Double-bluff?.. or a lack of foresight?

The Irish Times’ Frank Millar has a closer look at the joint statement from Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Prime Minister Tony Blair, and the subsequent clarification from Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland Peter Hain. Frank Millar’s interpretation seems to echo that of the Belfast Telegraph’s Brian Walker [although the emphasis is different] and he highlights that with the mixed messages coming from the governments on how they envisage moving beyond that November 24th deadline, “After all the hype, the only certainty is that nothing has changed yet.”From today’s Irish Times[subs req]

That said, the DUP now appears content that the famous “pendulum” has already begun to swing back. Indeed, the process of retreat may have begun almost as soon as Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern took to the podium last Thursday, for it was instantly clear that the prime minister had got the tone badly wrong.

In his scripted remarks Blair might have sounded even-handed, telling the DUP and Sinn Féin what each must do to recognise and engender confidence in the other.

However, it was “Plan B” as defined in the communiqué which suggested that the prime minister had already made his judgment, that Sinn Féin would find it next-to-impossible to fail the test, and that in reality the DUP was considered the only real obstacle to progress.

It is difficult to see how else the parties were intended to read the threat: “If restoration of the Assembly and Executive has to be deferred, the governments agree this will have immediate implications for their joint stewardship of the process.

“We are beginning detailed work on British-Irish partnership arrangements that will be necessary in these circumstances to ensure that the Good Friday agreement, which is the indispensable framework for relations on and between these islands, is actively developed across its structures and functions.

“This work will be shaped by the commitment of both governments to a step-change in advancing North-South co-operation and action for the benefit of all.”

The BBC’s Northern Ireland political editor Mark Devenport got it in one, asking Blair what impact he thought this threat might have on loyalists – and why Sinn Féin should co-operate when the promised outcome would be roughly what republicans wanted anyway.

And it seems that, if they hadn’t understood it well enough in advance, Number 10 also quickly got the point. Within 24 hours senior Whitehall sources were explaining in effect that there was an element of double-bluff at work here. When asked why there was only “punishment” planned for the unionists, the sources told The Irish Times the initiative was predicated on the belief that Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams wants the Executive reinstated, and that “nobody is suggesting any massive extension of Anglo-Irish co-operation”.

The implication was that Adams knew this – in which case he would not have been surprised by Secretary of State Peter Hain’s subsequent assurance to unionists that nobody was talking about anything like “joint authority”, which he observed would be a breach of the Belfast Agreement.

The DUP will also have benefited from the keen insight of David Trimble, who pointed to the contradiction at the core of the British-Irish communiqué with its assertion that the Good Friday accord remains “the indispensable framework for relations on and between these islands”. As the former UUP leader remarked, the governments’ Plan B prescription for bilateral co-operation might signal a reversal to an Anglo-Irish Agreement Mark II – but it would not be compatible with the multi-party agreement of 1998, which has at its core an inclusive political settlement within Northern Ireland.

And there was a further encouragement for the DUP when President Bush called on all sides to demonstrate leadership and seize the opportunity to work together. His press secretary said, the president urged “full support for civilian policing throughout Northern Ireland and an unequivocal commitment to the rule of law and the renunciation of all paramilitary and criminal activities.”

Blair had little to say on this subject last Thursday. But we can expect to hear more in the months ahead as the DUP and Sinn Féin continue their battle to determine the shape and pace of the agenda. After all the hype, the only certainty is that nothing has changed yet.

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  • It’s interesting alright; you could say that there are no mixed messages here though, the two governments have said that failure in November will lead to direct rule… Blair said that it would be with the help of Dublin. Hain simply clarified that it wasn’t going to be Joint Authority, so in other words Dublin would play an advisor role more than act as an equal partner.
    I’d say the whole thing is a balancing act to try and scare the DUP enough to accept powersharing but not too much that they react in a way that threatens to destabilies the region more (Sunningdale agreement)

  • Jim

    Adam: Hain simply clarified that it wasn’t going to be Joint Authority, so in other words Dublin would play an advisor role more than act as an equal partner.

    Yes, Dublin would only play an advisory role in representation of North only issues but would have full JA (with Brit Govt) in the wider N/S dimension without any NI Political representation or veto.

  • kensei

    “I’d say the whole thing is a balancing act to try and scare the DUP enough to accept powersharing but not too much that they react in a way that threatens to destabilies the region more (Sunningdale agreement)”

    As for potential instability, in sense it may have to happen and be faced down to get the message across. This isn’t the 70’s anymore, neither the Nationalist community or the British Government will tolerate another UWC strike.

    Personally, if anything deserves to be Paisley’s epitaph after a lifetime of being a wholly destructive force, JA and the weaking of the union is it.

  • Pete Baker

    The problem I have with the double-bluff theory, and the balancing act scaring the DUP into an Executive, is that Hain’s clarification undermines it.

    The whole joint statement and the run-up to it looks more like an inept performance by the British and Irish governments if you look back at what was being indicated prior to the party briefings.

  • GrassyNoel

    I reckon the South is already running the North. Let’s face it have you ever seen that episode of ‘Yes Minister’ where some poor bastard makes a complete hash of something and as punishment, in the cabinet re-shuffle, gets posted to Northern Ireland? I reckon Peter Hain & his civil servants have about as much interest in NI as George Bush has in Greenpeace.

  • Rubicon

    It’s difficult to believe that either the DUP or Sinn Fein benefit from the vague threat of “British-Irish partnership arrangements”. Much could be speculated as to what such arrangements might be – but what is clear is that the 2 governments intend to call a halt to devolved government for Northern Ireland – for the foreseeable future. Why should this be?

    Failure on November 24th will mean that the political parties couldn’t reach a political settlement set higher than that set for any other democratic government I can think of. I stand to be corrected on this – but where in Europe have four of the largest political parties forged a coalition and entered government together (outside of war conditions when faced with a common enemy)?

