Monday, October 30, 2006

Goodbye, ghettos

I am delighted to see the launch of Ulster's first mixed-religion social housing scheme, and even more delighted that it's to be in my home town of Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh. The twenty families living in a particular street have signed up to a charter whereby no "side" can exceed 70%.
It's my hope and prayer that the families will get to see each other for what they really are: normal people. That the mums will lend each other baby clothes and the dads will helps each other with odd jobs. That the kids will play together and even have arguments like normal kids do.
Readers outside Northern Ireland may ask what all the fuss is about. Well, in Northern Ireland Protestant and Roman Catholics live, largely, in different areas. Their kids go to different schools. They have different names, different politics, different friends, different sports, different pubs and often different accents. Belfast and other large towns, Enniskillen included, have "Protestant estates" and "Catholic estates". As a Protestant, I'd have no problem visiting friends in Derrychara, but I remember once being scared out of my wits driving up Kilmacormack. My Catholic compatriots have it the other way around. Daft, eh? Yet that's what we've grown up with.
A hundred years from now, maybe this council initiative, like integrated schooling, will be seen as one of the first groundbreaking moves at an everyday level towards an equitable society in our northern part of Ireland. I hope so. Big move. Hat off.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

No going back

Government and police sources say dissident Republicans are poised to carry out a gun or bomb attack in an effort to derail talks aimed at restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland.
Who are they aiming to dissuade? Maybe, in some kind of sick double-bluff, they think they're going to dissuade Unionists. More likely, though, the idea is to intimidate those of their own kind who have entered the world of democracy under the lead given by Sinn Féin.
I hope Republicans, as well as Unionists, will see these people for what they are. Antisocial has-been failures.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The twin demons of Northern Ireland

I was intrigued and inspired by a letter from "Interested Observer Londonderry" in today's Belfast Telegraph. It's a bit party-political, but see if you don't agree about how the twin demons interact. Here it is ...

"The St Andrews deal ultimately marks the ending of the delinquent philosophies of Paisleyism and militant Sinn Fein republicanism.

If their desire to be social democrats is sincere then, since imitation is a form of flattery, I am greatly pleased to welcome the DUP and Sinn Fein into the real world, where the SDLP have been for 36 years, waiting for them.

I also wholeheartedly wish these parties every success in their attempts at forming a government.

However, not long ago George Mitchell, former chairman of the peace talks, alluded to Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams when he referred to the "twin demons of Northern Ireland - violence and intransigence" which "feed off each other in a deadly ritual in which most of the victims are innocent" (March 1997).

Since we all know that the cycle of violence that afflicted our country, north and south, was primarily caused by these "twin demons" of "violence and intransigence", is it not now past time that Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams stood up and accepted responsibility for their roles in the Troubles? They could at least apologise for and on behalf of the groups of people who supported them.

Their repentance would be a truly Christian act and would confirm to many people that they have genuinely changed in heart. It would also serve to put any future leaders in their respective traditions off the notion of following in their misguided footsteps and thus save this community countless more deaths on the road to the next social democratic solution to the problem."

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Baseball bat justice

Picture the scene: the police get a call saying a young man has been kidnapped and taken from his home by a group of men armed with wooden bats. They find him later with a broken leg. Half an hour later they stop a car, recover a wooden bat and iron bars and arrest a man. Then they stop another car and recover a gun.

But then a crowd gathers and hails the police with missiles.

If you told me this happened in Liberia or the Ivory Coast I'd be shocked, but not surprised. But it happened last night in Belfast, more specifically in Ballymurphy, the home and central powerbase of one Gerard Adams.

This attack had nothing to do with political machinations in the wake of the St Andrews talks; it was a large group of thugs with no respect for public law and order, people filled with hatred against the authorities in Northern Ireland and against many of their own kind.

