Bill and Hillary Clinton may register a no-show at a conference called to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement on 10 April, the Sunday Times reports. Organised by the impressively branded Senator George J Mitchell Institute For Global Peace, Security And Justice at Queens University, the conference line up includes every surviving key figure from the 1998 peace settlement except the incapacitated John Hume. If Bill and Hillary scratch, Tony Blair may follow suit. And then where would we be?
The temptation to be cynical should be resisted. Bill was keen enough to deliver the eulogy at Martin McGuinness’ funeral and drop in at the Culloden to have a chat with Arlene. Why not use the occasion of the set-piece event to add a few words of encouragement if our politics are still deadlocked?
Could it also be that the celebrities and sponsoring academics have run out of fresh ideas after a couple of decades polishing their reputations and crossing continents to trail past glories? Times indeed have changed from those days of – if not quite bliss it was to be alive – then hope and history rhyming. Would the dignitaries fear being ignored or worse, to be dismissed as a “distraction” like Theresa May and Leo Varadkar last week? Has the status of national leaders fallen so low? And if it has, whose fault is that?
Conventional wisdom has it that Northern Ireland began to be downgraded once arms decommissioning was achieved. Nevertheless the begging bowl continued to be rattled with remarkable success as governments tried to buy off further trouble. But since the Fresh Start agreement of November 2015 which bought temporary relief, the UK government steadfastly refused to intervene beyond the legal minimum, in spite of the lengthening boycott and repeated appeals of civil society. We are at the very least owed an explanation for this calculated neglect.
Pat Leahy in the Irish Times is surely right to argue that the failure to restore Stormont last week showed that national leaders have sidelined Northern Ireland at their and our peril. We have problems of political structure, culture and social psychology that the local politicians cannot solve on their own – notwithstanding Republicans rejecting British involvement and the DUP, intervention from Dublin. This behaviour is a measure of the problem.
Let’s unpick the Irish language issue. At St Andrews the UK government promised .
The Government will introduce an Irish Language Act reflecting on the experience of Wales and Ireland and work with the incoming Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.
The Government firmly believes in the need to enhance and develop the Ulster Scots language, heritage and culture and will support the incoming Executive in taking this forward.
Note the difference in treatment between Irish and Ulster Scots. But the in the follow up legislation this commitment was abandoned in favour of “The Executive Committee shall adopt a strategy setting out how it proposes to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language” – with predictable results.
Making Irish an essential condition for returning to the Assembly was an implausible strategy for closing the yawning gap between the low level jibe “curry my yoghurt” and the lofty republican demand for “respect”. But it should have been possible to explain clearly to the excluded public the difference between a statutory basis for Irish and its voluntary and selective implementation and then to share with us the other elements of cultural respect. What on earth have they got to hide? If this package fell short of requirements, a possible trade off could have transcended the cultural dimension to balance a statutory role for the Irish language with guarantees against future withdrawal from Stormont. But with the DUP and Sinn Fein locked in as antagonists, such sophisticated linkage could only have been crafted by an acceptable mediator. The remarkable fact was that in spite of the public hostility to a more prominent place for the language, a solution along these lines emerged at some level of the negotiations, even if it was not finally accepted by the DUP. This is presumably what the secretary of state was referring to when she claimed after the breakdown that a deal was “still possible.” If that were true why did the British government set their face against mediation and the closer involvement that might have nudged them over the line?
In the blame game Sinn Fein are marginally ahead, aided by their protestations of continuing goodwill. In the Republic on the ever present underlying issue of the shape of the next coalition, they retain a remarkable initiative despite disavowals by both FG and FF as Justine McCarthy observes:
The immediate obstacle to Sinn Fein entering government is that both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have, while condemning them for being unwilling to take power, spurned any notion of sharing it with them. It is the same double-speak of their shared hymn sheet when they insist Sinn Fein must climb into bed with unionists in Stormont while pronouncing them “unfit for government” in the Republic.
It may seem just as easy to argue the opposite, that Sinn Fein’s Stormont boycott renders then unfit to join government in Dublin – until it’s remembered that – in principle – they have now ruled both in. They will also deploy the argument that applies uniquely in the North, that the structures of power sharing after St Andrews leave then little option but to withdraw from the Executive if their essential aims are completely blocked. But while there is no option of forming an alternative government with the present electoral arithmetic, the option of convening the Assembly in transitional form again could be worked out, for example to scrutinise a Budget passed under Westminster’s temporary authority. This would buy useful time while deflecting mounting criticism of an Assembly which is effectively in paid suspension.
More than ever, we seem to be deadlocked over the language and a different formula for release will have to be found. “Respect” needs not only to be vested precariously in grudging acceptance of the language – assuming that could eventually be won- but in across the board greater political stability.
There is also a marked reluctance to proceed to full-blown direct rule. Both these factors argue for creative initiative from the two governments, and not before time. It’s too readily assumed that most of the leverage rests with the DUP and Sinn Fein. It should be remembered that the republicans crave full respectability with the southern electorate and the DUP with as many in Westminster as possible to help secure the Union through the chaos of Brexit and beyond.
The glad confident morning of Good Friday 1997 can never be repeated. But its historic achievements will be betrayed if today’s governments wash their hands of Northern Ireland with condescension and claims of “too busy.” The role for them is as obvious today as it was for their predecessors twenty years ago.
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