Closer engagement not boycott, is the route out of crisis for the Northern Ireland Assembly

Is Jeffrey Donaldson MP offering a way out of “ crisis?

He said it would be a different situation if Sinn Féin “came clean” and said murder had been carried out by members of the Provisional IRA and said they would work to rectify the situation.

He said the Sinn Féin leadership needed to “recognise they have a problem” and then work could begin to solve the crisis.

The IMC issued its final report in February 2011 and Mr Donaldson said its “absence is keenly felt”. He called for the return of the IMC  (Intentional Monitoring Commission)  and said he did not want to be “prescriptive” about what mechanism could be put in place to “monitor these situations”. A Sinn Féin source said it had always opposed the IMC.

Once again, a year and more after the flegs protest,  life in working class areas rises up to bite us and provoke a fit of political head staggers. In a place where  everyone is supposed to know everybody else, how  little we in the middle class really know about it.

Last week I watched on BBC NI  “A City Dreaming” ( still available on iPlayer), the film described as the late Gerry Anderson’s  “love letter”  to the Derry he grew up in. It reminded me how far out of touch I am with life there and most other areas I once knew well. The film ended with a montage of Troubles images but essentially stopped  when violence became a norm. I was struck by the poignant use of home movies to depict innocence of the horrors to come. But what hit me more was Anderson’s claim in his commentary  that the  social solidarity that kept  communities going  had been “ dismissed as worthless” during the Troubles, and implying it had not survived or had not been revived since.

Can this really be true? Do the stereotypes of screaming flegs protestors  or  the sullen atmosphere of  ghettos  run by hoods  represent the reality of life in East and West Belfast? That society is atomised and still  defenceless before the gun and the club?  And that is all that politics can be about for them and everyone else?

I’d like to think not. And that’s why we need to move ahead  from thinking narrowly  about “peace”  mainly in terms of  the close monitoring of deals  struck between political faction leaders,  to what it’s  really is about, the normality that everyone has a  stake in by right. This requires first, a far wider broadening of the approach than we have experienced so far and secondly frank political engagement beyond gestures and the swapping of slogans.

This is no comfortable approach. It means no longer leaving peace  to the tiny elites to define and run. It means for instance, facing up to the tally of 39 IRA murders listed in the Irish Independent and drawn to my attention by Jeff Dudgeon.  Likewise on the loyalist side.

Why are these being raised only now?  Or if you prefer, why not now? Is it not clear that the “ husks” of the IRA have become a liability to Sinn Fein and  that their arguments that the political side have kept them in check is blown? Or is it  claimed  that the old warriors are the very ones who are keeping the dissidents within bounds?  These are basic questions  that would be prompted by a tally of incidents and attributions of responsibility. They  require convincing answers. They are the essential stuff of political accountability.  But take away the Assembly and you no longer have the scrutiny and accountability. Sinn Fein and everyone else would be off the hook.

This is a powerful reason for following Jeffrey Donaldson’s logic. For another, I agree with Professor Richard English the historian of the IRA, quoted in the Financial Times:

The alternative to involvement in Stormont is less appealing to parties which have become used to exercising power in a largely peaceful Northern Ireland. That is why the flawed power-sharing arrangements will endure, albeit shakily..

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London