Picture imperfect..?

JIM Cusack pours scorn on those peace process cheerleaders in the media who had hyped the prospects of a DUP/Sinn Fein deal before Christmas. Irish and British figures involved in the process, the Sindo reports, denied being upbeat about the prospects for agreement. But there seems to be more behind the spin than is apparent at first glance…So are the governmental spinners spinning again to cover their backs, or do the media no longer even have to be fed the ‘upbeat’ line any more?

It wouldn’t be fair to accuse all journalists of creating false expectations. Indeed, amongst the more experienced locals, there is quite a bit of weary resignation that failure is almost inevitable and that agreement is always just out of reach.

Certainly, at Leeds Castle, the journalists that did most of the enthusiastic running around with looks of cheery hope on their faces were the international reporters who had never been seen in Northern Ireland, or were last seen at Holy Cross.

Those journalists who had served time in Belfast, as at Hillsborough yesterday, looked either bored or tired with the ongoing tedium of these circular talks.

Perhaps it was the apparent progress on decommissioning that led some to believe a deal was possible. The DUP have believed for some months now that decommissioning could be resolved by the end of this year. That quietly confident hope was perhaps based on the understandings they may have been receiving from the British Government on the issue of photographic evidence of IRA decommissioning.

Cusack writes (on Dec 12): “All the media predictions were proved wrong, yet again, last Tuesday when Gerry Adams announced the IRA would not agree to terms set down for taking photographs of arms decommissioning.

“At least two weeks before that, republican sources said the IRA would not agree to the idea of decommissioning being photographed and also played down the chances of any deal with the DUP.”

Yet the issue of photos was kept alive by someone, either by the IRA not completely ruling it out, or by the Government spinning to the DUP. Even Adams’ announcement above is ambiguous – it is the terms of taking photos rather than the taking of photos that he says the IRA objected to.

To seasoned observers, this refusal to rule out the issue cleanly meant that there should have been wriggle room on the issue. If there was no chance of any photos being taken in any context, it should have been stated plainly and early that another avenue should be explored. The DUP was open to this at the time.

A plausible explanation might be that the British wanted to get a political deal completed and out of the way, and then muddle through decommissioning. The political aspects – very imperfect though they are – represented the real progress since Leeds Castle; for example, SF effectively signed up to policing and the DUP committed to power sharing.

Perhaps the British were concerned that the DUP – who were, up until very recently, quite flexible on how transparent decommissioning could occur – would walk away from the talks. The carrot of a Kodak moment may have been the British Government’s ‘hook’ to keep the DUP engaged until all the detail was ironed out on the political aspects of the deal.

If correct (and it’s only educated guesswork, as these talks have hardly been open), then the lesson for the DUP is clear – their refusal to talk to Sinn Fein directly is putting them at a distinct disadvantage in these talks. In fact, they may get more honesty or plain speaking out of often-ambiguous republicans in face-to-face talks than they ever did with the British Government.

If the DUP suspects British and SF ‘collusion’ in the negotiations, maybe it’s time to cut out the monkey and go straight to the organ grinder. Heck, maybe it’s even time for the DUP to privately confront the IRA leadership directly and get this thing sorted once and for all!