05 February 2006

Hain puts pressure on reluctant DUP

Sunday Business Post

05 February 2006

"This is not the secretary of state wielding a big stick,” said Northern secretary of state Peter Hain last Thursday.

He may have been referring to his plans to suspend pay for the North’s politicians but, when it comes to his government’s proposals on new all-island structures and closer cooperation with the Irish government, unionists could be forgiven for thinking he currently wields a baseball bat.

Only 24 hours after publication of the report by the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) on IRA activity, Hain was ploughing ahead with his agenda for North-South reform. The very notion of more all-island bodies terrifies unionists. The list is long and startling.

The British government is seeking agreement with Dublin on a joint inward investment strategy, plans to set up a single island-wide renewable energy body and increased cooperation on matters of health and security. None of it depends on the possible restoration of powersharing. ‘‘I believe there is an increased recognition among unionists that we’re all in this together. We’re a very small island with common problems,” Hain told reporters.

‘‘This is not a Trojan horse. It’s not some closet strategy for constitutional, political goals, but a practical and commonsense strategy.” Try telling that to DUP leader Ian Paisley. While Hain batted away any suggestions that the timing of these planned initiatives was designed to pressure unionists, the political context could not be clearer.

For years, the two governments have been grappling with the problem posed by the DUP’s reluctance to come to the negotiating table. The suspension of the Belfast Assembly in 2002 and the imposition of direct rule from Downing Street have suited the Democratic Unionist Party and provided political grounds upon which it has thrived.

Paisley, so long as the Northern Ireland Office is able to run the show, need not take any political risks or gambles. While former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble sought a deal with Sinn Fein in the belief that it would strengthen the union, Paisley - perhaps correctly - views prolonged direct rule as a safer bet for unionists than shared government with republicans.

In recent weeks, government sources have said that both London and Dublin are intent on devising strategies that would force the DUP’s hand. Unless the DUP enters serious talks, so the thinking goes, then ‘‘we’ll make life as difficult as possible for them’’.

Enter Peter Hain. Not for the first time since he began his tenure as Northern secretary last May, Hain has on occasion sought to frighten the unionist horses.

In November, the former ‘‘troops out’’ campaigner told the Irish Echo newspaper in New York: ‘‘The Northern Ireland economy, though it is doing better than ever in its history, is not sustainable in the long term.

‘‘In future decades, it is going to be increasingly difficult to look at the economy of North and South except as a sort of island-of-Ireland economy. ‘‘We are deepening North South cooperation in a number of areas.”

The comments caused outrage among unionists, who called for his immediate resignation. While some observers speculated that Hain may have slipped up, his briefings to journalists last week would instead suggest that his comments are calculated and come with the endorsement of British prime minister Tony Blair.

Hain does or says little without the imprimatur of Downing Street. Blair’s running man on the North is not his bronzed secretary of state, but backroom boy Jonathan Powell. The latter, according to the political parties, calls the shots - Hain merely delivers on them.

Tomorrow, Hain will meet the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, at Hillsborough Castle, Co Down, in an attempt to forge some sort of plan that would bring the DUP around to the notion of power-sharing.

The IMC’s report has strengthened Paisley’s position. Its references to alleged criminal activity by IRA members, continuing intelligence gathering and the possible retention of weapons, have taken precedence over any suggestion that the IRA arms decommissioning last summer was monumental.

John Grieve, a member of the four-man IMC team, appeared on BBC television on Thursday night to respond to criticism from republicans that the body was little more than a tool of the PSNI’s Special Branch.

The report by decommissioning boss General John de Chastelain last week caused some embarrassment to the IMC. The Canadian said that he, like the IMC, had received reports that the IRA had retained some weaponry. However, unlike the IMC, de Chastelain sought further advice from the Garda. They told him they had no reason to believe the reports were accurate.

De Chastelain reported the two contradictory positions, the IMC simply reported the allegation. The IMC did not disclose from where its information came, nor did it report the gardaý’s analysis disputing the claim. Grieve’s performance would not have reassured any of the IMC’s doubters. He refused to say where the IMC got its information from or what lengths it went to substantiating its claims before publication.

Regardless of what the IMC had to say last week, it is likely that the DUP would have found some justification for refusing negotiations with Sinn Fein in any event. The party receded from the frontline after the negotiations of December 2004. It had given the impression to many observers that it had come close to signing a deal with the republican movement. Since then, Paisley has appeared content to bide his time.

The DUP came within a hair’s breadth of wiping out the UUP in May’s general election, and has been able to veto political progress ever since. The plans for various all-island strategies by the two governments may yet change all that.

In addition to the proposals outlined last week, plans are afoot to reduce the number of local councils in the North from 26 to seven. This would mean that every council west of the Bann river would be dominated by Sinn Fein. Some commentators have referred to the plan as the effective political repartition of the North - a vast swathe of ‘‘green’’ enveloping a shrinking ‘‘orange’’ strip along the east coast.

The psychological impact of such initiatives on the unionist populace cannot be underestimated. Paisley’s mantra for years has been ‘‘no to Dublin interference’’, yet, as Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams never tires of pointing out, a group of Irish civil servants based in Armagh now has day-to-day input into the running of the North.

On top of this are the existing all-island bodies and the new ones set to come on line in the coming months and years. If unionists have any wish to curb - or at least hamper - such an approach by the two governments, only one long-term political option is available to them.

If Paisley in his declining years cannot bring himself to make such a call for fear that he will forever be labelled a ‘Lundy’, it is tempting to think that his successor will have no other choice.

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