    Given the divisions in NI – should we really have local democracy denied to us for failing to reach a standard that neither the Irish nor British governments could meet?

    Without doubt – it is the divisions here that require a higher bar. Power sharing between the nationalist and unionist traditions is not an option – Northern Ireland will be a long time waiting for the trust required for government by majority.

    If the 2 governments are genuine about using the GFA as a framework for the future then why don’t they use the provision within the Agreement that it be reviewed?

    Perhaps it’s the wrong time to raise such issues while there’s still a belief about that the DUP may yet be shoe-horned in to forming an executive under the old rules. Clearly, many politicians consider any revision of the smallest detail of the GFA to be a breach. However often these politicians choose to repeat such allegations – it don’t make it so. Contained within the GFA are provisions for it to be reviewed. If November 24th brings a failure of the ’98 Agreement to work then even the most sceptical will have to admit that the review conditions set out in ’98 have been met.

    Even if the DUP do agree to enter government by Nov. 24th there will remain reasons to review and adapt the ’98 agreement. The GFA disables opposition – having in excess of 80% of the MLAs belonging to parties in government damages committee scrutiny, the sharpness of ministerial questions and Assembly debate.

    Lack of open criticism of government is a high price to pay for inclusive government. Power-sharing and inclusivity is not the same thing. Inclusivity makes a lie of either collective responsibility within the executive committee or of policy differences between political parties. You cannot have both. The GFA has components that inherently lead to political instability – a fact that remains true whether you view the problem from a unionist or nationalist perspective.

    Any review that seeks to adapt the details of operation specified in the GFA may be criticised as being an attempt to keep SF out of government. Certainly, enabling opposition includes the notion of a voluntary coalition government and presents a risk to all parties that they may not enter government. Unionist hostility to SF would undoubtedly tempt them to attempt to form a coalition with other nationalists.

    Unionist freedom to exclude SF from government could be very short lived. SF’s electoral growth shows no sign of waning. The SDLP loosing just 2 seats would reduce that party’s strength to below 40% of the nationalist seats. Perhaps it is this danger that makes the SDLP so reluctant to countenance a voluntary coalition form of government. They would be challenged to demonstrate their effectiveness in government or be shown the exit by the electorate at the next election – and enter SF as the only option available to unionists.

    Voluntary coalition is not an effective way of keeping SF out of government. Lowering the bar to government to 40% unionists seats, 40% nationalist seats and 51% majority (or some such arrangement) ensures power-sharing, collective executive responsibility (and accountability) as well as sharpening and empowering the functions of the Assembly that enable scrutiny, criticism and debate. Seats in the executive could be made proportionate to unionist / nationalist first preferences rather than on coalition party strengths thereby ensuring proportionate power-sharing between the 2 traditions.

    In any event – why should failure on Nov. 24th deny NI devolved government?

    No government by the November 24th deadline should trigger a responsibility on the parties to first review and agree new rules. If they fail to do that then perhaps it is legitimate for devolution to be moth-balled.

    In the months ahead, for reasons of stable government that gives voice to criticism, perhaps more should be considered than IMC reports and whether the DUP blink? Are we grown up enough for that?

  • GrassyNoel

    No government by the November 24th deadline should trigger a responsibility on the parties to first review and agree new rules. If they fail to do that then perhaps it is legitimate for devolution to be moth-balled.

    What would be the point of that? Sure if the parties were capable of meeting to ‘review..agree’ etc. There wouldn’t be a problem sitting down together in a power-sharing assembly. But it won’t happen and let’s stop bullshitting ourselves with diplomatically-phrased 1,000 word essays about why it won’t.
    Paisley will NEVER share power with Fenians. It’s as simple as that.

    If photographic evidence of decommissioning had been produced, do you honestly think he’d have accepted it? We all know he’d have said they were doctored or falsified in some way. The Unionist people of NI dumped Trimble because they thought he was conceding too much and they wanted a more hardline figure to represent them. Well they got one. The man has no ideas, no vision, nowhere to go. And now they’re stuck with him with no-one else to turn to. Event he UK & Irish govts were willing to give him a chance to come up with something else to say besides ‘no’ and ‘nevawr’ but even they’ve had to concede that Paisley will not move because if he does he’s shifting his position and he’s only got one position. If he concedes the slightest little thing the DUP will be flushed down the plughole just like the UUP were. So now they’re trying to call his bluff. But don’t worry, they’ll probably back down anyway.

  • Rubicon

    GrassyNoel – my apologies if my post was a little long for you, but I was trying to raise an important issue relevant to this thread.

    You may be right about Paisley. While you are sure – for many others the jury is still out. If you’re correct, a modification of the strict detailed rules given in the GFA will remove all reasonable doubt. Given the consequences that could follow a failure of devolution NI’s people deserve certainty.

    Much of my post wasn’t concerning Paisley anyway. To be clear, I was pointing to the following issues:

    1. Why should the 2 gov’s write-off devolution when there still remains a facility within the GFA for review?
    2. The GFA may be correct in principle but unworkable in practice. Did we get carried away in the euphoria of ’98? For myself – voting “yes”, I’m guilty m’lord.
    3. Inclusivity damages the plinths of seperation of powers between the judiciary, the executive and parliament. Opposition needs empowered and given voice in parliament – it can’t happen when the “big 4” form the executive and the parliament.
    4. It insulting to the intelligence of the people of NI to expect policy differences between parties to do anything but damage collective responsibility in government.
    5. Without collective responsibility there’s no collective accountability. What are elections about then? Just old sectarian silos?

    None of this relates to Paisley more than it does other party leaders. But – if you’re so sure – why not call his bluff?