Posturing Isn't Politics Working – It's Politicking
In his speech at the Labour Party Conference (2 October) former US President Bill Clinton said, "Politics works!". Two days later the Northern Ireland police mounted a high profile raid, complete with armoured vehicles, on Sinn Féin offices in the Stormont Assembly buildings. They also raided the homes of some Republican activists in North and West Belfast.
Four people have been arrested and two have been charged with being in possession of information of use to terrorists. One of those charged was Denis Donaldson, former prisoner and now head of Sinn Féin's administration in Stormont.
The precise nature of the information in question has not been and is unlikely to be divulged. However, it is alleged that a spy or mole has had access to correspondence between Prime Minister Blair, Taoiseach Ahern and Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Dr. John Reid, as well as to files in the Security Ministry offices.
On the BBC's regular Radio 4 programme, Any Questions, on Friday October 4 one of the questions posed by a member of the studio audience was, "Does the raid on the Sinn Féin offices signal the beginning of the end of the Northern Ireland peace process?".
The four panel members, from their particular standpoints, felt – and hoped in varying degrees – that, though serious, it would not. Charles Clarke MP, the Labour Party Chairman, expressed confidence that Dr. John Reid, with his wisdom and experience, was best placed to keep the process going.
Following the repeat of the programme on Saturday October 5 a half hour slot is available for comments by listeners so, addicted as I am to such opportunities I rang in seeking to participate.
Now, on other occasions, I have enquired about the basis on which producers determined the priority of the questions to be given air time. I have been told that it was based on the volume of callers who responded to each of the issues discussed by the studio panel. A higher number of responses would have the best chance which, on the face of it, seemed reasonable.
However, on Saturday October 5 when I said that I wanted to comment on the Stormont raid I was told that no comments would on this question.
This, I think, amounts to a censorship by the producer for by refusing to take such comments it was ensured that none were received. Why did they take the question from the audience in the first place if they were not going to allow listeners to comment?
To try to answer that question about the consequences of the raid and its impact on the peace process it is necessary to put it into the context of the current state of that process.
First of all, unlike the IRA, there has as yet been no significant decommissioning by Loyalist paramilitaries. Some of their claims to be on ceasefire are not considered valid. They appear to be engaged in internecine fights and two leading Loyalist paramilitaries, 'Mad Dog' Adair and John White have been expelled from their organisation.
There is dissent in the Ulster Unionist Party, about which I have written previously, related to the deadline of January 18 2003, set by its leader, Trimble, who says that if he is not satisfied by then with Sinn Féin's commitment to the peace process next year.
e and his colleagues will withdraw from the Executive/
This tactic was designed to stave off attacks on himself by party dissidents as well as to deal with the electoral threat from Paisley's DUP in the run up to the Assembly elections next year.
But since the raid on Sinn Féin's offices and charges being laid against some of its members or associates Trimble has been upstaged by Paisley's decision to withdraw his Executive on Friday October 11 unless Sinn féin is expelled from it.
Tony Blair has had a series of separate meetings with the leaders of Northern Ireland's political parties to see how the crisis can be tackled. In response to the raising of the 'ante' by Paisley Trimble, at his meeting with the Prime Minister, demanded the following from him, "That he should lay a motion before the Northern Ireland Assembly within seven days for the expulsion of Sinn Féin otherwise he would also withdraw from the Executive."
The two governments are also in discussion to see what action they can both take to meet the situation.
The SDLP leader (and Deputy First Minister) has told the Prime Minister that they will not be supporting the expulsion of Sinn Féin and I assume would not vote for a motion to that effect should the government accede to Trimble's demand. That being so there is no chance of it being carried in the Assembly.
Sinn Féin, in their meeting with the Prime Minister, have denied that they are in breach of the Agreement, to which they are fully committed, and are not involved in any spying activities inside the administration and the Northern ireland Office and have called on him to uphold the Agreement against the attempts of its opponents to wreck it. They said that they are they victims of collusion between those opposed to the Agreement and sections of security who are part of the old culture and who are opposed to change.
