As the British and Irish government’s intensify their efforts to put the Good Friday train back on the rails, the Irish Democrat’s Belfast-based correspondent Bobbie Heatley looks behind the diplomatic dance and predicts further trouble down the line for the pro-agreement camp
PICTURE THIS: Oliver Hardy (played by Tony Blair) scratches his head, finger-rolls his neck-tie and looks exasperated. He is addressing Stan Laurel (played by David Trimble) and complaining: “This is another fine mess you’ve got me into”.
Five years on from the signing of the Good Friday agreement (GFA) this is what the two colonialist pals have done to the north of Ireland -- got it into another fine mess.
For the fourth time in its shaky, shortish existence the inept Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), under the leadership of David Trimble, has brought down the devolved assembly at Stormont, an imperative of the Good Friday deal.
In bringing this about Trimble has been ably facilitated by the British prime-minister’s own innate obtuseness, a dull-wittedness which certainly applies in the case of Ireland. But what does the British prime minister do now? After having let Trimble bring down the Stormont assembly by walking out of its executive, he is now faced with the problem of how to get it up and running again in the form required by the GFA?
he situation is complicated by the fact that under the agreement he is obliged to hold an election to the assembly come May. Head-scratching time again. Mad as British rule has been in Ireland over the centuries, it would look really daft to hold an election to an assembly that did not exist.
That is why it is proving impossible to get a straight answer out of the British cabinet office and Northern Ireland Office (NIO) as to whether the election will or will not be held in May or at any foreseeable date after that.
When the GFA was arrived at, nationalists and republicans and -- we hope -- the Irish government assumed that it was not the sole property of the British government and the UUP to do with it what they liked.
How naïve we were: because that has proved not to be the case, despite the huge endorsing referendums north and south of the Irish border. The people of Britain were not permitted by their government to cast their vote on the matter.
Nonetheless, we can sympathise with the British government in its agony about making itself look foolish by holding an election to a non-existent assembly.
But the mess it has got itself into does not end there. Let us suppose that, by some miracle of Pauline conversion on the part of the now anti-agreement UUP, the British government does succeed in getting at least it to go back into Stormont to resume executive responsibility-sharing with Sinn Féin. What good might that do?
The DUP is certain not to follow the UUP lead this time. For what it hopes will be an electoral up-staging of the UUP it will extend its former boycott of the executive to the assembly itself this time. No assembly under these circumstances. But don’t despair.
The British and the Irish governments have pinned their hopes on all-party talks to do the trick -- hence the many references to ‘a window of opportunity’ made early in the new year prior to the deadline for a decision on a new assembly election.
But Laurel has got Hardy into a real fine mess this time. This time, the life of the GFA looks to be teetering on the brink of a crevasse. Many unionists will not even talk -- certainly not before an election where they will be competing with each other as to which of them can take the most anti-republican hard-line.
They are into ultimatums on Sinn Féin, full stop, using the IRA as their excuse. The latter has been on ceasefire for getting up to seven years now and even the NIO does not see it as intending to ‘go back to war’.
Regardless, Trimble will not have Paisley portraying him as a Lundyite weakling immediately prior to an election. That is why, among other things, the UUP went with the DUP, the UDA and the UVF went to South Africa for ‘visioning’ discussions in pursuit of unionist unity.
But British governments are nothing if they are not adroit. Who says that it is daft to hold an election for an assembly that does not exist? It does exist, it is merely in suspension. It has been cold-stored three times before and then brought back to life. And so why not this time?
Well, this time matters are qualitatively different. Back in October last year Trimble capitulated completely to the anti-GFA faction in his own party thereby taking the UUP into the anti-agreement camp.
Time for Tony to scratch his head again. As everyone knows he is a great man of peace (insofar as Northern Ireland is concerned anyhow) because he sees the GFA as a possible means of bludgeoning the IRA into surrender and stabilising British rule in the north, at least for the time-being. He would like to preserve enough of the GFA for his own continuing colonialist purposes.
Political, military, intelligence and media forces around him assist in his media-spin which, of course, he is extremely good at.
There is a chance that the election will be held in May, after all. It can be presented as an effort to get the Northern Ireland assembly and executive functioning again. But Blair’s advisers are telling him that there is a strong possibility of the election not going his way. And that really is a compelling reason for not having one.
The DUP and Sinn Féin are both tipped to come out as the largest parties in their respective camps. Furthermore a whole bunch of UUP candidates who are likely to get their backsides on the revived assembly benches will now be clones of Paisley’s rip-roaring anti-agreement DUP.
In order for the assembly to function, the cross-community majorities required with regard to important legislation will simply not be attainable. Catch 22 again.
After having prompted and cosseted Trimble and his UUP for over five years and led him by the hand into this quagmire, Blair is left with having to appeal to both the IRA and Sinn Féin for a lifeline.
I have no doubt they will try to help because they too (as well as the unionists) see the GFA as a means by which a united Ireland is attainable by politics alone, despite the mysterious disappearance of 180,000 electors from the latest electoral register in the north -- a huge number, given northern Ireland’s tiny population.
Meanwhile, the unionists will continue to do everything in their power to prevent the British premier from securing that lifeline, pressurising him into making such extreme demands of republicanism that it will simply be unable to reach the rope.
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Copyright © 2003 Bobbie Heatley