Blair must confront IRA’s unwillingness, not the DUP

Alex Kane argues that Blair’s passivity in dealing with the question of the IRA’s continuing reluctance to demobilise is becoming a serious hinderence to arriving at and execution of a comprehensive agreement, which would allow Northern Ireland to return to the business of democratic decision making.By Alex Kane

Speaking at his first major press conference since the election, Mr. Blair said this; “I have got to work with the outcome the electorate has given…I hope that the DUP are prepared to share power, provided there is a clear, unequivocal and complete giving up of violence. If there isn’t, I will be left in the same position again”.

And what position is that, Mr. Blair? A continuing reluctance to face down the IRA? An ongoing failure to call Sinn Fein’s bluff and shore up democracy in Northern Ireland? Even as I write, I am sure that the Prime Minister’s staff are preparing a bucket of whitewash to accompany the latest report from the IMC; a report which is likely to confirm that the IRA is still recruiting and showing no signs of its willingness to disband and disappear. You don’t have to be in the “same position again”, Mr. Blair. You choose to be in that position, because you have always put self-perpetuating defeatism ahead of moral integrity and political courage.

And it is precisely because the Prime Minister has made that choice that the DUP will find itself with precisely the same problems as the UUP. Yes, it may well have established itself at the top of the electoral tree, but it doesn’t actually have the ability, by itself, to deliver a single manifesto pledge. Like David Trimble before him, Ian Paisley is the hapless hostage of the wimpish occupant of 10 Downing Street. Putting it bluntly, if the Prime Minister doesn’t deliver for the DUP, then the DUP cannot deliver for the unionist electorate.

It has been the same story since at least 1972, when it became clear that the size of the unionist vote meant nothing to successive governments and Prime Ministers. Which may explain why unionist turnout has continued to crumble. Last week’s unionist tally was almost 100,000 down on the 1974 general election, indeed, it was the lowest vote for decades. And bearing in mind that both the overall population and electoral register have grown over the past thirty years, the number of non- voting unionists is considerably higher than 100,000.

Anyway, it looks like we face a long period of stalemate. The DUP won’t budge until it has concrete and demonstrable movement from the IRA. The party got its fingers burnt last December and will be reluctant to repeat the experience. Also, the DUP has to calculate if the bulk of its increased mandate is really anti power-sharing with Sinn Fein under any circumstances; for if that is the case, then it would be unwise to risk the loss of votes in search of a deal which would require new concessions.

The SDLP, which only managed to survive by the skin of its teeth, has returned to the holier-than-thou high ground, and, as I predicted before the election, has ruled out any form of voluntary coalition. Meanwhile, Gerry Adams is conducting a dialogue with a mirror, and, in a surreal ventriloquial act, is playing democratic dummy to his own balaclava’d hard man. He may be trying to put clear green, white and gold water between himself and P. O’Neill, but too many unionists will still detect the shadow of the gunman hovering over the political process.

As ever, on these occasions, Bertie Ahern can be relied upon to help Sinn Fein. Hence his comments a few days ago that he believes that Mr. Adams’ consultation exercise is a genuine one. What has become apparent over the past eighteen months (and I suspect that it was Ahern’s reaction to the post- November 2003 growth of the DUP), is that Justice Minister, Michael McDowell, is being deployed as an “Uncle Tom” sop to unionism, while the Taoiseach gets on with the usual nods and winks to Adams and the IRA. As ever, though, when push comes to shove, the Irish government will ultimately side with Sinn Fein.

Little prospect, then, of any deal in the near future. The opportunity for such a deal was there six months ago, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the DUP was up for it at the time. But circumstances have changed. The IRA hasn’t, though, and that is the problem. And I don’t see the IRA changing, let alone changing enough to satisfy the DUP. Mr. Blair will put enormous pressure on Dr. Paisley and he may even offer him a fresh Assembly election, but I just don’t see the DUP shifting from where it is now.

Neither the DUP nor the IRA is going to pay the necessary price for the restoration of the Assembly. But neither of them is keen for Direct Rule to last too long; the DUP fearing that it will lead to British/Irish rule, and the IRA fearing that it will entrench British rule only. Both are now looking for a Plan B and I suspect that the next crucial battleground will be local government reform and devolution to smaller and more powerful councils.

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 21st May 2005.