dimension’ - co-operation with the Irish Republic over a host of policy issues. Interestingly, this is alluded to in the St. Andrews agreement, as reference to ‘Plan B’.

This approach is hardly revolutionary. Margaret Thatcher realised that there was merit (and indeed, legitimacy) in co-operation with Dublin when she signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1984, which gave the Republic of Ireland consultee status over aspects of mutual cross-border interest for the first time.

But Peter Hain should go further. If the Good Friday Agreement (as modified by the St. Andrews accord) founders due to unionist intransigence, he should make it clear that cross border bodies and the inescapable logic of integration between Northern Ireland and the Republic opens up the real prospect of joint sovereignty.

Ian Paisley has worked to destroy every attempt at political reconciliation throughout his turbulent political career. He must not be given another scalp with the destruction of this process. The prospect of losing his allowances (he remains an MP and MEP) will hardly deter him. But the prospect of losing the Union might.

Irish republicans have come a long way, in genuinely accommodating their worldview and making real and substantive efforts to find a progressive way of living together with unionists.

Ian Paisley must do likewise, whether or not Peter Hain has to twist his arm halfway up his back to do it.