No miracle, just a culmination of tragedies…

Alex Kane writing at the beginning of this week looks back on the restart of Stormont the week before and muses on the idea, expressed in some corners of the media, that it was a miracle of sorts. Rather he believes it was a mawkish, fake Oscar type affair celebrating a process which, tragedy after tragedy, finally led to a last resort of civic engagement between old enemies (ala that David McKee parable). It was, he argues, an outcome that has been on the cards for a very long time.By Alex Kane

In some senses last Tuesday was an extraordinary day. Yet, in many other ways, it was utterly predictable and thoroughly anti-climactic. Blair and Ahern, both riding the down escalator of active politics, needed a noisy, thumping closing number for their respective careers and Stormont was the only venue still available. Back-slapping was the order of the day, along with Oscar-type thank-you speeches for “everyone involved in this miracle.”

But this was no miracle. This was the culmination of a tragedy, with an outcome which has been on the cards for years; a fact that some pundits, myself included, have been pointing out for what seems a very long time.

“Sinn Fein is desperate to get into these talks—a desperation borne of the knowledge that the armed struggle has not delivered, indeed cannot deliver a united Ireland. They need an internal settlement fairly soon, or else there will be precious little to show for twenty-five years of terror, and no potential platform to pursue their aims by non-military means. They need a deal with unionists and they will do a deal with unionists.” (June 1997, three few weeks before Tony Blair allowed Sinn Fein into the negotiations without a start to decommissioning)

“The DUP had a choice: To walk away or to form the official opposition to the new Executive. By staying and by taking the ministries and committee positions available to them, they have signalled that there is no practical alternative to the Belfast Agreement. The pledges to destroy the Agreement will disappear from their vocabulary and the strategy will be to eclipse the UUP and close a deal of their own with Sinn Fein.” (December1999, four days after d’Hondt was triggered for the first time)

In the end it didn’t need the staged handshake. The body language of the two men said everything; a Cheshire cat and a grinning monkey, giggling and guffawing like lifelong mates as they handed out the baubles of office to a select circle of chums. This was followed by the political equivalent of a chimps’ tea-party, when we were invited to peer at and hear the awkward and entirely contrived conversations between Blair, Ahern, Hain, McGuinness and Paisley.

Then it was down the steps into the Great Hall at Stormont, to be treated to the sort of mawkish exhibitionism that only spin doctors can dream up. Brian Kennedy may be an acquired taste, yet, oddly enough his wailing banshee falsetto seemed entirely appropriate to what was becoming an increasingly surreal spectacle. All that was missing was an improbably large diva to drown us out with “All You Need Is Love”, while a flight of doves passed overhead, dropping turquoise olive branches on the crowds.

Better still, they could have postponed the event until Saturday and transported it to Helsinki, where it would have fitted in very nicely with the camp, sparkle and behind-the-scenes carve-up that is the Eurovision Song Contest.

The speeches were a fine mixture of guff, cliché, communal hugs and momma’s apple pie; delivered against a background noise of pigs crashing into the chandeliers as the sheep and wolves joined paws and frolicked in the lobbies. But for all of the well-rehearsed bonhomie and the “all is well with the world” hoopla, there were two little signals that all was not well.

Martin McGuinness began his speech with the words, “I am proud to stand here today as an Irish Republican who believes absolutely in a united Ireland.” Ian Paisley, on the other hand, claimed, “I have not changed my unionism, the union of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, which I believe is today stronger than ever.” (Mind you, he told the BBC a few weeks ago that if he didn’t do a deal with Sinn Fein it would be “curtains for the Union”!) The truth, of course, is that both men are now light years away from the positions they adopted when the Provisional IRA was formed in 1970 and when the DUP was established in 1971. Both have diluted and abandoned their founding principles.

A number of editorials and politicians have been asking why it took almost forty years and 3,722 lives to reach this point. The reality is that it sometimes takes decades for opponents to realise that they cannot win on their own terms alone. So yes, it has been a very long journey for both the DUP and Sinn Fein. They never did reach the centre ground, though, for that would imply trust and voluntary co-operation. They have, instead, reached a neutral ground, a territory barren of alternatives. Neither party is here by choice and that is why it is essential that, sooner rather than later, there is an effective “official opposition” to monitor their activities and provide a credible choice for voters further down the line.

The real test for this DUP/Sinn Fein dominated government will not be in the symbolic and fairly vacuous publicity stunts which will be organised for the First and Deputy First Ministers. No, the real test will be the shape of the Programme for Government and whether, in four years time, we will have a recognisable framework for a genuinely different Northern Ireland.

And the other test will be whether the new ministers and committee chairmen—all of whom have very limited experience of government—will be able to face down and bring to heel a civil service hierarchy and culture which has been allowed to run its own show for most of the period since 1972.

My lasting and very personal memory of the day, though, was the mute and motionless response of the DUP benches to what was unfolding before them. Could these really be the same people who, a matter of months ago, were still heaping dog’s abuse on the UUP for supporting an arrangement which allowed only two Sinn Fein ministers into government? My, my, times really have changed. Let’s hope it is for the better.

First published by the Newsletter on Monday 14th May 2007

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