We may never know, even at the end of the '30 year rule' governing disclosure of government decisions and activities, what the truth is about rumours and statements about the reasons for the police and details are not likely to be disclosed in any court proceedings.
The Chief Constable, Hugh Orde, evidently embarrasses, has apologised for for the high profile of the action, saying on rejection that it might have been done differently. I suspect the old culture has overwhelmed this relatively newly appointed officer.
So the truth has to be extracted from the many versions, linked to the motives and agendas of their manufacturers, and as I remember, we used to say, "Take a lot of what is said with a few shovelfuls of Carrickfergus salt".
The Good Friday Agreement was accepted as the new basis upon which Northern Ireland would be governed, Unionists believing it would safeguard their position while Nationalists and Republicans believed that within its structures they could democratically work for Irish unification.
There are of course those, in both camps, who don't accept either aim and who are engaged in political and violent ways to obstruct the possibility of either being achieved.
So what are the options by which a way forward may be found?
Trimble claims that he wants to retain the Assembly and that he wants to see the Agreement fully applied, not only in the word, but in the spirit.
Sinn Féin and the SDLP claim that they stand by the Agreement but that its inclusive nature is crucial and that the pace is dependent on overcoming the cultural baggage which delays the establishment of trust.
Paisley's DUP and Trimble's dissidents want the ending of the Agreement and, though they would deny it, to backtrack to the years of Unionist dominance and discrimination.
The British and Irish governments want to retain the Agreement but would welcome a minimal review of some aspects.
The UK government could accept exclusion of Sinn Féin from the Executive but then the SDLP would withdraw and the scheme would collapse.
If paisley's DUP withdraws on Friday October 11 as intended and no others withdraw there could be some functioning which occurred on occasions when they did not attend because Sinn Féin was present.
The government could suspend the Assembly until January 18 2003 while attempts to advance decommissioning of all paramilitaries was attempted and / or an acceptable modification of the Agreement was achieved which would then be part of the election campaign in May 2003.
Some commentators suggest that the Assembly might be suspended for twelve months. That is far too long a period> All the festering problems would get worse and thus more difficult to overcome.
In his round of meetings with Northern Ireland leaders Tony Blair is seeing Gerry Adams, the Sinn féin President, today October 10.
Listening to Martin McGuinness on BBC Radio Five Live I would expect Adams to express the same opinions on the issue. Their party argues that they are fully committed to full implementation of the Agreement and to the peace process. That the call by Trimble for them to get the IRA to disband by next Monday is unrealistic and he knows that which is the reason he makes it so as to fix the blame for failure on Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin feels that the main reason for the crisis is, as I have stated earlier, the dissidents in the Ulster Unionist Party and its struggle to keep electorally ahead of Paisley's 'No' men.
McGuinness accepted that Sinn Féin, along with other parties, had to re-assess their positions. He felt that, given that commitment to the Agreement was made among them, a way was possible to solve the critical impasse.
A suspension seems inevitable. It should be no longer than as far as January 18 2003. There should be an intense period of dialogue between those committed to acceptance of the Agreement and a continuation of the work of the ministers in the Six Counties and across the border. The areas from which the DUP are withdrawing could be handled by officials.
If the Assembly is suspended while at the same all the institutions are nonetheless allowed to continue, the pieces can be restarted if dialogue also continues and accommodation is reached the process will not be irretrievably damaged.
Thus the inclusive Executive would remain in existence, though in suspension, only the "no nos" of the DUPs would have withdrawn.
The whole process depends on the result of the next Assembly elections which depends in turn on how the "yes yes" support can be mobilised, that is if they are not postponed.
At the signing of the Good Friday Agreement Tony Blair said he felt the hand of history was upon them. Let us all hope, to mix my metaphors, that we don't have a smack from the back of the hand and a kick in the teeth for our support of the Agreement. Much rather that the Unionist dissidents and the "no nos" get a kick up their rear fundamentals so that the politicking ends and that politics works and is seen to be working.