More reason for optimism than for decades…

Alex Kane argues, in today’s Newsletter, that Trimble’s ‘foresight and courage’ were not enough to a close a deal so well begun in April 1998 in the Belfast Agreement. He lacked the organisation and the political capital “to deliver a credible majority of the unionist electorate”, and close the deal.

“When you have eliminated the possible,” said Sherlock Holmes, “then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” What happened yesterday at Stormont was a very improbable truth; yet, for that very reason, we are closer to a deal than ever before.

There is no such thing as a short journey in Northern Ireland politics and it is still possible that the whole process could unravel before our eyes; ripped to shreds by one stupid comment or unexpected incident. There have been other breakthrough moments since the Belfast Agreement was concluded nine years ago, fleeting moments, or even months, when it looked as though the wolves and lambs (choose your own side!) had reached an accommodation. So why is this version more likely to succeed?

For all of the courage and foresight demonstrated by David Trimble in the run-up to the 1998 original, he never had control of the UUP, let alone a comfortable endorsement from his officer team or ruling council. One sensed that he was always flying by the seat of his pants, always vulnerable to internal ambush and external opposition from the DUP. And Sinn Fein, sensing his weakness and knowing that he had become a hostage to fate, did only the very bare minimum in exchange for some fairly hefty concessions. Putting it bluntly, they realised fairly early on that David Trimble wouldn’t ever be able to deliver the final deal, because he wasn’t in a position to deliver a credible majority of the unionist electorate.

Ian Paisley, on the other hand, has been able to deliver that majority, with sweeping victories at the Assembly, local council, Westminster and Europe. So too, has Sinn Fein. Adams and Paisley can deliver their parties and the electorate and that means that the deal they do will survive. They have seen off the refusniks, squashed internal dissidents and ensured that the spoils of victory (70 percent of key posts, no less) will be concentrated in their hands. Neither party is dependent on either the SDLP or UUP to get things done.

The scale and nature of their personal and party strengths probably explains the unexpected generosity of their post-meeting statements yesterday. When Ian Paisley said, “We must not allow our justified loathing of the horrors and tragedies of the past to become a barrier to creating a better and more stable future,” I suspect that most unionists and nationalists believed him. Similarly, Adams’ comment, “I am pleased to say that collectively we have created the potential to build a new, harmonious and equitable relationship between nationalists, republicans and unionists, as well as the rest of the people on the island of Ireland.” (Note the use of the phrase “as well as the rest…”; the first time that Adams has accepted that Ireland is two peoples in two countries.)

The short-term auguries for success are good and I have no doubt that a grateful Chancellor and two Prime Ministers will throw more buckets of cash in the general direction of an incoming Executive. But there are still difficult days ahead and even more difficult questions which can’t be resolved by cash alone. The new government will have problems, not least because of the absence of an effective opposition and the dawning reality that the accountability mechanisms will prove toothless and useless.

But those quibbles aside, I think that the people of Northern Ireland, all of them, have more reason for optimism today than they have had for decades. We may genuinely, and at long last, be upon the threshold of a lasting settlement.

First published in the Newsletter, Tuesday 27th March 2007