This piece was carried on the front page of the Belfast Telegraph on January 28, the day after Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen gave up mediating between Sinn Fein and the DUP on how and when to devolve policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly. (See also.)
The British prime minister, Gordon Brown was back at work in London
last night, with his mind focussed again on crucial global affairs.
British soldiers are still dying in Afghanistan, the civilian death
toll there is in the tens of thousands and the shaky president of that
country, Mohammed Karzai, is in London today for a conference with
sixty foreign mnisters.
It wouldn’t be surprising if, in the midst of such a gathering, Gordon
Brown wasn’t to ask himself just how important his fruitless daliiance
in Hillsborough had really been.
The Taoiseach Brian Cowen was similarly getting back into his stride
in dealing with a crime wave whose death toll is nearly as bad as the
troubles were here and an economy in crisis.
this week, Northern Ireland should be much smaller beer.
It is hard to be sure whether it would have been even more
embarrassing if they had succeeded, for that would have confirmed,
symbolically and in the eyes of the world, that we are in our
political infancy. As it is, our disgrace is that our intercommunal
intransigence has survived a 20 year peace process and looks as if it
might to define us in perpetuity.
Perhaps the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown and Taoiseach, Brian
Cowen have learnt a lesson from the experience and will not indulge us
as lavishly again.
More likely the idea has become ingrained in British and Irish
political culture that pandering to our petulant divisions is one of
the first responsibilities of governments.
We are very tempted this morning to urge them to place Northern
Ireland, in a more realistic ordering of their concerns, much closer
to the bottom.
The experiences of their predecessors should tell them that the type
of high wire summitry which they engaged in this week often goes awry.
Remember the repeated efforts to resolve the decommissioning deadlock,
the Hillsborough talks session which has gone down in history as ‘the
April Fools’ Day talks’, or the ‘ seismic shift’ talks at which the
earth did not move. The governments have over and over again trusted
that the moral pressure which prime ministers can apply, by
withdrawing themselves from urgent work elsewhere, would be sufficient
to dislodge local political party leaders from fixed positions and
they have been wrong. They have several times spun their efforts as
far more creative and productive than they have turned out to be.
If the parties here are going to continue pleading with the Prime
Minister and the Taoiseach, and even with the president of the United
States, to do their jobs for them, then perhaps it behoves civil
society here to speak over the heads of political leaders about the
embarrassment of our helplessness.
Ordinary countries can not summon outsiders to solve their problems,
unless they are torn apart by calamitous warfare or a natural
And the irony is that among the concerns which Gordon Brown had also
to address this week, and from which we deflected his attention, were
Haiti and Afghanistan.
Of course, Northern Ireland is not an autonomous polity and the agreed
devolution of powers is not complete. Britain and Ireland do have
responsibilities here. But we are supposed to have been long passed
the point at which we could reasonably confess ourselves helpless to
solve our problems.
Brian Cowen leads a country which is suffering appalling economic
setbacks and the threat of industrial action. He would have been
perfectly entitled to say that he could not come to Hillsborough
because he had other things on his mind. To think that he was summoned
here by Martin McGuinness, an officer in a political party which has
virtually no traction left in his jurisdiction!
The tradition of Taoiseachs and prime ministers dropping everything
and rushing to Belfast to save the assembly from yet another imminent
breakdown grew out of the fear that political deadlock would reverse
the peace process into a resumption of the Troubles. Tony Blair and
Bertie Ahern, in their day, believed they were saving lives when they
came over and called Republicans and Unionists to the talks table, and
they may well have been right.
We must hope that Brian Cowen and Gordon Brown at least trust now that
most of us want our politics to function without blackmail and the
threat of violence and would rather see the Assembly fall than be
sustained by fear.
The principle that they must respond with such urgency to fears of
institutional collapse and an assembly election, is grounded on the
assumption that we are basketcase political entity, and that in itself
is demeaning to the many people here, both in politics and in civic
society, who order their priorities pragmatically and in the interests
of the whole community.
And there has to be a realistic fear that if political party leaders
here feel that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach are at their beck
and call, then they will be routinely tempted to turn disputes into
crises and party positions into threats of disaster.
