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

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  • Crataegus

    From a purely practical point of view NI needs this agreement hyped up far and wide in the hope that much of the damage done by the delay caused by both SF and the DUP can be undone.

    Its an earth shattering, lasting agreement, peace in our time, NI leaps forward, what brilliant Ministers, an example to all other places of conflict. NI’s with its young and educated workforce and outstanding natural landscape full of fishing rivers and golf courses rejoins the modern world.

  • philip

    If the UUP gives the same support to their brothers as the DUP gave in 1980 – 1998 then we are fecked.

  • Couple

    There are now two pieces in the New Statesman about yesterday. The one by O’Farrell is fun and the one by Shirlow more serious. The Shirlow one is a good reminder that we should get too excited. They are both on the New Stateman webpage.

    http://www.newstatesman.com/200703270005

  • overhere

    “as well as the rest” I took this to be a reference to the recent influx of other nationalities who have moved here from Eastern Europe and further afield !

    Sean

  • Egon

    “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.)

    I read it differently – he’s recognising there’s more to the people of Ireland than nationalists republicans and unionists. The rest of us!

  • Yokel

    The ‘rest’ being the people who want to keep the place at arms length…

  • IJP

    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.

    Eh???

    How does that follow?

  • smcgiff

    ‘How does that follow?’

    Don’t underestimate the power of wishful thinking, Ian.

  • Elvis Parker

    Alex however thinks the way forward is the continuation of sectarian politics.
    Surely now is the time for those who support the Union to develop normal politics through the Conservative, Labour and Libs?
    To do other wise is to play into the hands of the DUP and (even more) Sinn Fein
    (BTW taken as read that there is no role for UUP or SDLP)

  • Seemed pretty obvious to me that Adams was referring to the immigrant population, and the Shinner in the office next to me confirms he interpreted it the same way. Dunno what Alex was thinking there.

  • Dave

    I agree Wednesday, Alex seems to have misunderstood this.

  • Dread Cthulhu

    The fact taht there is more reason now than there has been for decades is more an indictment of the past than an endorsement of the present.

  • The Dubliner

    [i]”as well as the rest” I took this to be a reference to the recent influx of other nationalities who have moved here from Eastern Europe and further afield !

    Sean [/i]

    May G-d love your innocence. PSF has been a partitionist party from 1986. Since then its goal has been an internal settlement with the United Kingdom, not reuniting with Ireland. Despite it being obvious to most non-shinners, the shinner rank-and-file still hasn’t figured it out. Ergo, your campaign of violence was not republican (and not validated by the aim of self-determination) but was simply a militant nationalist protest movement which used violence for wholly illegitimate purposes. Alas, you are the lowly sectarian terrorists that unionists always claimed you to be.

    You seem to forget that the basis for the PIRA’s 1994 ceasefire was the Downing Street Declaration which stated that the only solution was an internal solution (subject to consent of a majority that are unionist). The second PIRA ceasefire was made on the basis contain in this leaked memorandum drawn up by Professor O’Leary on April 17, 1997 (who acted as an intermediary between PSF and The Labour Party), which outlined the terms that PSF would agree it with the incoming government of Tony Blair. You will note that PSF make not one mention of Irish Unity. All they want is power for PSF and in return they promise to stop their sectarian murder campaign. So, no mention of anything other than an internal settlement for the first ceasefire under John Major and absolutely no mention of PSF wanting anything other than an internal settlement from the incoming Tony Blair in return for the second ceasefire.

  • David

    Trimble had a majority if he had not stuck his nose in the air and walked away from the new breed of pro-agreement loyalist politicians. In the end social sectarianism is what killed the UUP’s position as leader of unionism. They need only blame themselves.