Today in the Dail…

IRISH Premier Bertie Ahern has told the Dail that he’s been having meetings with loyalist paramilitary groups recently – including the Red Hand Commando, the terrorist group that launched a sectarian hate campaign against Catholics who attend an annual religious ceremony in a Newtownabbey graveyard.

It’s likely to be a long drawn-out process, but there’s also rumours that the UVF may be about to re-enter the decommissioning process with General de Chastelain this month (with rival faction the LVF likely to stand down, despite denials), and the meetings may have been another Irish confidence-building measure (last three paragraphs) in advance of next week’s Anglo-Irish summit. Meanwhile, Paisley has issued his strongest condemnation of loyalist violence and sectarianism in a long time.

Irish President Mary McAleese is also due north soon, and I suspect that it won’t be too long before the Queen makes the first official visit to Dublin by the UK head of state since partition.

Although some of this was blogged earlier, it’s worth reading what Paisley said, since it is – for once anyway – so unequivocal. PA reported:

[T]he DUP leader called for loyalists who engage in violence to be shunned by the entire community.

“I have no sympathy with them whatsoever,” the North Antrim MP said.

“The vast majority of people in Ballymena would have no sympathy with them at all.

“What we have to do now is to see how these people are isolated and that they know that all sections of the community are opposed to what they are doing.”

Mr Paisley and Mr Hain also condemned loyalists who picketed a Catholic blessing ceremony at a cemetery in Newtownabbey on the outskirts of Belfast on Sunday.

The DUP leader said they had shown no respect for the dead or their relatives.

“No condemnation could be strong enough,” he said.

“And I trust that we will not hear language like that again at any of these meetings.”

And, almost simulataneously, the Taoiseach allays Paisley’s concerns about speaking rights for members of the British Parliament (such as Gerry Adams) in the Irish Parliament, the Dail.

He is also unequivocal:

Sinn Féin has confirmed that the content of the newspaper article of 5 August by the Sinn Féin leader regarding Oireachtas participation by Northern MPs was exaggerated. I will write to the other party leaders shortly with proposals on this matter and seek their views on these proposals. The proposals, which relate to both Houses, will be faithful to the recommendations of the all-party committee report. This House will ultimately decide for itself how it wishes to proceed. There is no question of granting Northern Ireland MPs any rights and privileges in this House.

Ahern also rules out freeing the killers of Garda McCabe as a concession to Sinn Fein, and reveals that proposals to deal with IRA fugitives will be made at the end of the year – which means that the current plans for ‘On The Runs’ (OTRs) in the Joint Declaration will be modified.

Already problems are surfacing, if Henry McDonald’s recent report is accurate:

The freedom, however, of IRA ‘On the Runs’ to come home will not be contingent on those exiled at gunpoint by the IRA also being allowed to return to Northern Ireland. A Downing Street spokesman said the two issues were not linked, which means hundreds of people will continue to live in exile until the IRA unilaterally lifts death threats against them.

However, the Tories and the LibDems are opposed to the OTR proposals as they stand, which means getting legislation through the Lords might be difficult for Blair if there is no compromise.

All this is likely to require the Government to row back a bit from what it proposed in the Joint Declaration.

Alliance will not be happy about Jonathan Powell de-linking the issues of IRA exiles being free to return home and the return of IRA fugitives. After all, the British and Irish Governments agreed in the Declaration that the practice of exiling must come to an end and the exiled must feel free to return in safety.

The issue is not just about the IRA (and others, of course) quitting the practice of throwing people out of the country under threat of death, but allowing those already exiled to live here again without interference. For some, it will prove impossible.

However, on OTRs, Alliance has proposed some suggestions for compromise, such as OTRs having to appear in court. No-one seriously expects suspected terrorists to actually serve a sentence these days in NI.

One curious aside in yesterday’s Dail debate was the slight insight the Taoiseach gave into how the talks process works. He tells us that the “Minister for Foreign Affairs, myself and officials on the ground always try to balance whatever we do because it is the best way to make progress”.

That ‘balance’ is what tends to get upset when the two governments spend all their time fixated on dealing with the demands of those least willing to compromise. It has led to the ‘Me too’ politics of Northern Ireland. Parity of begging bowl, if you like, and when ‘themmuns’ are getting all the attention, the results can be disastrous.

Unfortunately, democratic parties like the SDLP and Alliance can’t resort to shooting the police or blowing up Canary Wharf when they are not getting parity of attention. So when Liz McManus said the SDLP felt left out of the talks (Durkan threw a bit of a wobbly at Leeds Castle), Bertie was almost blase about immediately contradicting his statement on ‘balance’ made less than 10 minutes beforehand:

They do [feel left out] but I do not accept that. If we talk to Sinn Féin to use its influence to get the IRA to decommission its guns, there is not much point in talking to the SDLP about it. If the DUP has a particular problem, then we talk to the DUP about it. We could not move on in many of these meetings, we had to deal with issues such as decommissioning and criminality, so there was more time spent talking to some of the other parties. That is where the pressure points existed in those talks.

While it may be stating the obvious, this is the lesson the loyalist paramilitaries have learned well – create problems, gain concessions. In essence, those who create barriers to progress benefit the most, mandate or not.

This approach encourages problem-making and was perfectly exemplified by Tony Blair when he told the SDLP when it was the biggest nationalist party that their problem was that they didn’t have any guns…

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