Friday, 28 August 2015

Naked Ambition

What’s the point of wearing a fig leaf if it doesn’t cover your modesty?

The Ulster Unionists’ threatened withdrawal from the Executive – which will presumably be ratified by its party executive tomorrow – was based, we’re told, on ‘principle’. And as the party jumps ship, it looks like it might be followed into the lifeboats by the DUP, with dire implications for the power-sharing government at Stormont.

The ‘principle’ argument doesn’t hold water though. “You can’t have parties connected with ‘terrorists’ in government,” goes the UUP’s rationale, but you can work “collectively” with them outside of the parliamentary chamber, for example on a graduated response.

This argument is pathetic.

If anything, initiatives such as the graduated response are even more perverse. The Stormont Executive is a mandatory coalition, whereas the United Unionist Response was voluntary. When unionist leaders rail against the continuing existence of terrorist organisations and their leaderships, it takes all my forbearance not to shout out, “Look behind you.”

The Ulster Unionists’ decision is based not on principle but on naked self-interest.

This morning, their leader, Mike Nesbitt, put in a startling performance on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland programme. “I will accept that [the Chief Constable's assessment about the IRA and Sinn Fein] but I’ll tell you what, if Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness or preferably both, said the same thing about the IRA – which would admit that they are existing – that would start building trust,” Mr Nesbitt said. “If they said the same thing - that the IRA exist but they're not existing for the old reasons - that would be a step. But they won't do it. They're in denial."

So far so good.

Twenty-one seconds later, though (I actually counted), Mr Nesbitt asked: "Why should I trust Sinn Fein? Why should I trust Gerry Adams who says he was never even in the IRA?"

Oh dear. Contradicting himself (not for the first time). This problem won’t be fixed as easily as Mr Nesbitt imagines.

For starters, whose assessment will he trust?

Does he accept the Chief Constable’s? George Hamilton has already assessed that the Provisional IRA is no longer engaged in terrorism and is following a political path; he accepts Sinn Féin leaders’ bona fides regarding their rejection of violence and pursuit of peace.

Does Mr Nesbitt accept the former Independent Monitoring Commission’s view? In its last report the IMC concluded that PIRA had “gone out of business as a paramilitary group”. Indeed the IMC went further: PIRA had “transformed itself under firm leadership” while loyalist groups “lacking comparable direction” had struggled to adapt.

If it was looking for an excuse, the UUP should, perhaps, have consulted the SDLP’s former Deputy First Minister, Seamus Mallon. Mr Mallon has told the Irish News that while the Provos have ceased paramilitary activity they are still involved in money laundering, fuel laundering and smuggling. While criticising “nods and winks” and governmental ambiguity, Mr Mallon thinks withdrawing from the Executive at this stage is premature.

He is right. Money laundering, fuel laundering and smuggling – not to mention murder and extortion – are matters variously for the police, Revenue and Customs, and the National Crime Agency. It is our politicians’ job to hold the police and the NCA to account for their record in tackling such crimes. I can’t imagine that the authorities’ job will be made any easier – or our aspirations for a more peaceful and law-abiding society achieved any sooner – by endangering the political institutions and ‘upping the ante’.

Really! Country first and party second?

Mr Nesbitt may have wrong-footed the DUP, who are rushing to play catch-up, but it may prove a Pyrrhic victory. In striking to ‘hoover’ up unionist votes, the UUP risk creating a vacuum. And history teaches us that Northern Ireland – like nature – abhors a vacuum.




Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Careful Now

There is an old adage: be careful what you wish for. Many unionists would like to have seen the IRA defeated 19 years ago, when the last ceasefire was announced. It didnt happen. Likewise, many would like to see republicans wearing sack cloth and ashes. That isnt going to happen either.
We are where we are and – imperfect though our peace is – we are in a much better place than a generation ago. Have we forgotten that only 17 years ago this month, 29 men, women and children, and two unborn babies, were killed in the worst atrocity of the Troubles, in Omagh?
The relative peace we enjoy didnt materialise out of thin air. It had to be worked at.
The Chief Constables assessment last weekend that, while an infrastructure existed at a senior level of the Provisional IRA, the organisation was not on a "war footing" came as no surprise to the Secretary of State. It appears however to have astonished some unionist politicians. It also seems to have caught some nationalists by surprise and, at the same time, piqued senior republicans who had been adamant that the IRA had “left the stage” and “gone away”.
Republican assurances cut little ice now with the Ulster Unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt. That is hardly surprising.
What is hard to fathom, though, is unionist politicians’ lack of attention to some of the Chief Constables other ‘clarifications: that the Provisional IRA is “committed to following a political path”; that it is “no longer engaged in terrorism”; that the IRA “does not exist for paramilitary purposes”.
Moreover, the Sinn Féin president could hardly have been more forthright in his condemnation of whoever shot Kevin McGuigan dead. They were “criminals”, Gerry Adams suggested – in language he would never have used of IRA members.
Surely such statements should be a source of relief, if not necessarily a cause for celebration? Instead, we see unionists of various hues searching high and low for an allegation, a word, a nuance – anything that might justify withdrawal from the power-sharing government.
Imagine for a moment that the IRA had gone away – completely, and to unionistssatisfaction – in 1996. What do people believe would have happened? Where would IRA members have gone? Would they have kept faith with a political process which has left everyone feeling short-changed?
Conflict resolution and peace-building are complicated, especially when there is no clear ‘winner. We need look no farther back than a recent war in the Middle East where – following Iraqs defeat – the precipitate dismantling of military, police and governance institutions led to anarchy and chaos. Peace processes have to be managed.
The last thing Northern Ireland needed in 1996 – or indeed needs now – is hundreds of highly committed, highly trained former IRA members seeking some outlet, other than a peaceful one, for their disaffection. How, other than with some lingering infrastructure – a command chain of sorts – can former combatants be kept ‘on messageand ‘onside?
The late Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, captured mid-seventies Northern Ireland brilliantly, in his poem ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing:
                                            “O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
                                             Of open minds as open as a trap,
                                             Where tongues lie coiled as under flames lie wicks”. 
Heaneys words seem as relevant today as they did forty years ago.
No one likes doing ‘nod-and-winkpolitics but, in the real world, there is a chasmic difference between politicking and realpolitik. Had it not been for ‘back channelsand secret contacts between previous governments and the IRA we would all still be stuck in a morass of violence. The supposed naivete of some politicians nowadays is truly breath-taking.
When the Independent Commission for the Location of VictimsRemains liaised with intermediaries, who did people think those intermediaries were talking to? Why would any IRA volunteer – former or current – risk imprisonment in cooperating with the search for the Disappeared other than on foot of an order?
Nineteen years after the last IRA ceasefire and seventeen after the Good Friday Agreement, we still have no sense that our political institutions have taken root or confidence that the peace will endure.
It will be interesting in the coming weeks to see whether the DUP will follow the UUPs lead by leaving the Executive, how the SDLP will respond (although its difficult to envisage them ignoring the ‘positivesin the Chief Constables assessment), and who lines up alongside the Ulster Unionists in any new ‘Opposition.
The people who will be most satisfied with the latest developments will be the TUV and republican dissidents, both of whom will be able to say, “We told you so.”
Mike Nesbitt was shrewd enough to secure the unanimous support of his MLA Group, the party’s one MEP and two MPs for today’s move, as well as of senior representatives of his Councillors’ Association and the party chairman. His initiative has undoubtedly wrong-footed the DUP.

But, how wise is his gambit, when viewed strategically? Mr Nesbitt insists today’s move is a principled one, in response to the murder of Kevin McGuigan. Nationalists and republicans have scented hypocrisy, though, pointing to the differing ways he treats republican and loyalist representatives who have been linked to groups implicated in murders.

The Ulster Unionist leader says he believes the situation “can be fixed” but for that to happen requires “some clarity about the IRA and its command structure”. Clarity from whom – the PSNI, Sinn Féin, the IRA? And in what form – a statement, a gesture, sack cloth and ashes?
The Secretary of State now has a big call to make. Tomorrow the DUP will remind her of the “responsibilities she has to punish any party that is found to be in breach of their commitments to exclusively peaceful and democratic means”. Ms Villiers confirmed only two days ago that her “understanding” was very much in line with the Chief Constables (Mr Hamilton has already accepted the bona fides of the Sinn Féin leadership). She said she was satisfied for the moment that all parties in the Northern Ireland Executive were supportive of the principles of democracy and consent.
Northern Ireland is barren territory for politicians but fertile ground for poets. ‘Peace comes dropping slow, WB Yeats wrote, in his most famous poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree. We could not have imagined how slowly it would come here.

Be careful what you wish for.