There is an awful sense abroad that the political careers of some who
are prominent in the executive here were nurtured in the global gaze
and that these people still need the attention of the whole world
before they can function. There was a hint of that last week when
Martin McGuinness was asked for a comment on the allegations made
against Gerry Adams, that he had mismanaged complaints made to him
about the sexual predations of members of his party. McGuinness’s
answer was shocking in its naivete. He said it appalled him that the
media locally were attacking a man who had created one of the best
peace processes in the world.
We have to learn to live with the fact that we are not very important.
We are a region of one and a half million people.
We have been indulging an unwarranted self-aggrandisement. Academics
study us and international journalists write about us and wherever we
go on our own travels we encounter the sense among others that we are
one of the crucial conflict zones on the planet. Yet our conflict
barely rates against an ordinary gangland dispute in an American city.
Yet the peace process which delivered us into perpetual tetchiness is
held up as a model to the world.
We have to ask ourselves now if the political arrangements which we
have established are fit for purpose.
One of the problems is that we cannot legislate for amity or even
civility between parties locked into coalition. Jim Allister makes the
case that mandatory coalition is an unviable and unjust political
arrangement. But the dream that people in Northern Ireland had when
they voted for it, by a great majority, was not that it would be
‘conflict by other means’ or, as foretold by Peter Robinson, ‘a battle
a day’. They wanted it to be a co-operative partnership between
parties with a past history of animosity, and they wanted to see the
old bad feeling and suspicion put aside. They hoped that parties which
had inherited an oppositional mindset from decades of protest, might
learn to co-operate to the practical advantage of their people. They
hoped that when the DUP and Sinn Fein took responsibility for the
everyday governance of the whole region, they would be too busy to
rehearse old hatreds.
It has to be acknowledged that there are some in the Executive who
have confirmed our hopes and expectations. One cannot point the finger
at Michelle Gildernew or Arlene Foster or a few others and indict them
of mischief and dissension.
But Sinn Fein played the education portfolio as an irritant.
Similarly, the DUP has conducted the culture portfolio as if it was
the front line in an historic grievance.
Martin McGuinness clearly loves the position he holds and perhaps has
less of an appetite for stand-off than his party leader. On the other
side, the most irascible and smug provocations from the DUP have not
come from Peter Robinson. But both Robinson and McGuinness have played
bad hands in the long wrangle over when policing and justice powers
would be devolved to Northern Ireland.
Mr Robinson procrastinated until the European election arrived,
apparently fearing that his party candidate Diane Dodds would be
seriously wounded if he had conceded a date. Then, when she was
wounded anyway, he appears to have drawn the dispute out even further
and more slowly, making little concession to the inevitability that
there will always be another election to fear. And if he had at any
time conceded a date for policing and justice, he would have killed
the issue. Jim Allister’s only hope was that he could force Robinson
to delay it; he was never going to have a chance of reversing it.
There is no better argument against a staller than to show that the
deed is done.
Mr McGuinness lost two earlier opportunities to force his hand. One
was when Peter Robinson was installed as First Minister, and he might
have refused to put himself for nomination until a clear price was
paid. Later, after the money was agreed and the DUP linked the parades
issue to the devolution of policing and justice, he could have stormed
out with more credibility, if that was what he was inclined to do. The
old street warrior wasn’t as sharp as he might have been, and now the
ground has shifted under him. He missed opportunities to play it hard
and he waived the opportunity to play it soft.
He might reasonably have hoped that when, last March, he stood with
Peter Robinson and damned the dissident republicans as ‘traitors to
the island of Ireland’ that Robinson might have said then that the
confidence in Sinn Fein that he sought, was now clearly warranted.
Both parties drew out the dispute.The question many will ask, looking
back on that, is whether either or both of them did so on the
understanding that two governments would provide a safety net and
rush, in the end, to save them from themselves.
They would prove themselves better fit to govern Northern Ireland if
they would accept that they are stuck with each other, will still be
stuck with each other after an election, and got on with the jobs we
have entrusted to them.