Cautious Optimism

It is almost nine years since the Belfast Agreement on 10th April 1998 was hailed as the turning point in the Northern Ireland peace process. It was an event which I too welcomed as most of the political groups had themselves participated in the negotiations.

Alas, there was a spanner in the works, Ian Paisley, who had, along with his party, refused to join in the discussions. Since then his shadow has hung over efforts to fully implement the operation of the agreement, bedeviling all attempts to make it work.

Each step along the way, and each time the IRA and the Sinn Féin leadership tried to bring the Nationalist community into dialogue and cooperation, was belittled and dismissed as insufficient.

Unionists such as David Trimble were accused of letting down their communities and were castigated Paisleyites as ‘Lundys’ and as traitors to the cause.

I have seen today, the 26th of March, the same kind of euphoria that greeted the Good Friday accord nearly nine years ago, with historic references to the past and to the long bloody saga of Northern Ireland. However, I am myself reluctant to throw my hat in the air, despite the possibility that the Paisley Leopard is really a new animal with a changed skin pattern.

Has the penny really dropped with Big Ian? Is there any deep strategy lurking? Will he, is plotting ahead so that difficulties in reaching understandings can be shuffled off on to his Sinn Féin partners / opponents? Has he succeeded in bringing his dissident members, including his MLAs, into line as his MEP, Jim Allister, has resigned from the party in protest? Have his more pragmatic close colleagues persuaded him to set aside his own personal past and to assume a different place in the Unionist Pantheon?

Of course I would like to accept that it is a real turning point and that a rosy, cooperative and prosperous future lies ahead for all my compatriots. they have suffered long from the inability of the majority to grant equal citizenship status to the minority. that lay at the root of the onset of three decades or more of turbulence. In the person now named as possible First Minister there is much responsibility for the past insurgencies.

Personally I would not have given Paisley and the DUP any more time. They have had many months, if not years, to join the peace process and enough space since and before St. Andrews to come to terms with reality.

However, it appears that Sinn Féin accepts the undertaking that the DUP will join with them in the Joint Executive on Tuesday 8th May and in the intervening period engage in regular discussions with them and other parties in preparation for government. So, I am inclined to wait and see before reaching a conclusion. Indeed, that the first step to be taken jointly is an approach to the Chancellor Gordon Brown for an improved financial package could be considered a good omen.

There are many long memories in Ireland, North and South, and physical reminders of the conflict are ever present in the North. They will not be easy to assuage, but if concentration is focused on the social ills which have befallen both communities such a joint attack can replace the divisions which have long kept them apart.

It is at least a new use for emergency legislation, one to make progress more assured, rather than its use in the past to deal with outbreaks of civil disorder.

So with cautious optimism I await developments.

©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran. 26 March 2007.

Samuel H. Boyd