Vincent Browne made one of his occasional visits to the Northern Ireland question in his Irish Times column on Wednesday. As is often the case, he furnishes us with a few gems from his stint of ‘North-watching’ from an earlier time in his career.
Internment had been mooted for weeks before the actual introduction, and Boal had promised that if it was introduced he would denounce it as an unacceptable breach of civil liberties. On the way to Buster MacShane’s gym that morning he said he would prevail on Ian Paisley to join in his denunciation of internment.
We met Paisley in the cafe attached to the gym. By the way, it was Boal who was a member of the gym, not Paisley. And for over an hour or so Boal persuaded Paisley to condemn internment. Paisley agreed, reluctantly. They issued a joint statement.
Paisley spent over a year trying to get off that hook. Some months later Boal talked Paisley into making favourable noises about a united Ireland, or at least friendly relations with the South. He spent even more time getting off that hook.
These exposed Paisley’s “right” flank – vulnerable to being undermined by more extreme unionists. It was and, I suspect, remains his primary preoccupation – being outflanked by others to his right wing. And whenever he perceives that threat, he retreats back into hardline unionism.
This flip-flopping motif was a distinct theme picked out an early biography of Ian Paisley by Ed Moloney and Andy Pollak. Although it has to be said that the threat ‘from the right’ has all but been squeezed dry. The last substantial ‘independent’ anti agreement unionists were disposed of in 2003, along with the hardliners of the Ulster Unionist Party.
There are tensions within the party, but these seem to revolve more around the specific quality of a final deal, and, perhaps, some jockeying for position in the post Paisley era. Though given the quality of the deal that SF is being given, the penny may yet drop that the current scope for substantial movement is likely to be small.
But the most intriguing detail in Browne’s column is his speculation that this deal is not going to work out now, but that it might once Adams and McGuinness leave the political stage in a few years time:
…the reality is that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are now liabilities in terms of unionist acceptance of the peace deal. Jim Allister said recently it was a generational thing and maybe he is right. There is reason to believe that both Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness wish to leave the scene anyway. Neither is interested in position or power in themselves.
Gerry Adams will be 59 next October; Martin McGuinness will be 57 in May. If either or both believed peace would be advanced by their departure from the scene, I believe they would go. The problem is that their departure might weaken fatally the peace faction within the republican movement.
But, one way or another, it may be that there will be no deal now and not for quite some time. And if then there is a new leadership in Sinn Féin things could be very different. Although the failure of the present initiative is disappointing, the transformation of the situation is so startling that we have to welcome all that has been achieved so far.
It will all come right in a few years, but probably after Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley are gone from the scene.
Does Vincent know something the rest of us don’t?