by Bobbie Heatley and David Granville
Tony Blair's decision to suspend the Good Friday institutions for a third time looks certain to have postponed the political demise of the Ulster Unionist leader in whom British ministers have invested so much. But the question remains: for how long?
There are those who are prepared to give British ministers the benefit of the doubt, arguing that Blair's northern proconsul, John Reid, had no choice if the Good Friday agreement was to be saved and Labour's 'remodeling the union' project progressed.
However, there is no getting away from the fact that the move to provide yet another six-week 'breathing space' for the parties to reach agreement on key issues, including state demilitarisation, paramilitary decommissioning, policing reform and the stability of the devolved Stormont institutions, has succeeded in further damaging the Good Friday agreement, not least in the eyes of nationalists and republicans.
As a recent opinion poll conducted for the BBC in the six counties confirmed, fresh elections, clearly the most democratic option available to British ministers, were supported by over 40 per cent of those polled in the north, compared to 31 per cent who favoured a one-day suspension and only 28 per cent who favoured an indefinite suspension.
Once again, Blair and his ministers have chosen the path of least democracy.
The BBC poll is revealing. Despite all the bluster of the No camp, it is clear that a majority of the people in the north want the parties to progress with the implementation of the Good Friday deal.
It is understood that ministers considered holding new assembly elections in November. However, this option was looked on unfavourably by both London and Dublin, faced with the likelihood of more gains by republicans and Paisley's DUP at the expense of Trimble's UUP and the SDLP.
Had they been allowed to go ahead the task of achieving a modus vivendi, both inside and outside the assembly over the implementation of the Good Friday deal would have been even more difficult than before -- providing a truer reflection of the current political balance of forces in the north.
It was the prospect of having to go ahead with the implementation of much of the equality-based aspects of the Good Friday deal, with little choice but to openly back republican demands for total equality in the face of the bigoted, flat-earth version of unionism currently in the ascendancy, which filled both governments with horror, albeit for slightly different reasons.
The British government, at least, has faced a dilemma of its own making. Instead of colluding with the Trimble wing of the UUP to use the IRA weapons issue to slow the introduction of reforms, and making futile attempts to placate rejectionists like Burnside and Donaldson, the opposite should have been done.
The gauntlet should have been thrown down to the latter by making it clear that it was full steam ahead for the implementation process.
In that way a clear lead would have been given to the pro-agreement unionists, and to the Protestant community in general -- with the added likely benefit that IRA guns would no longer be an issue.
However, this was not done and every act of pandering to the DUP and UUP rejectionists has merely whetted their appetites, as was predicted.
No-one would bet on the rejectionists accepting the latest IRA announcement confirming their "willingness to resolve the issue of arms" and to intensify its contact with the decommissioning body -- let alone rumours that the IRA is about to destroy two secret arms dumps.
It will not be forgotten that unionists of all persuasions remained utterly unmoved and disdainful of the IRA's last effort to unblock the 'decommissioning' logjam after reaching agreement on a scheme for disposing of weapons with John de Chastelain's commission at the beginning of August.
Whatever the progress on the arms issue, movement on policing reform will remain a crucial area of conflict -- a point clearly recognised by both pro- and anti-agreement unionists as they made a tactical decision to join the new policing board alongside the SDLP.
The unexpected move by the UUP and DUP signals their intent to minimise reform. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin has resolutely rejected all efforts to get the party to nominate members to the new police board, protesting that the reform package on offer remains well-short of the Pattern recommendations in a number of key areas.
These include: limits to the new human rights oath; the powers of the policing boards; the chief constable's veto powers; the intervention power of the British secretary of state; the retention of a slimmed-down Special Branch; the limited remit of the Oversight Commissioner; the continued use of plastic bullets, and the lack of a clear commitment on holding inquiries into the Finucane, Nelson and Hamill murders.
The SDLP's gamble in joining the police board is exceptionally 'high risk'. It is also questionable from a strictly party perspective, given its capacity to jeopardise -- one hopes temporarily -- nationalist and republican co-operation at a time when unionism, across the board, is doing its level best to jettison the entire Good Friday deal.
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