The leadership and middle ranks of the Republican movement have turned the corner and embraced democracy instead of mob rule. I applaud them for that. But they have to take the Banana Republicans with them.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Time to get it right

The idea of St Andrews, as is now clear, was to get round the "show me yours first" stand-off between the DUP, who want an unequivocal SF commitment to policing and justice, and Sinn Féin, who want to know the DUP is up for power-sharing.

Both sides say that if the other delivers, so will it. And both sides say they won't deliver until the other does. That was the Catch 22 Tony Blur was in last week. And he's still there, as witness both parties' sloping-shoulders PR routines since Tony's primary gopher, Peter Hain, told the world the party delegates had said yes on Friday.

Ironically, the biggest problem occupying Ian Paisley's and Gerry Adams' minds this week is the same one: how to take their parties' support bases with them. It's the same problem which finished David Trimble's political career three years ago, so they're being very careful.

By failing to attend yesterday's planned meeting with Sinn Féin and Tony Blur, Ian Paisley was sending a powerful signal to grassroots DUP members that he's not gone soft. Fair enough, as long as he's not backing away from indications he gave Blur at St Andrews.

Similarly, Gerry Kelly of Sinn Féin is now making noises that Republicans aren't ready to pledge full support to the PSNI. Again, if it's an annoying but necessary noise on the road to where we all know we have to go, fair enough.

The Big Thing for Republicans, who I acknowledge have made a lot of running in the last 2 years, is to complete the outworking of the irrevocable commitment they've made to democracy and support a police force which they then play their full part in shaping and holding accountable.

So I'm being patient. We all saw what happened to David Trimble when he moved too far ahead of his party. The last thing we need is splinter groups - either paramilitary or political - so it's crucial to allow Adams and Paisley the time and space to consult and influence within their respective ranks. The prize will be a shared benefit to all our grandchildren.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Agreement? What agreement?

Looks like I was right. The phrase "St Andrews Agreement" is pure Tony Blur spin.
Although the parties had little choice but to give their end-of-talks press conferences in front of a banner carrying the words "St Andrews Agreement", any St Andrews Agreement is just that: words.
I said on Friday how stilted the whole thing appeared, and how unelated the main players came across. Peter Hain may be doing the media and chat show rounds calling it an "astonishing breakthrough", but for the DUP and Sinn Féin leaders the UK government's blueprint is distinctly underwhelming.
Ian Paisley today: "Let no-one be deceived by statements from the secretary of state that there will be any move by myself or the DUP to enter into any government until Sinn Fein has delivered up front on policing ... What is more the final say on any of these arrangements will be with the people of Northern Ireland". Sloping shoulders indeed.
Gerry Adams put it more succinctly: "So far, no-one has agreed to these proposals except the British prime minister and the taoiseach". Pure Teflon.
I believe the blueprint is good for us all and should be signed up right away. It's the condescending government railroading that gets my goat.

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Agreement that never was

Didn't you just love the banner behind the post-talks speechers in Scotland this afternoon that read "The St Andrews Agreement"? At least Reg Empey had the presence of mind to point out that, actually, no binding agreement had been reached.

Looks like the UK government - ever spin-happy - had prepared to parade some great victory (a seismic shift, perhaps?) by having the banner made, but in the end it was just a few extra public pounds flushed soundly down the drain.

Begs the question, what did these talks achieve? Well, it's too early to say. First signs are there was a lot of talking, flitting from room to room in a posh hotel, a lot of plenary sessions, a lot of feeling important and a lot of toeing party lines, but in the end there were no signatures on any agreed text, so the objective was missed.

In the end, the two governments presented the parties with a document they feel presents a workable way forward, and that document centres around two things: Sinn Féin accepting the authority of a properly controlled police and the criminal justice system, and the DUP accepting that Sinn Féin are now constitutional enough to have a say in things.

The parties' final press conference was flatter than a pancake, and I just hope it was because the players were all worn out. Gerry Adams sounded despondent. The only two who seemed enlivened were Reg Empey and Mark Durkan, both of whom made impressive noises in the direction of reconciliation. (For the parties' reactions see here).

