19 February 2006

Blair will gamble on last spin of assembly's wheel

Sunday Times

Liam Clarke
February 19, 2006

The latest rumour sweeping Northern Ireland is that the eighth anniversary of the Good Friday agreement in April will be the occasion on which Tony Blair will finally resurrect the Stormont assembly. And if you believe that, you probably agree with Mary McAleese that the people of Ireland were appalled when a Danish paper they had never heard of published a series of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.

No more than the cartoons, the assembly is hardly on the radar on the streets of Belfast or Dublin. Everybody may have an opinion about it, but it is nowhere near the top of their concerns. When Peter Hain said in the Commons last week that unless the assembly was restored, “public resentment” would continue to build at the payment of MLAs’ salaries, the secretary of state didn’t strike much of a chord with voters.

The only person who really cares about the absence of the assembly is Blair, who is now said to have a “fairly firm idea” about how to proceed. Like a gambler intent on retrieving his fortunes on one more spin of the wheel, the prime minister is preparing to come back to Northern Ireland and set yet another deadline for the local parties, who are even now rubbing their hands and finalising their lists of demands.

Money will be top of their agendas. Since it was put in cold storage in 2002, the assembly has brought £78m (€114m) of central government funds into Northern Ireland, and most of it is being spent on local goods and services. Each of its 108 members earns about £85,000 a year in pay and allowances. Not since the closure of the Bloody Sunday inquiry have we had a cash cow to compare with it.

The assembly has funded political parties, paid for 10 ministries (when there is no logical case for more than six), and sustained a top-heavy civil service who spend their salaries in the local shops.

So when Blair arrives he can be sure of everybody’s attention. Negotiating about the assembly, and producing papers that Blair can present as some sort of progress, is how politicians extract concessions from an increasingly cash-strapped and tight-fisted British treasury. Rates are soaring, subsidies are being cut, gas prices have increased by 53% since last October, but like a pampered favourite the assembly gets as much funding as it likes.

The attitude of Democratic Unionist party voters, now mainstream unionist opinion, can be seen from a Sunday Times survey of delegates at the party’s annual conference earlier this month. A majority (65%) believe assembly members’ pay and allowances should continue to be paid, but only a minority (39%) would support power sharing with Sinn Fein over direct rule by British ministers, even if they were satisfied that there has been an end to IRA criminality and the complete decommissioning of weapons.

One party figure I surveyed asked if a decontamination period would be available, and if there would be “sackcloth and ashes” from the IRA. When I said there would, he smiled and said: “In those circumstances I think I’d go for direct rule.”

The reason for this intransigence isn’t hard to find. It reflects the views of the unionist electorate, who ditched David Trimble and made the DUP the largest party in the province precisely because they no longer wanted a deal with Sinn Fein. The DUP knows it will not be electorally rewarded if it softens its line. The mandate it got at the last election was not to go into government under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, so it won’t.

Unionists may have voted by a narrow majority for the agreement in 1998, but that is now a long time ago and generally speaking they don’t feel they got what they voted for. They expected complete IRA decommissioning within the two years that it took to release all paramilitary prisoners, and they expected the IRA to wind up once Sinn Fein got into government. That didn’t happen. Instead there has been a series of nasty surprises including robberies, spy rings, arms buying and training missions in Colombia.

Most unionists distrust intensely the Sinn Fein leaders who, like Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, were active in the IRA during the Troubles and have not come clean about their pasts. A significant minority of unionists goes further, and detests the older generation of republicans to the point of demonisation. Things may change as new Sinn Fein faces come forward, but that looks unlikely within Blair’s time frame.

The IRA played their cards too slowly and too fitfully to build unionist trust — perhaps they did so deliberately. Certainly the slowness of their progress and the unionist howls of protest helped sell the Adams/McGuinness reform package to the republican grassroots.

Unionists blame republican duplicity for the failure of the assembly; republicans blame unionist intransigence. Those attitudes, deep in the psyche of the two communities, is what keeps Sinn Fein and the DUP the largest parties and ensures that their failure to restore the assembly costs neither of them votes.

On the nationalist side, there is lip service to the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement, but it is no longer a make-or-break issue and it is certainly not something that Sinn Fein is being blamed for.

The current issue of An Phoblacht, Sinn Fein’s weekly newspaper, makes the point neatly. As Blair and his ministers try to pump up the pressure for devolution, the topic barely rates a mention. The main story lambasts Bertie Ahern for refusing northern parties speaking rights in the Dail, and there is scene setting for this weekend’s ard fheis focusing on economics, health and the environment. These are the areas on which Sinn Fein is trying to build credibility with southern voters in time for the next general election.

The restoration of the assembly seems to have been relegated to the status of a long-term aspiration.

It is in this context that David Hanson, the north’s political development minister, speaks of growing momentum for devolution. He is about as convincing as his colleague Shaun Woodward when he announced that the Independent Monitoring Commission had given the IRA a clean bill of health.

The prime minister will have to try something, but he knows that power sharing on the same ambitious scale as outlined in the Good Friday agreement would collapse. We may instead get a shadow assembly of some sort. Such an institution could provide the politicians with a legislative and scrutiny role that will keep them in pay and which Blair can present as progress in his memoirs.

It is not what nationalists want, and the currency in which Blair will need to pay them is increased cross-border co-operation and a more Irish feel to the north. The SDLP, which provided most of the ideas that fuelled the peace process, has already drawn up a list of proposals for things that could be handled on a cross-border basis. Sinn Fein has reacted by saying that it thought of it first. It is clear both parties see this as acceptable and the two governments have weighed in with a commitment to spend €100 billion on a cross-border basis in the next few years.

So much money will be spent on a cross-border basis that unionists won’t be able to ignore it. They will also have to get in on the cross-border act, and it will provide them with an incentive to enter an administration of some kind.

In a profound piece of social engineering, cuts in education and falling school-rolls will be used to provide incentives for many existing schools to move towards religious integration and the pooling of specialist resources, or face closure.

Other dollops of patronage have been dispensed to nationalists alone, in order to sweeten the fact that the sort of assembly the DUP and the unionist electorate may consider won’t be what was promised in the Good Friday agreement. Sinn Fein has recently had its Westminster allowance restored and a special new one added to help fund the party. Last week a special dispensation from British legislation was introduced to allow Irish citizens living abroad to contribute to Northern Ireland parties.

Blair is hoping it will work while he is still prime minister; the local parties know that their ability to extract concessions from him is growing daily. They will play hardball, and the prime minister shouldn’t expect them to move to his timetable unless he pays them well to do so.

It’s his legacy, but it’s their pressure point.

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