Historical Chinks — And Strange Bedfellows

The old ‘Bullfrog’ of the Orange marches down the Garvaghy Road and elsewhere, the former leader of the church he founded and helped to raise funds for, the former leader of the DUP which he started and the former First Minister which office he has just now vacated is still hanging on as an Assembly Member and as an MP at Westminster.

His unmelodious and very discordant utterances may be muted, but the maladies he represented still linger on and many moons will pass before they merge into silence and tolerance.

He gave advance notice that he would be standing down as party leader, therefore also as First Minister, on May 1st, but somehow or other it didn’t happen until the month end. Nonetheless it was most welcome, though many long years overdue, butb in my view in the best interests of Northern Ireland.

I heard his interview on RTÉ on Sunday 1st June in which he asserted that the Union was stronger as a result of his activities, and its future assured, that the IRA had been defeated in its Republican aims and could not succeed and that its Army Council should disband before Sinn Féin’s bonafides of non violence could be fully accepted.
On taking over the DUP leadership his former Deputy, Peter Robinson, became the party’s nominee as First Minister and made a similar statement, eching the Paisley pronouncement.

Whether history ill confirm their view that the ‘Union’ is unalterable remains to be seen, for the Good Friday, 10th April 1998 Agreement, makes provision for a referendum whereby unification of the island can be effected if the proposed terms are considered acceptable by the voters in Northern Ireland. However, the Agreement does not specify the size of the majority needed to validate transference.

The 1998 Accord was endorsed by the signatures of all the political parties of Northern Ireland except the DUP wh excluded themselves, by the British and Irish governments, by the referendums in both jurisdictions and ultimately by the DUP’s acceptance of changes made at St. Andrew’s in 2007, which legally binds them also to the possibility of ending Partition by non violent means.

For a little while during the first week of June there was some uncertainty as to whether the Assembl might once more be dissolved, because of issues around the devolving of police powers.

Sinn Féin had threatened not to nominate for the position of Deputy First Minister, without which the Assembly could not function, so that direct rule would automatically return.

However, after a series of meetings between the DUP and Sinn Féin as well as with the British and Irish governments, including Prime Minister Gordon Brown, some understandings were reached, but not made public. The nominations of Peter Robinson, DUP, and Martin MacGuinness, Sinn Féin, were duly put forward as First Minister and Deputy First Minister respectively.

The time and extent to which police powers will eventually be devolved has not yet been agreed but appear to be subject to satisfactory changes in the political structures of thev participants, to underpin the disavowal of violence.

It seems to me that there are many contentious matters, in addition to the above, which will occupy attention. For example, the siting of a sports stadium and Community Centre on the site of the former Maze Prison, and selection procedures for pupils in the education system.

On the other hand, there is a little ray of sunshine in that now, for the second time, a Catholic member of Belfast City Council has been elected by that body as its Lord Mayor.

The future possible removal of the ‘Peace Barriers’ at certain community interfaces still remains as an elephant n the living room, and as yet there’s no sign of its exit.

The basis of the 1998 Agreement envisaged that joint cross‑border economic and social integration would contribute to understanding and promote further integration and perhaps remove the separation of the island which has existed since 1920. That remains an aspiration which only time may answer.

As I recall, Ian Paisley opposed UK entry into the European Union, allegedly according to some, because it was based on the Treaty of Rome, the mention of which was anathema to him and his political and religious doctrines.

It is again a strange quirk of history that he has some affinity then with Sinn Féin, who have joined the ‘No’ campaign for the referendum on Thursday June 12th on the Lisbon Treaty in the Republic of Ireland. It is the only country in the EU wich is doing so because its constitution requires it to hold one.

According to opinion polls three days before polling day the issue is in the balance, with the ‘No’ voters breathing down the necks of the ‘Yes’ campaign. If the ‘No’ voters win the treaty is lost, for all 27 member states must ratify it for its provisions to be implemented.

If the voters in the Republic of Ireland reject this treaty, the campaign to get the British Government to hold a referendum will lose momentum and ease the pressure exerted by the Conservative opposition, which might leave them with some egg on their faces.

Just at the last moment, the main political parties in the Republic have come together, undertaking that they will encourage their party organisations in concerted action to bring their supporters out to boost the ‘Yes’ vote for the Lisbon Treaty.

