Northern Ireland has somewhere else to be…

Bill Clinton made his excuses some weeks ago. Tony Blair remembered a family birthday. Ian Paisley would rather pretend it wasn’t happening, and is pretending he’s not really here. His Deputy Martin McGuinness, not wishing to be left holding the baby, is following ‘the Doc’ to New York.Thus the great plans for the tenth anniversary of the Belfast (or Good Friday) are to be celebrated today with a small, rather unrepresentative gathering of leaders from the past, or as in Bertie’s case, one that is about to join them in the past.

There was to have been a proposal to start pulling down the most enduring burnmarks of thirty years of troubles, the so-called Peace Walls. In truth, no one who lives near one wants to part with them. But that, along with anything of any substance, is likely to be kicked into the long grass.

Some of this, of course, is probably a thoroughly good thing. Northern Ireland has had a bellyful of false historical moments. This was brewing up to be just one more. Consider for instance that of those ten years, the institutions established by the Belfast Agreement have only fully functioned for two and a half years.

The wider population would rather they just got on with the job of putting back together what some of them once gleefully put asunder (Check out David McKee’s Two Monsters). So far, they have little to show for the procrastination and endless negotiations that would warrant celebration. Having grabbed the limelight, neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein are keen to reference either of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Slowly old passions and hurts are wearing thin, at least in terms of providing the raw material of political life. Now in government, Sinn Fein are showing a remarkable willingness to embrace new policies and dump the old. The friendliness and warmth of the Paisley/McGuinness Chuckle Brothers act (now closed after a short unpopular season) has helped extract the contentious tribalism from public life in Northern Ireland.

The benefits are all too obvious to those who have recently visited the city of Belfast. According to figures broadcast on this week’s Panorama £2 billion is currently being spent on infrastructral projects; house prices are up 400% (though falls are in the pipeline); and unemployment is down by some 80%.

Yet the ongoing cost of public life continues: segregated school buses cost £2.5 million; segregated housing, £24 million; public spending per 1000 head of population is £478,000 (2.5 times that for England and Wales). There are 30,000 community workers and 70,000 voluntary community workers, a fact from which Newton Emerson has concluded “our political problems have taken over and become almost the centre of our economy”.

Last night on Channel 4 news, UDA leader Jackie McDonald declared the police unfit to police and argued (amongst other things, like the need to hold territory) that his organisation would be holding on to their guns for the purposes of policing their own areas.

Gerry Adams has issued now familiar denials that the IRA is involved in policing its own communities. Yet some victim’s families believe they are still run affairs in some neighbourhoods. Elsewhere, even old ‘volunteers’ are finding the punishments are being handed out from non political gangs. In Adams’ own West Belfast constituency three men have died at the hands of such gangs in the last six months alone.

Arguments continue about the quality of the Agreement. Geoffrey Wheatcroft believes there is nothing much to crow about. He compares it to “the Munich Agreement of 1938, at best a tactical concession to force”.

David Trimble, takes a more generous view in today’s Daily Telegraph. Of his unionist successors in the DUP, he notes, “I think they are continuing to pursue our objectives in more favourable circumstances.”

Nothing may have been quite as inevitable as it has been spun by the various governments and political parties. One advantage, (as Robert Puttnam has noted in his long study of Italian regional democracy) of having the formerly ‘radical’ parties at the centre of the new dispensation may be that they can bring vigour and committment to the business of government.

The concern is that they may not be able to break with their own, sometimes apocalyptical, culture of the past. Somewhere, they will need to find the courage to speak tough truths to their own people, if the working class Augean stables of Belfast, Derry, Armagh and elsewhere are not to fester and rot.

Northern Ireland certainly has somewhere else to be. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another ten procrastinating years to get there…

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