Surfing the long tides of political history…

Sometime during the last week I briefly misread a quotation from Alex Reid, one of two clerics who witnessed the IRA’s decommissioning last year, as saying Northern Ireland’s historic moments had taken place in nine different locations. He was, of course, talking about the decommissioning process, conducted with the space of one or two days. But last week we witnessed what could become the last significant date on a very long time line in Ulster’s march from war to peace.Somehow, in the course of the last year, Peter Hain has managed to cajole, bully, and perhaps persuade Paisley’s DUP to consider the possibility that it might share power at executive level government, in return for ministerial recognition of the police by Sinn Fein. If completed, it would finally bring both parties effectively with the letter and spirit of the Belfast Agreement loop.

As the Ireland editor of the Sunday Times, Liam Clarke noted:

Last Friday in St Andrews, as he rose to welcome the agreement outlined by the British and Irish governments, Ian Paisley made a moving and statesmanlike speech. He remembered victims of violence and the poor. He spoke of reconciliation and peace. The high point of his oratory was a striking image: he spoke of a political fork in the road and called for an election to allow people to choose the way forward.

“Today we stand at a crossroads,” he said. “We stand at a place where there is a road to democracy and there is a road to anarchy. I trust that we will see in the coming days the vast majority of the people taking to the road of democracy.”

Had he been able to hear Paisley’s words, Captain Terence O’Neill, the prime minister of Northern Ireland at the outset of the Troubles, would have done a proverbial spin in his grave.

At eighty, Paisley has a longer and clearer political memory than most of his political contemporaries. O’Neill was a gentlemen amateur class of politician who could not sustain even the most basic reforms of the Northern Irish state, squeezed, as he was, between the bellicose opposition of a younger Paisley, and an impatient Civil Rights organisation.

Paisley, in his unscripted reference to this key note in history, understands that O’Neill’s questions contain the key political litmus in today’s calmer, peaceful society as much they did in the tumultuous days of 1969:

“Ulster stands at a crossroads,” he told them. “What kind of Ulster do you want? A happy, respected province . . . or a place continually torn apart by riots and demonstrations?”

And worse, as it happened.

The difference between the O’Neill of ’69 and the Paisley of ’06 is twofold. One, there is no significant player to the Big Man’s political right to upturn any arrangements he agrees. And two, his organisation is now as professional and able to move quickly to quell internal dissent, as O’Neill was a singular amateur and almost completely alone in his attempts to head off what became a nasty and low level thirty year war.

As one of my colleagues at Queens said just after last year’s virtual Westminster wipeout for O’Neill’s successors in the UUP, “we have heard the death knell of amateur politics”. However, in lieu of the re-start of devolved institutions, we still await ‘product’ from its now reasonably well paid professional progeny.