It would certainly not enhance the standing of the Irish state in the eyes of other European members if they, who had benefited so considerably financially and economically, dealt a blow to this revision in the structures.

So this week, the day before the Lisbon Treaty referendum, there is also a crucial vote at Westminster on the Anti Terrorism Bill, especially on proposals to extend the period of detention without charge of suspected terrorists from 28 to 42 days.

Speaking for myself, I am inclined to support this extension with the judicial safeguards surrounding and curtailing its operation.

There is an argument that it is a parallel situation to that which lay behind the institution of internment in Ireland. In my view itb is different. The conditions were different and had a political focus, and a history of failed efforts to achieve legitimate objectives by constitutional means which were opposed by state forces coupled with armed civilian assistance.

It is strange to find members of the opposition in the British Parliament whose forebears tolerated and even supported the 1920 Special Powers Act under the old Stormont regime for fifty years as well as the introduction in 1972 by the then Conservative Government of internment without trial in Northern Ireland now claiming to be defenders of the liberty of the individual. The same sort of people who, in 1985, had the police stop miners on the motorway who were on their way to support striking colleagues on the picket lines, and sequestered trade union funds.

I suspect that they are not really interested in civil liberties but are simply using every stick they can find to belabour the govrnment, hoping to gain political advantage. Opinion polls, however, seem to support the government’s view on the issue. It is a ploy to create division among Labour MPs and between them and their leader.

This issue comes to a head on Wednesday 11th June. There are rumours that the DUP members may go into the ‘Yes’ lobby or abstain because they have reached some sort of Northern Ireland deal with the UK government, making the passage of the Bill more possible.

It could also be a pointer to their giving support in Gordon Brown’s answer to the MP Sammy Wilson during Prime Minister’s Question Time on Wednesday 4th June when he said that he would resist any attempt to manoevre a dissolution of the Assembly.

The support of the DUPs may also be coloured by the stance which the Prime Minister has taken of opposing any attempt to detach Scotland from the rest of the UK.

My own view is that Scotland and Wales are in an entirely different historical, political and economic relationship than was Irland in the 20th century and earlier. So a case can be made, with the extension of the devolution process, for the Union to be maintained.

The conditions of the Good Friday Agreement, including the St. Andrew’s alterations, place the Six Counties in a unique position. It was an international treaty which, carried to its logical conclusion, would right the wrongs and consolidate the relationship, now well established, between the two states.

I had finished most of this article by the 10th June so this is by way of a postscript. Last evening the House of Commons voted by a majority of nine votes to support the increase, surrounded by juridical safeguards, from the current 28 to 42 days of detention without charge of those suspected of terrorist activities.

The ‘Yes’ votes included, as expected, the nine members of the DUP, the exact number of the majority which the proposal obtained.

Mark Durkham of the SDLP gave an impassioned speech in favour of a ‘No’ vote. As I said earlier, based on my own knowledge and experience, it is a serious mistake to think that the present threats to public safety are in parallel with the history of events in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

In their speeches, opposition MPs posed as defenders of civil liberties and claimed that their approach was founded on lessons learned in Ireland in the thre to four decades of violence, not fully realising the full import of their claim.

In fact they were unwittingly validating the need for the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, and, just as unwittingly, questioning their tolerance of the 1920 Special Powers Act which under the Stormont regime operated for 50 years in Northern Ireland.

They were also unknowingly questioning the internment imposed by the Heath Conservative Government in 1972 and the ‘Shoot to kill’ policy used in Gibraltar and other occasions. They were also making one remember the Conservative Prime Minister Thatcher’s attitude to the hunger‑striking prisoners seeking political status in 1980 and to their deaths, including that of Bobby Sands. He had been elected an MP while in prison.

Finally, I reiterate that the situation on public safety is in no way analagous to the events in Ireland, a new situation which the increased powers of detention without charge are to deal with. Those who claim that it is are drawing an erroneous conclusion because the long historical difficulties had a legitimate focus, which, when fully recognised, led to a solution in Ireland.

The international Obama Bin Laden‑inspired movement is aimed at procuring, among other things, an Islamic state with its own laws within any state which has citizens with that belief system, which no country can accede to. Such a political focus / solution is therefore not possible.

In respect of the Lisbon Treaty the voting in the Irish Republic is taking place today. Whether it will be ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ is in the balance and if ‘No’, there will be serious consequences.

Samuel H. Boyd