Waiting for Votey – Elections in Northern Ireland

Ken Maginnis MP has voluntarily declined to stand again for his Westminster seat, the pressure of events inside and on his party evidently forcing him to consider his position.
In an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live he said that there were things other than politics he wanted to do. Then in the next breath he intimated that although not a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly he might consider becoming involved in local government. Since when, I ask, have local authorities in Northern Ireland been non-political?
Then, in a spirit of honesty, often lacking in politicians, he paid a sort of tribute to the Education Minister, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, who, he said, despite his `Republican background, was straightforward in his pronouncements, one knew where he stood, whereas he felt Gerry Adams, the other Republican leader, tended to lecture his audience. Well, perhaps such views from an Ulster Unionist can be welcomed, as a sort of progress.
Jeffrey Donaldson MP, who is pressing hard on the heels of David Trimble (despite his denials) for the leadership, took to the air on BBC Radio Wales as the Ulster Unionists continue to review their attitude to the Agreement.
They are due to announce early in February whether they will insist on Sinn Féin members being excluded from ministerial posts because of the failure of the IRA to show clear signs of decommissioning. Apparently their representative has not been in touch with General de Chastelain for quite some time.
Donaldson is arguing, as indeed is Trimble, that because of this Sinn Féin are not entitled to to remain in the Executive. Sinn Féin, on the other hand, have threatened to test their exclusion from cross border institutions through the courts (quite a change from refusing to recognise them in the past) and probably will take the same course if excluded from ministerial posts.
They are still maintaining that their party is a separate organisation from the IRA (which was not involved in the Agreement negotiations) and that their Assembly members were and are still fulfilling its terms in as much that they are not engaged in or promoting terrorism.
All along, since peace negotiations started, it is claimed by them that in persuading the IRA to declare and maintain their ceasefire they have shown commitment to the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. However, Unionists have not yet been persuaded that the two organisations are really separate bodies, in thought and action.
I wonder what both communities and their various parties think of the revelation in the Guardian (13/1/2001) that a double agent is, or was, operating in the higher echelons of the IRA. This person, codenamed ‘Stakeknife’, had been singled out for assassination by ‘Loyalist’ paramilitaries but were diverted by alarmed military intelligence into a 66 year old Republican veteran who had not been involved for over thirty years. This, it is alleged, has been revealed to the Stevens Inquiry investigating the assassination of the Nationalist lawyer, Pat Finucane.
Secretary of State Peter Mandelson has further muddied the waters (sort of pot calling the kettle black) by accusing the SDLP (roundly rebutted by John Hume) of opposing his watered down legislation on the Patten Report and not taking their place on the Policing Board, purely for electoral reasons.
No doubt he in turn will deny that his efforts to emasculate Patten’s report has anything to do with the impending Westminster election. He appears anxious to avoid being at the centre of Conservative / Unionist accusations in his role in Labour’s election campaign. He may even suggest that he is trying to preserve the Agreement by helping David Trimble to retain his party’s leadership and First Minister position.
The sensitivity of the present situation can be seen in the way Deputy First Minister, the SDLP Seamus Mallon, dealt with a question on RTÉ Radio about the Police Board. He made an ambiguous, circumlocutory, gobbledygook response to the question of their failure to accept their place on the Board.
In his radio interview, which I mentioned earlier, Donaldson (Ulster Unionist leadership contender) said that the amended date for full implementation of the Agreement is June this year. This ties up with my often expressed view that the whole question will surface often during the coming election campaign, to the embarrassment of the Secretary of State and the government.
Mandelson may well argue that he has had to give some support to the beleaguered David Trimble whose party has re-endorsed the loser Burnside in the South Antrim by-election (who is now opposing the Agreement) and there is also a possibility that a candidate of the same ilk might be selected for the seat now being vacated by Ken Maginnis. Trimble is walking a very tight rope at present, in danger of being replaced or given a very close run for the leadership.
If the Ulster Unionists do have a serious split, before or during the general election, it is hard to feel optimistic about the immediate future of the Agreement and long time peace.
There are also signs of disagreements in Paisley’s DUP so the ‘no men’ in that camp may not be as dangerous to stability as hitherto. Rumours are also circulating that the old Bull Frog, who has been mute of late (as has junior), is suffering from a serious illness.
At the time of writing (18/1) it is reported that talks held between Prime Minister Blair and Northern Ireland political leaders to make a breakthrough on policing and decommissioning have ended without agreement.
This will disappoint many, including the Irish News (the leading Nationalist paper in Northern Ireland), whose editorial this morning called for all parties to take their places on the Police Authority Board.
We seem now to be in for three or four months of waiting (it reminds me of a Samuel Becket play) a sort of ‘Waiting for Votey’.

©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, Gwent, Wales, 18 January 2001.

Samuel H. Boyd

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