Whether St Andrews will go down in the annals of history or the anals of history will be down to Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley in November. Watch them closely, and watch their deputies too. The mood today shows that they can both accept the governments' paper, but - so often in the past - no sooner do they leave a posh talks location but they start to slip back into the old broken-record routine. It's a groove they need to stay away from.

A parting thought: it strikes me there's something a bit childish in the way all those politicians keep lapping up the attention of the governments and the media. It's as if they thrive on it like schoolboys. Maybe it's addictive. The "will they or won't they" routine has them right in the spotlight, and they love it. But what will happen if they reach an agreement? Will anyone be interested in the wee island off the northwest coast of Europe? And does that give them a reason for intransigence?

Roll on the day when, for all the right reasons, we become world news 'nobodies'.

SF must support policing

"DUP rejects governments' proposal". The BBC headline this morning is misleading. It was no great shakes, just a limp proposal to install a "Shadow First Minister and a Shadow Deputy First Minister" before Sinn Féin play their trump card, namely acceptance of policing in Northern Ireland.

Ian Paisley has already said he won't share power with SF until this happens. The UK government, increasingly in a mediating role between Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, tabled the proposal as a (somewhat lame) way of getting Paisley to show Adams a bit of goodwill in order, in turn, to encourage Adams to hold a special SF Ard Fhéis (party conference) to secure grassroots backing for giving his party's backing to the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Poor Tony Blur just wanted to break the deadlock between the DUP and Sinn Féin, but it didn't work and it makes him look a bit daft if you ask me.

To move forward Sinn Féin must play its trump card - the one that says "We support policing and justice in Northern Ireland". I'm with Paisley on that one. But Paisley has to recognise that's a bold, radical move for Adams. The solution is actually simple, and it's today's Big Thing for Tony Blur:

Forget shadows, Tony, get Ian and Gerry to sign a bit of paper with the following words on it:

1. Sinn Féin is wholly committed to constitutional law and order, will give its full active and enduring support to policing and justice in Northern Ireland and will play its part in shaping policing policy;

2. In view of the foregoing, the DUP hereby agrees to enter power-sharing negotiations with Sinn Féin and others.

Update: Well blow me, they've done just that (and spun it out to 18 pages). Bedtime reading here.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Bloggin' Reg

Congratulations go to the Ulster Unionist Party for blogging the St Andrews devolution talks currently underway. Great to read the progress in real time from the horses' mouths (as it were).

Regulars here will know I don't align myself to any one party but prefer to applaud and criticise them all on issues which are central to creating a bright future for Ireland's northernmost province.

Sir Reg Empey's two-pen'worth this evening (logged at 6:49pm) makes encouraging reading. I'm not talking about his opener, "We started this morning with a breakfast in our St Andrews hotel. The accommodation is excelllent." Frankly I'm not too worried about the state of Reg's poached eggs (or the state of his spellling); what interests me is his view that "Republicans are definitely closer to taking an historic and defining decision on recognition and support for policing than could ever be imagined" and his take on the DUP who he says "are closer than ever to taking a decision to support powersharing with SF in the Institutions of the Belfast Agreement". Since the IRA decommissioned these have been my top two wants, and each of them respectively requires a certain softening and rapprochement.

Despite my pot-shot at negotiating tactics this week, negotiation is actually about securing bits of what you want and giving the other guy bits of what he wants. The more balanced this give-and-take is, and the bigger the respective bits are, the more successful the negotiation.

Another pleasing thing is that Reg recognises the shift Sinn Féin has been undergoing: "My concern is that the rightful anger and distrust of SF by unionism ... blinds people to the huge benefits and dramatic shift in republicanism to a position of acceptance of the State. This can only be in the long term interests of unionists". I can sign up to that. Sinn Féin rightly understands that even though it wants rid of British sovereignty in Ireland it has to recognise the present authority and legitimacy of the State if it aspires to govern it and, using the democratic process, change it if it can.

