by David Granville
WITHIN THE context of the British government's dealings with its colonial outpost in the north east corner of Ireland, deadlines are clearly anything but fixed or immutable. No matter how much the media talk them up or Westminster ministers cajole, threaten or bribe the various parties, before you know it they've passed and a new one pops up in its place.
And so it came to pass that 24 November 2006, was replaced by 26 March 2007.
It's 24-hour opening in the bar of the 'Last Chance Saloon', especially if you're a unionist experiencing a little local difficulty in getting your posse to play power-sharing poker. For a significant proportion of the DUP leadership, the realisation that they are going to have to share the running of the Stormont assembly on equal terms with Sinn Fein or forfeit a devolved settlement for the foreseeable future and face the appalling vista, from a unionist perspective, of some form of joint British/Irish authority in the north, is proving difficult to grasp.
How convenient then for British ministers, the faux Doctor and his increasingly querulous and unhappy gang of rejectionist unionists, religious fundamentalists and out-and-out supremacist bigots that the antics of Michael Stone, a psychopathic loyalist hitman with Special Branch connections and a penchant for oil paint, canvas and murder, overshadowed the less deadly, but equally farcical antics that took place minutes earlier inside the Assembly chamber.
In line with the terms of the St Andrews agreement, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams duly nominated Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister.
However, under no circumstances could Ian Paisley's deliberately ambiguous statement before those assembled in the Stormont chamber have been construed as nominating himself as the future first minister.
Yet, that's precisely how proconsul Peter Hain and the British appointed speaker of the assembly, Eileen Bell, chose to interpret the faux Doctor's contribution.
"There can only be an agreement involving Sinn Fein when there has been delivery by the republican movement, tested and proved over a credible period in terms of support for the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland), the courts, the rule of law, a complete end to paramilitary and criminal activity and the removal of terrorist structures" he told those gathered in the assembly chamber.
"Clearly, as Sinn Fein is not yet ready to take the decisive step forward on policing, the DUP is not required to commit to any aspect of power-sharing in advance of such certainty."
No one, not even the secretary of state wearing his most red, white and blue-tinted glasses, can really have been fooled into thinking that the "credible period" referred to by Paisley corresponds to years rather than the few months between now and the new 26th March deadline.
As if to compound the farce, the secretary of state's bizarre interpretation sent the DUP's ultra-rejectionist wing into a political tail spin, resulting, amid dark mutterings of treachery, in 12 DUP assembly members signing a statement rejecting claims that they had taken part in a process of nominating Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness as first and deputy first ministers.
Paisley responded by issuing his own statement indicating that he would accept nomination following a Spring election should all of 'his' conditions be fulfilled.
This was followed on the Monday by an emergency all-day meeting of the party, at which the rejectionists sought, and received, reassurances from Paisley that what had taken place in the assembly constituted neither a nomination or designation of himself as first minister. A further meeting aimed at ensuring party unity followed later in the week in a desperate effort to paper over the widening cracks in party unity.
It would appear that Paisley's attempt to walk the tightrope of neither accepting nor rejecting the St Andrews agreement had backfired in spectacular fashion, although it is as yet unclear what effect this will have on internal party dynamics and on his, up to now, unchallenged and unchallengeable grip on the DUP leadership.
What is clear is that, the party is now riven with factions, with key individuals (including Peter Robinson, Nigel Dodds and Jim Allister) among those jockeying for position should a leadership contest be needed sooner rather than later. It is also clear that the 'long-finger' approach to power sharing, the best that the pragmatists in the DUP have been able to come up with to date by way of a strategy for dealing with the Good Friday process, is looking increasingly like a short-term fix about to come unstuck.
The main hope of the all unionist rejectionists, both inside and outside the DUP, rests with Sinn Fein not being able to deliver on its side of the St Andrews commitments vis a vis its requirement to endorse policing structures in the north by the 26 March deadline.
Despite unease over the policing issue in some quarters, and growing threats from loyalists and republican groups opposed to the good Friday deal, the party's leadership is showing few signs of being unduly under pressure over the issue. At the end of November, Sinn Fein confimed that 17 of its elected councillors had taken seats in embryonic joint policing committees south of the border. Although circumstances in there are very different, most commentators are viewing this as a positive sign concerning a change in attitude towards policing in the north.
Nevertheless major obstacles remain, the most significant being the DUP's outspoken opposition to the devolution of policing and justice powers. Although Peter Hain indicated, during the St Andrews Bill debate in the House of Commons towards the end of November, that policing and justice powers will be devolved in May 2008, the DUP continues to insist that this is "several political lifetimes", until such time as Sinn Fein has proved itself to be trustworthy partners. In DUP-speak this means for as long as Sinn Fein exists as the dominant political force within Irish nationalism - or, as close to 'never' as they are able to imagine.
For its part, Sinn Fein is insisting that British ministers confirm a definitive date for the transfer of policing and that MI5 is excluded from any civic policing roll.
Only once these issues have been resolved, party leaders insist, will a special all-Ireland conference (ard fheis) be called to endorse acceptance of the PSNI prior to the 26th March deadline.
Given Hain's contribution during the St Andrews Bill debate the chances are that it will be the proposed role for MI5 in policing which could prove the biggest stumbling block from a republican perspective.
MI5's known involvement, direct and indirect, in collusion with loyalist death squads, and its failure to pass on intelligence which could have prevented the Omagh bombing, rankles with nationalists and republicans, especially as the intelligence service is preparing to take over responsibility for intelligence gathering from the PSNI next year.
Unsurprisingly, MI5's new role has been widely criticised by nationalist and republican politicians and human rights organisations. Even police ombudsman Nuala O'Loan, who will have no authority to investigate complaints made against intelligence officers conducting 'police business', has voiced strong concerns.
With the countdown towards Blair's departure from Number 10 well underway, this could be his last chance to ensure that any 'legacy', which cannot avoid being dominated by the catastrophe and horrors that have accompanied the invasion and occupation of Iraq, does not also include failure in Ireland.
We must all hope that he wants to succeed in this area as much as do the overwhelming majority of people in Ireland. To do that, he will have to demonstrate the kind of political resolve and acumen that has all too often been absent from his handling of the Good Friday process.
The above article originally appeared in the Morning Star in early December 2006
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2006 David Granville