Potholes traversed and potholes ahead

The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland takes a look at some of the potholes still ahead and the prospects of what he describes as once “the stuff of laughable political science fiction: joint government of Northern Ireland, with the Rev Ian Paisley as first minister and Martin McGuinness as his loyal deputy”.The issue of photographs is raised early on in the article and there is, IMO, one point to note on this. It is not so much the prospect that Paisley will wave the pictures aloft, brandishing them as images of Provo surrender that frightens SF, it is that, in common with an increasing number of groups and governments throughout the world, the power of the image has been an integral part of the propaganda and, as such, the loss of control of that image is of huge concern.

Freedland also clears some of the spin from the path that has led these two parties to this point –

Both sides came to the realisation that they were never going to win outright. Ireland was not going to be united by force, nor were the province’s Catholics simply going to disappear. They had fought each other to a weary stalemate. They would have to negotiate their way out.

And, we could add, that realisation came at a fortuitous moment for the IRA – prior to 9/11, an event that can be argued to have prompted the first act of decommssioning

Freedland argues that the political fortunes of the two are now entwined by the mechanisms of the Agreement of 1998 –

More recently, Sinn Féin and the DUP have understood that they are locked in a strange embrace. Both want to enter government, but they cannot do so without the other. Only the consent of the other party will allow them in. The Good Friday agreement of 1998 is wired in such a way that it leaves the fates of enemies entwined.

But it is the desire for power that holds them in that embrace –

And, make no mistake, this desire for power is real. Sinn Féin is not dabbling in politics: they sincerely aim to be the dominant party in Ireland, first in the north and, one day, throughout the island. But, and this may be more surprising, the DUP is no less ambitious.

Additionally, though, he argues that the difference now, and he cites agreement on this from both parties, is that the British and Irish governments are “playing hardball”.

The claim that – If Paisley doesn’t like the deal on offer, then he can lump it. London and Dublin will simply move towards joint control of the province, maintain their open channel with republicanism and leave the unionists to stew in their own juice. in order to secure a final end to the IRA, relies on a certain interpretation of the mood-music and spin – and would not be without its own risks, but The prospect of the IRA effectively winding itself up is too big a prize to refuse for Blair if that remains on the table.

The final paragraph is, however, a good summation of the current state of affairs –

The PM wants a deal in Northern Ireland badly: success in this once strife-torn part of his own backyard is his calling card as an international peacemaker. Similarly, republicans have decided that a place in devolved government advances their goals; and unionism is now led by the one man with the hawkish credentials to do a deal – if he wants to. Paisley need not fear an attack from his right because there is no space to his right. It is Northern Ireland’s fortune that all these stars have come into alignment at the same time. Once again the people of the province face a holiday season that could bring great blessings – or a badly wasted opportunity.

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