hen 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
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
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
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that they were “convinced the IRA no longer
represents a terrorist threat.”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
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
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
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
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