Commemorations, Resignations and Speculations

This is the first article I have written since the turn of the year, being content to wait and watch on digital TV Prime Minister’s Question Time at Westminster and the First Minister equivalents from the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Assemblies, their similarities, differences and relationships.

In Wales those I saw were not particularly exciting, the Labour / Plaid Cymru Coalition seeming to hold together though bubbling under the surface. Some doubt that Welsh Labour MPs are all enthusiastic to grant the Assembly additional powers.

This uncertainty has been fuelled by Paul Murphy’s apparent reluctance, in some statements, to pursue this as strongly as his predecessor as Secretary of State, Peter Hain.

In Scotland First Minister Salmond has given hints of clear aspirations for independence, in the way he has rattled the cage structures of the Union.

The Northern Ireland sessions that I’ve seen have been uneventful, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister answering questions in a similar factual way.

Outside chamber procedures however, in media interviews Ian Paisley has said that Sinn Féin / IRA have been defeated and were not now really Republicans. By becoming members of the Joint executive and being prepared to join policing boards they have accepted the Union.

Such statements, as far as I can judge, have not provoked much response from Martin McGuinness or Gerry Adams who seemed to have carried on business as usual. Indeed, Adams has called for the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, including the transfer of policing to the Assembly.

McGuinness attended the Commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, attended by Taoiseach Ahern, Republic ministers and other party personnel when the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was read, as is the custom each year.

Shortly after the Easter recess there came two surprise statements, one from Ian Paisley at Stormont, the other from Dublin by Ahern.

The First Minister said he was standing down from office on May 1st.

Prior to his statement his son Ian had been involved in some property deals as well as being involved in some of his father’s ministerial duties from which he resigned and had taken up some other ministerial responsibility.

It was made clear that this had no connection with his father’s standing down in which he had said that, having secured the position of Northern Ireland in the Union, he could safely vacate the roles of First Minister and Leader of the DUP.

It is expected that in due course the Deputy Party Leader of many years, Peter Robinson, will replace him as Leader ‑ whether there will be a contest remains to be seen, although no candidates have as yet raised their heads above the parapet.

Whoever replaces the old bull frog as party leader will, as per the the Saint Andrew’s Agreement of 2007, automatically become First Minister.

The position of Ian Paisley Junior as his father’s minder will of course be changed and he will no doubt be considering his future.

He may perhaps be looking to Westminster as a possibility if his dad should decide to vacate his seat there for health or other reasons, such as elevation to the Lords, where he could renew his acquaintance with his friend / enemy, David Trimble.

That, of course, could be prevented by a reform of structure and form of entry, i.e., an electoral process, although he could scrape in before such a change.

If that be the aspiration of ‘Little Sir Echo’ he would find other contenders in his way, for many would be opposed to this sort of father to son succession, thinking that he does not quite measure up the old man’s image.

I had reached the point in my survey, from notes I had made over a week or so, when, as is often the case, another turn of events cropped up to influence the direction I had intended to take.

This was the announcement by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern that he too was standing down from office ‑ on May 6th.

He has been under pressure in the media about his statements on his financial affairs at the Mahon Tribunal, which had been sitting for a long time, about which his opponents had made much comment and political capital.

I have no details of this investigation which would justify comment except whatever the conclusions of the tribunal may be they should not be allowed to obscure the important part he played in the Good Friday Agreement of 10 April 1998.

There have been considerable tributes across the spectrum in Ireland, the UK and beyond to the way he persuaded his party and the Irish electorate to accept the changes to Articles 2 and 3 of the Republic's constitution and to give an overwhelming endorsement to the Good Friday Agreement and to those changes.

Tributes to Bertie Ahern and his crucial role included those by the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, by his successor, Gordon Brown, by the former Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Paul Murphy, by the former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble.

We have now reached the position where on May 6th, if no further resignations take place, only two of the principal participants in the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, remain in office.

The former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, who died around two years ago, Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, Paul Murphy, David Trimble and John Hume (former leader of the SDLP) are no longer participants as the ongoing rolling out of the terms of that historic understanding takes place.

There will be much to argue about and much frustration but if one can rely on statements from both communities violent imposition is not contemplated.

Recent television documentaries have shown the nature of the difficulties overcome and those still remaining. '‘The Secret Peacemaker’ by Peter Taylor (BBC, Panorama, 7 April) showed the physical separation and barriers still existing and even extending and suggested that the communities are not heading for integration. A permanent agreed truce rather than a common agenda and cohesive enclaves separated geographically appear to exist still.

There will, of course, be new dynamics as the necessity of economics, joint projects and common objectives kick in. This will foster much closer cooperation between the two parts of the island of Ireland of a kind unknown since Partition ripped them apart economically and politically in the early 1920s.

With Ian Paisley (hopefully) relegated practical issues will become more important and ideological issues set aside in the search for socially acceptable solutions.

Many of the plaudits issued out to Ian Paisley for his coming to terms with reality, personified in resignation from leadership, must surely have been delivered tongue in cheek.

I personally cannot set aside his fomenting and mentoring of violence while ostensibly keeping his hands clean. His obstruction in the 1960s of even the tentative overtures of Terence O'Neill’s reconciliation efforts and his encouragement of Major Bunting in his attacks on civil rights marchers at Buntullet and his many fulminations over half a century will stay in my mind.

I wish to go on record, even before such an idea is even whispered, that any suggestion that he should be considered for a Nobel Peace Prize is risible in the extreme and must be rejected for the nonsense it would be.

I understand that according to the regulations the previous Nobel Prizes to both John Hume and David Trimble bar any further such awards on the same issue.

However, if all the participants who, over a number of years, pursued the purpose which culminated - and is continuing - in the current positive situation were mentioned collectively in some document to commemorate the giant step taken on April 10 1998 it would be a fitting tribute to their efforts.

The title of this article arises from my concern that because of other commemorations, e.g, that of Easter 1916, may cause some confusion over dates.

The actual date of the rising in Dublin was 24th April ‑ 3 years and 2 days before I was born ‑ 92 years ago. The Good Friday Agreement was signed on 10th April 1998, the crucial time in the negotiations from the 9th and the early hours of the following morning.

It is salutary to remember that when Ian Paisley stands down as party leader and First Minister it will be 92 years and 1 day since the Easter Rising ended.

By the time Taoiseach Bertie Ahern stands down on 6th May it will be 92 years and a few days since most, if not all, of the leaders had been executed.

It is indeed tragic that much of the bloody history which followed could have been avoided if rationality had prevailed. We have now arrived at the point which should have been conceded many years ago.

Today in the local library I chanced to pick up a book of political quotations. It included a number from Ian Paisley which he might now ponder and perhaps think of eating is words.

At his party's AGM (‘Irish Times’ , 6 December 1997): “I will walk on no grave of Ulster’s honoured dead to do a deal with the IRA or the British government”.

On the Good Friday Agreement (‘Irish Times’, 16 May 1998): “They have graduated from the Devil’s school. They have destroyed the Act of Union and given the title deeds of Ulster to Dublin on a plate”.

A few days later he was to refer to that agreement as “The mother of all treachery”.

Later, referring to his Queen and her speech in Parliament he said that being so ready to repeat the Prime Minister’s words, “She had become a parrot”.

There are some who might say, “There will never be his like again”.

Rational common sense people, with the interest of equality of rights and of opportunities in mind, will want to paraphrase Eliza Dolittle’s famous words in ‘Pygmalion’ to say fervently that “We hope it is not bloody likely that there will”!

©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, Wales, 9 APRIL 2008.

Samuel H. Boyd