The final lesson of the Northern Ireland peace process?

In the Sunday Times Liam Clarke noted that, in the strictest terms, the responses of both Sinn Féin and the DUP amounted to a rejection of the St Andrews Agreement, and he argued that it is the fear, within both party leaderships, of “[taking] some pain and [sacrificing] some support” that is preventing progress.From the Sunday Times

The extent of the likely damage is, according to a recent BBC opinion poll, about a fifth of each party’s hard-core support. Some 22.2% of DUP voters believe their party “should never share power”, while 18.2% of Sinn Fein supporters say the party “should never sign up to policing”.

Making progress means being prepared to lose the backing of these recalcitrant rumps. If their views are taken into account and their support courted, there will never be a power-sharing deal and the views of the 70% of the population (excluding don’t knows) who support the St Andrews agreement will be overridden.

No doubt many of the diehards are good friends and loyal supporters of the DUP or republican leaderships. Extremists tend to be the people who give you the strongest backing when in a tight corner and never give ground when the going gets tough. But it is one of the duties of leaders to be prepared to take casualties and absorb losses in pursuit of a strategic goal. It is also a fundamental duty of leadership to give a lead, to bring people somewhere they might not think of going.

Swallowing hard and taking tough decisions is the only way that either party can hope to govern. In order to get its hands on the levers of power, each leadership has to help the other to do so.

In practical terms this means Paisley not only attending the Programme for Government Committee, but also speaking to Sinn Fein and being filmed doing so without any further preconditions or fuss. That is the sort of courage it takes to be a successful leader.

On the other side it means Sinn Fein letting its followers in on the open secret that they cannot hope to sit in a power-sharing executive without first supporting the police and courts. It is not possible to be a member of a government and still regard yourself as a member of the revolutionary underground operating an alternative justice system and maintaining a sneaking regard for criminals. It means calling on people to give information to the police not only about the crimes that suit you but about smuggling, racketeering and the murder of Robert McCartney.

If they can’t do it, then power-sharing can be forgotten until Adams, McGuinness and Paisley have left the political stage and a new generation of politicians has taken over. History may conclude that the present political leaders had too much baggage and too little courage and that people were right to be suspicious of them.

The final lesson of the Northern Ireland peace process may be that the men who led the war cannot lead the peace. The coming months will tell.