In January 2003, I sat down and penned what turned out to be a reasonably accurate picture of the twelve months that were to follow. It wasn’t rocket science. All the main parties were committed (publicly at least) to a resolution of the governmental impasse. The choreography wasn’t set, but commitment to dance was. The following year, in the wake of the November elections of 2003, I was asked to repeat the feat, but it eluded me. The Northern Bank robbery put the tin hat on a possible deal before Christmas last year, and all bets were off once again.
On Let’s Talk last month Lembit Opik predicted that we’d have a fully functioning local Assembly and government within two years. It was followed by a sharp intake of breath from some sections of the audience. Maybe he knows something we don’t.
What we do know is that Tony Blair will leave office at some point in this parliament. Probably some point just after the half way mark. He will want this process, to which he has committed so much time and resources, in his personal bag before he goes.
However, at the moment, it is the DUP which holds the ball – not Blair. They have named their conditions. There must be an end to IRA criminality; and that Sinn Fein must back current policing arrangements before they will return to the model agreed by all in the ‘comprehensive agreement’ before Christmas.
It is possible to see a double edge in yesterday’s comments by Nigel Dodds that his party has no interest in anything the IRA might say. And DUP councillor Chris Stalford recently explained why his party would not allow itself to be Trimbled – an internal party byword for taking any promises by the IRA at face value.
We can probably safely assume that the wording of any IRA statement will only have to suit the sensibilities of the volunteer base of the IRA. Their actions, however, will have to suit the needs of their opponents. So does this provide the IRA with room to move? Is there now a new game on?
Members of Sinn Fein I’ve spoken to over the last few months are convinced that something will emerge from the Adams initiative. It has to be substantial, they argue, if things are to move on. We will likely have to wait until the day of the announcement to see the detail. But the thinking inside the party seems to be confident that they can match the DUP’s demands with regard to the IRA.
Can Northern Ireland’s Catholics believe the DUP when they say they now accept powersharing? They’ve been publicly trailing this shift in policy from as far back as January 2004, when they opened their negotiation stance with three options: a voluntary coalition (to include at least one nationalist party); a corporate assembly; or the Belfast Agreement, (with some minor amendments on ministerial accountability) – contingent on the IRA going away. The paper trail (at the very least) should be enough to keep them honest.
On the other hand, will the IRA agree to play ball with the DUP in a way they wouldn’t with David Trimble? Those inclined to trust them, will see their good intentions in the massive scaling down of their military operations and the relative calm that holds in most Nationalist areas. But being a secret organisation not subject to the common law, and with “a reputation for coming up short and offering ‘post dated cheques‘”, few others will want to take them at their word.
Precise predictions are out of the question from here on in. But one thing seems clear, this time out the IRA’s actions (or lack of them) will count for much more than a thousand statements from P O’Neill.