Update: Reg and his party have been told off by Tony Blur for blogging the talks. Blur says it goes against the spirit of confidentiality. What has he got to hide? And what are we not worthy enough to hear?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

One-off opportunity?

I know well enough that Ulstermen of all persuasions are a stubborn lot and that we generally need to be dragged kicking and screaming in the direction of progress (just ask the Big Ulsterwoman), but Tony Blur's laying it on thick these days.

According to the greatest spin-meister the UK has ever had in government, the cross-party devolution talks which got underway in St Andrews today are a "one-off opportunity" to do a deal securing devolved government in Northern Ireland / the Six Counties / Our Wee Country / The Occupied North (please delete as appropriate). Don't make me laugh.

Don't get me wrong either. I want devolved government, I want power-sharing, and I want all law-abiding people in Ireland to feel included, represented and useful. The thing Blur needs to realise is that Irish people are canny. Ulster people won't swallow anywhere near the volume of tripe the English queue up to eat out of his hand. We may be slow to move, but we know a shyster when we see one, and we avoid them like the plague. The man Blur has to persuade is a guy whose ideal social life involves a cup of tea and home-made scones, not Bolly and canapés.

As someone from a similar social background to Ian Paisley (but who doesn't share his politics), I can tell you that when you hear someone with Blur's background and credentials telling you this is a "one-off opportunity" your initial response is to retch. "The future's a long time", you think. Finally, if you've any sense, though, you ponder on all the similar opportunities you've had down the years.

In 1921 Unionists said "no", and the ancient nation of Ireland was divided into two jurisdictions. It may have seemed like a creative solution, but the only people it served well were the Unionist élite, and even then it only lasted 50 years before their bad decisions caught them up.

In 1972 Unionists said "no" to Gerry Fitt and the SDLP, the people they'd give their eye-teeth to be negotiating with now. That decision cost 800 of their own lives and over 1,000 other people's.

A one-off opportunity now? No. Just the latest. And each time, the Protestant people of Ulster stand to gain less and less. Their Catholic neighbours feel more and more alienated, and the two governments get more and more pissed off. The real price for "no" is paid, ultimately and always, not by our political representatives but by your average Ulsterman.

So, Ian, don't say "no" this time. What's a future worth with half our population uneasy and alienated? We're equals now, thank God. Time to give a little and be surprised.

Do a deal while you still can.

Friday, October 06, 2006


"Deal or No Deal" is set to be the most hackneyed headline on Irish political blogs in the next two months. Will we get devolved government up and running again, or will Paisley and Adams face each other down? Again.

Whatever the negotiation - in politics or private matters - there's always a pattern: pre-negotiation posturing and saying what a decent, flexible chap you are, then the horse-trading, and finally blaming the other guy for lack of progress down, in part, to your own intransigence.

Pessimistic. Nah, realistic - look at our history. But this time could be different because the Republican movement is more mainstream than it's ever been and, as its old warhorses age, is even getting a wee bit 'establishment' if you ask me. But that's good, not bad.

Consider Gerry Adams' "Stage 1" positioning today following a meeting with Tony Blur at Chequers. Sure that in itself is indicative. A million miles from the old Milltown Cemetry shots. And guess what? Sinn Féin is a law-and-order party. In Gerry Adams' words, "Sinn Fein is for law and order, we are for social justice, we are for decent, accountable civic-controlled policing. Let's get that and then let's move forward". Now as long as social justice doesn't involve kneecappings or baseball bats I think we may have - dare I say it - a good chance of a result in the upcoming Scotland talks.

As long as it's more than nice words. As long as he really is talking for his party's support base and not doing a David Trimble, i.e. stretching so far ahead of your core electorate that they snip the elastic and send you hurtling into political oblivion by your own momentum.

And another thing. Don't talk to me of "an historic opportunity". We've had enough false dawns. The Big Thing here is less hype and more listening. And anyway it's "a historic opportunity".