Removing the bull from Irish politics
by the editor
THE recent inconclusive talks in Shropshire have left British prime minister Tony Blair impaled on the horns of a dilemma -- one largely of his own making, though he has been assisted by the less-than-astute efforts of beleaguered UUP leader David Trimble.
As a result of Trimble's fixation, backed by the British government, on getting the IRA to give up its weapons outside the terms of the Good Friday deal, Blair now faces the prospect of having to agree a formal package with his Irish government counterparts which includes proposals for British demilitarisation and amendments to legislation implementing policing reforms.
The alternative, to suspend the assembly and call new elections, would almost certainly boost republicans and the DUP flat-earthists at the expense of the British government's preferred partners, the SDLP and the pro-agreement unionists in the UUP.
One thing is certain, what finally emerges will have to address nationalist and republican concerns over the non-implementation of key aspects of the Patten policing reforms, British demilitarisation and the functioning of the Good Friday institutions, if there is to be any advance on the issue of IRA weapons.
Agreement between the various parties involved in the Shropshire talks was never going to happen while a key condition of the talks was based on pressurising republicans over the arms issue. Irrespective of the simple fact that Sinn Fein does not have the power to make agreements on behalf of the IRA, republicans were never going to dig Trimble out of the hole he had dug for himself over weapons decommissioning -- and why should they, given the resounding silence of unionist politicians over the decommissioning of loyalist weapons which, unlike those of the IRA, have been far from silent.
Besides, as was recently acknowledged by the Irish Times' security correspondent Jim Cusack, no friend of the republicans, the IRA has gone further than any of the so-called paramilitary groups on the issue of decommissioning and continues to engage with de Chasterlain's independent commission.
Having precipitated yet another crisis as the result of his resignation and a new set of unachievable deadlines, it is to be hoped that the former first minister realises that he is running out of cards to play over the decommissioning issue.
This will depend, to a considerable degree, on the attitude adopted by the British prime minister. To date, Blair has stuck by Trimble throughout his hours of need. The loyalty of Blair and his ministers to the unionists over the matter of one-sided decommissioning has been unswerving -- even though unionists themselves have chosen not always to see it that way.
However, what unionists and loyalists know only too well, and what lies at the heart of efforts to slow the implementation of the Good Friday deal to a crawl, is that every move towards developing a new dispensation in the north based on ending inequality and sectarian domination undermines the value system and political culture of unionism, which unionists and loyalists had previously, and erroneously, understood to be their 'God-given' right, to be enforced in perpetuity by the power of the British crown.
The unionist monolith is no more and Blair is straining to keep the Union intact.
Whichever way you look at it, republicans have successfully manoeuvred themselves into a win-win situation. Even if the assembly etc eventually collapses, the equality agenda and other key reforms will go ahead. Unionism cannot turn back the clock.
Having swallowed the bull fed to him by unionists, Blair is now left with a brace of unpalatable choices and very little room for manoeuvre. Hopefully, the penny has finally dropped. Never has there been a better time to take the bull out of Irish politics -- achieve this and the bullets will follow sure enough.
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Copyright © 2001 Connolly Publications Ltd