As former Number Ten insider Matthew Taylor points out in the Observer yesterday, some kind of closure to Northern Ireland is something Tony Blair is anxious for. There is no doubting his commitment, even in the face of the contempt of key participants in the Peace Process™: the IRA once routinely referred to him as ‘The Naïve Idiot’. But despite the gloomy predictions, that same Process™ has delivered considerably more than many of its critics seem prepared to concede – even if at this stage it is wearing distinctly washed out colours.Now, as Henry McDonald notes Blair’s legacy is still far from in the bag:
The reason for the unprecedented convulsions in Sinn Fein, with up to six Assembly members either resigning or forced out for not toeing the party line, is historical. For three-and-a-half decades, Sinn Fein demonised the police as the armed wing of unionism.
Then in a twist of fate reminiscent of that final scene of Orwell’s Animal Farm, that same party’s leadership tells its members to embrace the very same concept of policing that republicans were told was unacceptable; one that upholds British law in a state still connected umbilically to the UK. In fact, Sinn Fein’s anti-police subculture has exploded in its face as its high command seeks (at any price, its critics say) power-sharing in Northern Ireland.
Conversely, the memory of so many deaths and injuries inflicted on police officers and their families acts as a brake on the ambitions of those inside the Democratic Unionist Party desperate to take over and run Northern Ireland, albeit with republican consent and co-operation.
The British government’s indecent haste towards the 26 March deadline for devolution’s restoration also reflects a desperation of its own. It’s to award Blair at least one trophy before he walks off on to the global after-dinner speaker circuit. Given his troubles elsewhere – Iraq, NHS reform, alleged corruption of the honours system etc – Northern Ireland may be his only glittering prize.
My assessment from the detailed conversations I have had with the DUP is that, provided there is delivery of the Sinn Féin commitment, they will enter into government with Sinn Féin on March 26th and they will accept devolution of policing and justice powers in the timeframe set out in the St Andrews agreement or even before that date.
Personally, I think any other outcome would be wrong, unfair to all sections of the community in Northern Ireland and a complete waste of a one-off, once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a lasting peace.
Given that the first such minister in the executive will not, in all likelihood, be from either the DUP or Sinn Féin, it really would be utterly unreasonable not to have devolution of policing and justice by May 2008, provided of course that the conditions for it are met.
Should all of this fail, it will be a bad blow, all the worse because it will be pointless. There is no doubt in my mind that the Sinn Féin leadership wants to make this commitment, or that the DUP leadership wants to share power. If either Sinn Féin or the DUP defaults now, it would be a crazy denial of what is, in fact, a shared intent.
And that plan B? Prolonged absence from democratic power and several astringent doses of strong medicine:
All failure means is that, as the St Andrews agreement sets out, we move ahead on the basis of the new British-Irish partnership arrangements to implement the Belfast Agreement. But these will only ever be second-best and would require the same support for the police being sought and the same need for accountability being met. In other words, you would come back to the exact same issues, just in a much less benign environment.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty