The governments must intervene now to press responsibility on Stormont

Even if the Stormont institutions haven’t reached the point of existential crisis. the breakdown of interparty talks before they’d even started does not augur well for progress on any front. Can anyone imagine Stormont being able to agree on legislation to help people cross the road, never mind deal with the legacy of the Troubles?   Lack of leadership applies all round, the British government included. From at least 2010 it was wholly appropriate for Westminster to stand back and allow the main parties on opposite poles to face reality together, without recourse to the sofas of Downing St. Much was made of justice and policing as the last brick put into place in the edifice of devolution, but most of the really difficult bits now at issue – parades and the great catch-all of national security – remain in Whitehall. There is now an overwhelming case for direct intervention by both governments. Unfortunately the Conservative-led coalition seems reluctant and ill equipped to make it.

Theresa Villiers comes across as a dry lawyer, a junior politician suitable for normality but with no sign of the personal skills and political clout of a Mandelson, a Reid or even an Owen Paterson, who at least had a political interest in the place. Try as he might, David Cameron can no longer rely on the image building gestures of G8, the Giro d’Italia and more normal-looking visits by the Queen to keep up the impression of business as usual.

The bold stroke for parades in the medium term would be to require Stormont to stop behaving like rival opposition parties and assume responsibility for parades, work out case by case compromises on the right to walk with mutually agreed stewarding and policing and then if necessary enforce them.  Not a particularly attractive political prospect in a near-marginal like North Belfast perhaps.  The idea may seem counterintuitive but the public will hold them responsible anyway, so they may as well exercise some control rather than, in the case of Unionists, endure the humiliation of rejection by a small group of the local great and good. If they can’t agree on something along those lines, the danger is that a new numbers game of political rivalry will begin which will paralyse government and poison working class community relations for decades. The same broad approach, that of taking responsibility,should apply to the Past instead of passing the buck to eminent foreigners under the guise of independence.

For the Past, the logical approach would be a form of amnesty. There the gap is wide between the clamouring politicians and many of the unelected public figures who have quietly held Northern Ireland together over many years. Two leading public figures Sir Desmond Rea the first chairman of the policing board and Robin Masefield a former director general of prisons, are the latest to follow the Attorney General and recommend an amnesty to deal with the past. There is a certain merit is their simple, even simplistic argument.

In their short book” “ Dealing with the Past: A Note to Ambassador Haass” Rea and Masefield  set out in laborious detail how public bodies, the NI Policing Board , the NI Select Committee of MPs , successive Chief Constables and British ministers have struggled with the legacy of the Troubles since the Good Friday Agreement. In a sense the authors let the story tell itself, assembled from official speeches, reports and minutes. This does not make it an easy read. Nevertheless, it amounts to a challenge to politicians and all others involved in policing and justice to draw the obvious conclusions from their shared experience.

The long search and continuing failure to find evidence to prosecute  in some of the worst atrocities, the limited results of the Cory inquiries, the launch and then the suspension of the historic enquiries team, the departure under a cloud of one police ombudsman, more resources  but never enough –  all point in one direction. Through all the turgid language of officialise, the conclusion is obvious to the first chairman of the Policing Board (and this is really Rea’s story), although it was usually buried as one option among others. But in article for the Irish Times in May, Rea and Mountfield finally came out of the closet.

“Sinn Féin had argued that its paramilitary wing, viz Provisional IRA, was an army not terrorists, was engaged in a war and since the Troubles was a war the prisoners of war should be released; in a war nasty things happen on both sides; as of, say, the Belfast Agreement, the slate should be wiped clean, and our society and policing should look to the future; the release of prisoners should be extended to an amnesty for all; there should be no more inquiries; and our concern as a society should be for the victims at their point of need.”

But as Rea and Mountfield know all too well, the A –word is political anathema. The Unionists are against amnesty in principle and as a gift to republicans. Even Sinn Fein rejected amnesty for their OTRs when it meant extending it to the security forces in Peter Hain’s  ill-fated NI Offences bill in 2005. Legal authorities now tell us a blanket amnesty is internationally illegal. In speeches urging the Executive to tackle the Haaas agenda, the Secretary of State Theresa Villiers declared: “This government does not believe in amnesties..” while going on  to describe a system buckling under its own weight.

The piecemeal system that has grown up since the Good Friday Agreement has uncovered  some “truth”  but precious little “ justice “ and created a justice system tying itself in knots. Who’s next after the drama of Gerry Adams’ arrest? Compensation payments are now being paid out in respect of long delayed inquests, one of them outstanding for 33 years, and with at least another 40 inquests to come. The new police ombudsman, more activist than his hapless predecessor, has taken the PSNI to court in a test case for refusing inter alia to disclose information about informant handling connected to the Loughinisland massacre. The application could go all the way to the Supreme Court. The conclusion of the influential critic Professor Patricia Lundy is hard to resist:

Whatever the interpretation of this policy, it has created a vacuum which is filled by almost daily media reports that drip feed toxic revelations about the atrocities of the past, raising more questions than answers.”

In political terms the Past is mainly unionism’s problem. Nationalist voters supported the republican case in sufficient numbers to give Sinn Fein the leading nationalist role, with the SDLP by and large following in their wake. Unionists have  resisted the idea of “the clean slate” even though it is the logic of power sharing they and their voters have accepted.   There is a deep unionist frustration over how or even whether Sinn Fein’s onward march can be checked, even though this elemental fear is much exaggerated. Unionists have made a stand over  “secret deals” and now it seems over parades. On the Past they resent the fact that Sinn Fein as the IRA’s legatee has brushed aside admitting the full tally of responsibility for over 2000 killings, almost 60% of the total .

Sinn Fein replies with charges of  cover up against the British government, namely “the suppression  of reports by various commissions from Stalker to Sampson to Stevens and (its refusal)  to fulfil its commitments for  example on the Pat Finucane murder case or to co-operate with the Barron Commission on the Dublin/Monaghan killings”. Gerry Adams has attacked the “spurious legitimacy” that grades republican “suffering” below its former enemies’. Unionists scorn what they see as the spurious humanitarianism which is a gambit to win retrospective legitimacy for the armed struggle. And so each side denies the legitimacy of the other’s position.

If the legacy of the violent past is ever to be discharged, it will require all parties including the British and Irish governments to display a new openness about the record for which in varying degrees they are responsible. Ms Villiers may be aggrieved that the British government’s record has not been appreciated but she should be reminded that there are at least two versions of one sided justice.

In Ms Villier’s words in two recent speeches, the British government declared that “if the architecture proposed by Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan forms part of a package eventually agreed by the political parties here, then the UK government will play our part in working with the new institutions”. No doubt with the OTRs’ “comfort letters” in mind she added that a new mechanism should be “balanced, transparent and accountable.” Absolutely right.  But it is now crystal clear that “eventual agreement” in advance of the UK Government “playing its part” is remote.  Both governments are integral parts of the problem   and should be integral parts of any solution.

On the basis of “ I jump, you jump, we all jump together”, progress first depends on a deal between the British government and the republican movement to trade  researchers’ access to sensitive official files on terms similar to the de Silva review,  for republican class acceptance of responsibility for the IRA record, in as much detail as official  immunity and Sinn Fein facilitation will allow.

The most urgent move is for a new Historical Inquiries Unit to take over legal investigation of past cases from the PSNI and review the HET’s record of closed cases. An Attorney General’s commission should submit a new definition of the public interest on the basis of what’s left to prosecute.

Sinn Fein should be pressed to spell out its position in much greater specificity. Its 2003 Truth document which appears to be the foundation document contained Mom and apple pie generalisations such as “full co-operation by all relevant parties… is essential to the success of any commission.” A promised update of a special section of its website called “Advancing the Peace Process” has been unfulfilled for too long.

The same requirements for openness and acknowledgment has to apply to the loyalist campaigns.  The DUP, UUP, TUV, PUP and UPRG are the legatees who share a mixture of direct and political responsibility.

The incentives for the community  to move forward are as self-evident as ever. The political parties face in both directions at once, towards communal consolidation (all unionists together for short term gain; Sinn Fein confident and in the high statesman-like mode that grates on unionists ), but also groping towards greater cross community social solidarity. The monolithic communal blocs are starting to fragment.  Different pressures are emerging which argue for greater accommodation in the longer term. The politicians have the difficult task of reconciling contrary pressures. They will need government help to do so.

  • MYtwocents

    governments?, what possible pressure can the Irish gov bring, should they intervene, so its the Westminster gov then, direct rule!.

  • Pete Baker

    It’s an “indigenous” deal “put together by SF and the DUP”!

    “Let on-one interfere with that”.

  • Brian,

    That is one of the most incisive posts i have read here in a long time. While I have expressed reservations in the past about an amnesty, it goes a long way towards a change of mind on my part. The problem, as ever, is that it takes two to dance, and no one wants to dance, or jump, even if it was to be together..

  • Comrade Stalin


    Direct rule, pre-1998 style, would mean the involvement of the Irish government if only on a covert level. How exactly this benefits unionists is a question I’ve yet to have answered.

    I was thinking over the past few days along the lines of what Brian has said. The assembly is dysfunctional because the political parties in charge of the government perceive no penalty for failing to compromise and deliver. The system therefore needs to be structured so that there is a penalty. Some kind of a default scenario where the British government will amend and enact an Assembly bill through Parliament if the devolved administration fails.

    The British should also threaten to legislate to deal with issues connected with the past in the absence of an agreement here and make it clear that it is doing so only because the local parties have failed.

    The only way the Agreement ever happened in 1998, and again in 2006, is because the British dragged the parties to the table and threatened dire consequences for failure. It seems clear that this is the only language the parties understand.

  • “Direct rule, pre-1998 style, would mean the involvement of the Irish government if only on a covert level.”

    CS, Irish officials continue to have a role in day-to-day decision making here. It’s likely that Barbara Jones and Frank Flood will be departing for their new ambassadorial roles sometime during the summer. I’ve not seen the names of their replacements in the Irish ’embassy’ in Belfast.

    “The assembly is dysfunctional because the political parties in charge of the government perceive no penalty for failing to compromise and deliver.”

    I thought it was because unionists and nationalists have been locked-in to a constitutional tug-of-war. Both London and Dublin cozy up to those paramilitary factions who are deemed to be ‘good’ so London and Dublin inverventions might well strengthen the positions of such groupings rather than improve the nature of our governance.

  • Comrade Stalin


    I’ve heard this old spiel a million times. London and Dublin are nothing to do with the entrenched parties the electorate here nominate as their representatives.

  • “London and Dublin are nothing to do with the entrenched parties the electorate here nominate as their representatives.”

    CS, you may well believe that but I view London and Dublin as key players in our political games. Perhaps I should also include our key media outlets.

  • doylefoyle

    My primary concern is the language of the Grand Lodge, the latest from the Grand Master being ‘Unionist..reaction will continue well after parading season..& will spread into the sphere of politics & governance”.

    The sphere of politics is one thing, the sphere of governance is another – are the Unionist parties so naive as to think the men and women on the street will accept OO influence over the style and progression of governance in this place?

    Very worrying if so, because in my opinion it means Unionism is on a collision course not just with Nationalism in this latest debacle, but with London, Dublin and the wider electorate. My money is on this ‘graduated response’ being somewhat of a damp squib especially when the entire region holds its breath for the 12th.

  • doylefoyle

    I should add – the input of the two governments will be strongly felt with Nationalists pushing for direct and clear leadership -especially when we are looking at possible breaches of the Ministerial Code on attendance at N-S bodies.

  • Greenflag

    ‘The governments must intervene now to press responsibility on Stormont’

    Eh ? Is’nt Stormont the government of NI? Is it not the responsible institution tasked with good governance of NI ?

    If it’s not being responsible or seen to be governing in a responsible manner then what’s the point of it’s existence ? We are back to 1972 ..

    Time for London and Dublin to stop holding baby’s hands .This white elephant has been teetering on it’s feet on and off now for 16 years (1998) and if it can’t walk by now – surely the kindest thing to do is to put it down humanely .

    NI in it’s present format shows no sign of being capable of self governance as a normal democracy . As a mandated power sharing government it’s factions /partners / appear to relapse so often into their original pavlovian reactive modes that expecting good governance from them is like expecting a blind and limbless baboon to fly a Boeing 777 while intoxicated 🙁

    But good post BW .Sensible and all that .Sadly the deaf and the blind don’t want to hear or see 🙁

  • Comrade Stalin


    The deadlock in our politics is because we’ve elected parties that can’t compromise or deliver. This is nothing to do with London or Dublin. We need to stop moving the blame away from where it lies – ourselves.


    I agree that we are showing no sign of being capable of self governance. I think this is because everyone believes that there are no consequences to voting for sectarian politics as if it all falls apart the British government will step in and clean everything up.

  • aquifer

    “The bold stroke for parades in the medium term would be to require Stormont to stop behaving like rival opposition parties and assume responsibility for parades”

    And there is me thinking that a bold stroke would be for Teresa to scold the Orangemen of DUPUUP and tell them to obey the law and quit wasting money on public disorder.

    Unless she is being undermined by pavlovian public schoolboys in the cabinet who want to give the Unionists all they want, because they wave Union Jacks?

  • Greenflag

    @ CS ,

    ‘everyone believes that there are no consequences to voting for sectarian politics as if it all falls apart the British government will step in and clean everything up.’

    Sadly true . On the one hand HMG as janitor of last resort – somehow an appropriate role given the past century’s history of it’s attempt to be released from its Irish quagmire..

    On the other hand just as well HMG is still there . I’m not at all encouraged by what I see of Unionist politicians ability or even interest in directing much less leading the ultra loyalists to a peaceful resolution of NI’s constitutional dilemma .

    HMG in 1912 were cowered by the use of the Orange card . In 2014 Unionist politicians have once again reached for the Orange card but in this instance -to save their political careers .

    @ aquifer ,

    Indeed Villiers should have spoken out in defence of the law and the commission . Teresa is a nice lady but no Mo Mowlan and is probably at this juncture looking forward to a Tory defeat in the next general election as she’ll then be on the first plane back to London. She may still hope to benefit from a cabinet reshuffle but with more Tory scandal about to hit the media – she’s probably looking past Cameron’s tenure of the Conservative party .

    How is Leon Britton these days ? Not heading for jail like Coulson & Co well not yet anyway .

  • mr x


    He’s taking advice from Gerry Adams who knows the score.

  • Greenflag

    @ mr x ,

    I doubt it . The Tories never listen to SF not in 1918 , nor 1981 nor 2014 . Neither do they listen to Ireland not in 1886 (First Home Rule Bill ) nor in 1912 (Curragh Mutiny ) nor in Thatcher’s Out Out Out response to the New Ireland Forum of Garret Fitzgerald in 1984.

    As for the score ?

    In the 16 years since the rebirth of the Stormont Assembly

    SF political leadership 15 – Unionist political leadership 1

    The 1 was for Rev Ian Paisley’s 1 year as FM .

  • Greenflag

    @ CS ,

    ‘The only way the Agreement ever happened in 1998, and again in 2006, is because the British dragged the parties to the table and threatened dire consequences for failure.”

    Indeed . Many also seem to forget or choose not to remember that it took a quarter of a century to get from the Sunningdale failure in 1974 to the GFA in 1998.

    ‘ It seems clear that this is the only language the parties understand.’

    Somewhat optimistic there CS . Given the number of suspensions – near collapses and several resignation threats by the unionist political leadership -I’d say that what we have is a failure to communicate .

    And the failure can be ascribed overwhelmingly to the leadership of political unionism and their religious wing the OO 🙁

  • IrelandNorth

    What other occupation would allow its employees to refuse to do their jobs whilst continuint to pay salaries. Parliamentarians are paid to to speak, percance to agree. The word parliament derives from the Anglo-Norman ‘parler’, to speak. No ralk, no money. Taciturn politicians should be considered in breach of their contract of employment by failing to represent their constituents. Unionist politicians may be trying to provoke direct rule by collapsing devolution, and succeeding, at least partially. Procrastination would appear to be their thing.

  • Granni Trixie

    I find it interesting that in the midst of yet another faux crisis PR voice is absent – leaving it to other potential leaders of the DUP to articulate the position. Could it be he is lying low prior to the imminent publication of the investigation into his and his wife’s behaviour?

  • Greenflag

    ‘Could it be he is lying low prior to the imminent publication of the investigation into his and his wife’s behaviour?’

    Nothing if not versatile is PR ;). Chap can go from the limbo low sectarian two step to the Clontibret high step jig in two shakes of a lamb’s tail

    ‘leaving it to other potential leaders of the DUP to articulate the position’

    It’s rope GT give em enough and the others will articulate themselves into non contenders for the leadership succession when PR vacates the blue skies of Ulster for the even bluer skiers of sunshine land . Not that one could blame him for such a choice . Has to be a thankless task at the best and even more so at the worst of times.