Northern Ireland: Has Doctor Reid Read the Runes Right?
By now we should all have become familiar with the twists and turns and the logical illogicalities in Northern Ireland’s decision making processes.
Dr. John Reid, the Secretary of State, after outlining in a low key statement (10 August 2001) the various options, suspends the Assembly for a short period coinciding with the weekend when it wouldn’t be meeting anyway, then, after a lapse of 24 hours, makes a further statement lifting the suspension. Farce perhaps, a la Gilbert and Sullivan or from Brian (now Lord) Rix’s Whitehall selection, laughable if it didn’t conceal a serious crisis.
However, this technical manoeuvre, as I anticipated, is designed as a temporary reprieve in the hope that the deadlock might be overcome in six weeks between now and September 23rd.
During this period the question is: will each party read successfully the minds of the other parties and respond, not to confirm their worst scenarios, but to ease the situation towards a full implementation of the Belfast Agreement (1998) in an accommodation free of duress or intimations of surrender.
The joint Government Statement (said to be non negotiable) is in fact being discussed behind the scenes through officials and is also being clarified and related to the different approaches of Unionists, Nationalists and Republicans to the role of the De Chastelain Commission on Weapon Disposal.
But, as outlined by Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, the issuing of ultimatums and setting deadlines is not the way to progress towards a settlement and might be counter productive.
There is in his statement the implication that the IRA might possibly add their own version of suspension by interrupting their contacts with the De Chastelain Commission. The object of this would be to force more and speedier indications of the rate and scope of ‘demilitarisation’, their definition of ‘decommissioning’ – a sort of ‘we can do suspensions better than you’.
Trimble’s next ploy may well be a sort of John major-like call, ‘Back me or sack me’ election for the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party to forestall the dissidents among his members. Perhaps his present truculence is designed to bolster his support i– looking very shaky – in his divided party.
I have noticed, others may have also, that there is a difference in mood and emphasis in what the Acting First Minister, Sir Reg Empey (Ulster Unionist) has been saying and what David Trimble has said, so there might be an alternative to the latter’s re-election, if he should stand down as leader, other than Jeffry Donaldson. There is no stipulation that the candidate must be an MP, though in practice that is usually the case, and, as far as I am aware, there is no constitutional reason why the leader of any party can be the only nomination to a ministerial post such as First or Deputy First minister. After all, Seamus Mallon, the Deputy Leader of the SDLP, served as Deputy First Minister.
The main factor in the election of the two principal ministers is that for each of the posts they must each receive the required majority support among both Unionists and Nationalist members of the Assembly.
If David Trimble persists in his stance he could fail to receive the necessary votes from those classified as Nationalist members of the Assembly as well as failing among those classed as Unionists.
Trimble has been playing a very dangerous game, risking everything for party leadership and unity. It would indeed be ironical if the demand he has made for quick early destruction of Republican armaments was only effected by more specific moves to more fully implement action on other aspects of the Agreement about which Unionists have expressed reservations.
It may be that if the Ulster Unionist Party comes to realise that the direction in which Trimble has taken them is a potential weakening of their position they might decide upon a change of leader and not the one who has been yelping at his heels either.
So, irrespective of what decisions the IRA or the two governments take over the next six weeks the whole structure could collapse as a result of lack of understanding of their own history and inability to see further than their orange or green spectacles will allow.
It might well turn out that if, at the end of six weeks, such a collapse of the Good Friday Agreement occurs, the two governments may not agree to set the machinery in motion for fresh elections for what would be the use of doing so when the expected result would be a more polarised Assembly unable to function any better.
The final irony could be that ‘decommissioning’ would take place only on condition that the previous Assembly was reconstituted.
In Northern Ireland things are often stood on their heads so, although the above scenario might seem improbable, it is not entirely impossible.
Who knows, reason might just prevail among my compatriots who up until now have been extraordinarily bereft of it.