Northern Ireland: Old and New Challenges

Since my last article events in the Middle East and the hunt for Al Queida and Taliban forces in Afghanistan have overshadowed the continuing wrangle as to whether or not the IRA, and by inference Sinn Féin, have been involved in training or advising Columbian rebels and also in the break-in to the Castlereagh Security Complex in East Belfast.

So the idea that Sinn Féin should be excluded again from participating in the Northern Ireland Executive unless they could prove otherwise surfaced once more and a meeting took place between David Trimble (First Minister – Ulster Unionist) and Gerry Adams (Sinn Féin President), apparently to discuss this and other issues.

Adams maintained, in his public statements, that his party had not been involved and drew attention to the fact that the IRA (for whom he said he didn’t speak) had denied any involvement in either event, and that their commitment to the Peace Process was shown by their second significant decommissioning of weaponry, not yet duplicated in any way by the Loyalist paramilitaries.

In his rebuttal of the claim that Republicans were implicated in Columbia and Castlereagh Adams alleged that it was part of a series of dirty tricks by security forces aimed at discrediting Sinn Féin as they contested seats in the Republic’s general election, due on May 17th.

Public and media attention was also focused on the Westminster Parliament when, putting their differences aside, leaders of government and opposition, and other members, joined in what is called the ‘Humble Address to the Monarch’, expressing their thanks for 50 years in the post to the incumbent Elizabeth II. Ian Paisley, the DUPs’ leader, summoned up a bit more rhetoric than anyone else, but in my view, more muted than his past contributions, obviously showing signs of age, and possibly his state of health.

Then the following week, members of Commons and Lords were summoned by the Monarch to a meeting in Westminster Hall so that she could speak to them in response, with all the paraphernalia and pageantry of state, followed by a procession back to the palace through central London.

As part of her Jubilee celebrations, she and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Northern Ireland, Omagh and Belfast included, where of course, as in the case of the above mentioned events, Republicans were not present

Sporadic confrontations have still occurred between Loyalist and Republican groups in North Belfast, the Police attacked by both sides. Spokespersons from the former say that ‘Mad Adair’, the Loyalist ex‑prisoner who had been returned to prison for breaking the conditions of his release, under the Good Friday Accord, once again released, would use his influence to calm things down. We shall see if he does intervene to this purpose.

It seems that Jeffrey Donaldson MP is still breathing down the neck of his leader, as a possible contender for the job, and he has tried to make something out of reports from customs that the IRA have been trying to smuggle in some new weaponry, thus violating their own ceasefire.

The Secretary of State, Dr. John Reid, despite allegations and rumours (true or false) has not made a statement that the IRA ceasefire is still intact but the agreement itself could be jeopardised if all the groups who signed it did not commit themselves fully to maintaining the Peace Process.

The Republic’s Parliamentary Election duly took place last Friday 17th May and although it had been predicted that Fianna Fáil would win an overall majority they narrowly failed to do so, taking around 80 seats, just less than 50% of the 166 available. They have as yet not formed a government as the largest party but are in negotiations with other parties to set up a coalition which is expected to be again with the Progressive Democrats, who are in fact a break‑away section of some years’ standing of Fianna Fáil.

The main opposition party, Fine Gael, lost around 20 seats and its leader, Michael Noonan, resigned so they have to elect a successor. The Labour Party did better than expected, about 20 were elected, a number of Independents and Greens also, as the count proceeded over the weekend in the 44 multi‑seat constituencies under the proportional representation procedures. Some tight recounts took place and at least one further recount has been set for Thursday 23rd May.

However, the most significant success was that of Sinn Féin whose overall vote improved considerably, who secured five seats, against the one held previously, one of which was one on the first count of first preference votes in a Dublin constituency.

What they will do with their success is another matter, now that they are no longer tied to an abstentionist policy in the North or South, although it still applies to the Westminster Parliament.

The Ulster unionists, and presumably the DUPs, are still pursuing the question of a referendum on the Six Counties remaining a part of the UK. Clearly Trimble, who has called for it, intends it to be a major issue in the Assembly Elections in 2003, indeed he wants to hold it on the same day as the Assembly election.

Sinn Féin have indicated that they will be likely to support the call and SDLP spokespersons seem to favour the idea.

Personally, I think it would be a mistake for Dr. John Reid, the Secretary of State, to agree to a referendum at this time, even though the parties, egged on by the challenge implied in David Trimble’s call, may agree. It should not be contemplated until the Assembly and the inclusive Executive have had at least another five years beyond 2003 and the full and intact working of the institutions set up under the Good Friday (1998) Accord.

The new government in the Republic would be well advised to inform the Westminster government that they too are opposed to this early referendum. In the first place it would mean a majority in favour of the status quo and a delay for a further seven years before another one could be held.

And secondly, in my view the citizens in the Republic, despite the increased support for Sinn Féin there, are not yet ready to accept unification, bearing in mind the considerable difficulties which still exist in the Six Counties.

Furthermore, more time is required for the Republic to consider the electoral and constitutional changes and social attitude changes by which unification could have a substantial majority to facilitate integration and be an attractive proposition to Northern majority communities.

Now that Sinn Féin have more clearly committed themselves to democratic politics, they will need to formulate policies, within an all‑Ireland framework, to cover the cross‑border institutions and advance cooperation in such a way as to reconciliation between the two northern communities without which prospects for for future unification is an impossible scenario.

Samuel H. Boyd

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