Northern Ireland: Is the Past — Due to Be Recycled?

At present the Northern Ireland political situation can be likened to the ‘Big Brother’ television programmes. The inmates in the ‘house’, with inhibitions discarded, activate themselves in one to one and group encounters, dialogue, performances and contests while millions of viewers watch them carry out tasks set by the programmers.

Viewers are asked to vote by text, e-mail or telephone who should have to leave the ‘house’, to the point where only one of the motley crowd remains to receive a financial reward.

The politicians in respect of the operation and structures of the Good Friday Agreement (1998) have so conducted themselves that they have all been turfed out of the Assembly, not by people voting, but by ‘Big Brother Westminster’ and concurrence by ‘Little Brother Dublin’ on three occasions. At times some have have taken ‘the huff’ and absented themselves, thus making devolved government unworkable.

During and after the Christmas recess much talk has centred on the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill (‘runaways’) which had been one of the issues discussed at Weston Park in July 2005 and hammered out to a consensus of the parameters. Only later (in December) was this followed by Sinn Féin’s objection to the inclusion of the security forces within the scope of the proposed legislation.

I touched upon this in my previous article and was of the opinion that if progress in the peace process was their aim and intention it was a strange way of doing it. And most peculiar that the forces wanting (or so they say) the 1998 Accord implemented had come to the same point of opposition to the Bill as that of those who have obstructed and opposed that agreement from the beginning. Have the lunatics, as they say, taken over the asylum?

Twelve or more Secretaries of State with supporting ministers, two First Ministers and hosts of civil servants and advisers have wrestled with the vagaries, nuances and circularity of the arguments over three decades at least.

They have moved, gingerly and circumspectly at times and at others with crass stupidity, through the labyrinth of the northern political hinterland, bewitched, bothered, frustrated and bewildered, deceiving themselves and others that they know what they’re about.

We now have the latest two twists in the complicated convolutions. Because of Sinn Féin now objecting to the ‘runaways’ legislation the attitude of the opposition parties at Westminster plus all the other Northern Ireland parties, Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, has withdrawn the proposed bill. No doubt the British government believes, in view of this situation, that the House of Lords would probably oppose and likely reject it, in that sort of climate.

The we have Gerry Kelly, speaking for Sinn Féin, saying that they might be prepared to examine the role of the Northern Ireland Police Board. Is this a straw in the wind, a glimmer of light in the labyrinthine tunnel, a diversion, or just a ‘talk about’ to stay off the suggestion that if the Assembly isn’t working why should its members still be paid their salaries?

In other times in Irish history, when an agreement or solution had seemed possible differences between the parties at Westminster and divisions within them have botched and frustrated progress. We are dangerously close to such a situation, which will militate against all efforts to achieve any progress of note.

Meanwhile, commercial forces, by the nature of the economic situation, are forming their own links and the ministers from London and Dublin are working in concert within the framework for devolved government instead of its being done by an administration consisting of the locally elected members of the Assembly.

If there is no change in stances, despite the IRA decommissioning and statement that in effect “The war is over”, then the consequences may lead to a decision, under the clause in the 1998 Agreement that at the end of seven years the working of the devolved government structure could or will be reviewed.

Then we would have a ludicrous situation where it was not its ‘working’ that was being examined but, because of its several suspensions and periods of direct rule, its ‘not working’. Then the conclusion that a fresh start, a clean sheet, a ‘back to the drawing board’ momentum might arise.

And what sort of a message would that send to the dissidents, in both political camps, who, despite the main responsibility for the stalemate resting with their own Northern Ireland politicians, might let the cry ‘Perfidious Albion’ be heard. This would be reminiscent of the abrogation of the Home Rule Bill of 1914 until after the end of World War 1.

On the other hand, if the Six County economy develops in conjunction with that of the Republic will the electorate in the former simply accept that they are benefitting and worry less and less about the Assembly and be content to let the political elite argue interminably while they enjoy the benefit of a thriving economy. Of course if if there was a serious downturn there might be those who who would ‘turn the clock back’. That indeed would be a sorry end to the present chapter of history.

©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, Wales, 16 January, 2006.

Samuel H. Boyd