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.