19 February 2006

The road not yet taken


Saturday February 18, 2006
The Guardian

Mainstream British attention to the affairs of Northern Ireland has become glumly pragmatic these days. In the absence of a drama or crisis the spotlight is now rarely trained towards Ulster. It is hard to argue with the sensible objectivity of this instinct, however unheroic it may be. With Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists now in the ascendant over the vanquished Ulster Unionists, rejectionism of the Belfast agreement is the default setting on the unionist side of the divide. Until the international monitoring commission can come up with two successive clean bills of health on IRA activity that is not even going to start to change and, in the light of this month's findings that the IRA is still engaged in criminal activity and intelligence gathering, that is not going to be any time soon. Sinn Féin can make all the accusations of conspiracy about this continuing impasse that it likes - they will be much in evidence at the party's annual conference this weekend - but the reality is that the consent required to restart the network of devolved institutions remains a distant dream.

It is a dream, however, to which the Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Hain, is clearly committed. While many of the other players act as though nothing much is likely to change within the foreseeable future, Mr Hain is proving himself to be a bundle of energy. This week Mr Hain published an extremely important bill devolving control over Northern Ireland policing and criminal justice to locally elected ministers; the object is to entice Ulster politicians back into serious negotiations in the prospect that, if successful, this crucial subject will at last come under cross-community devolved control for the first time in Northern Ireland history. Next week, Mr Hain hopes to sit down at Hillsborough Castle with the Irish foreign minister, Dermot Ahern, and begin another long-delayed round of talks with the Northern Ireland parties; the aim in this case is to craft the latest sequence of moves under which, if all went well, the mistrustful DUP and Sinn Féin would nevertheless be able to take their places at the heart of the currently suspended power-sharing institutions, probably after a further round of assembly elections, for which Mr Hain's new bill also makes provision.

In the most optimistic scenario, all this work will come together in a virtuous synthesis this summer in which the IRA is deemed to have closed down, the institutions are revived with Mr Paisley as first minister and Sinn Féin embracing the new policing arrangements. Whether that will actually happen is, of course, another matter. Mr Paisley remains a deeply reluctant participant in any of these activities and it is by no means certain that he will play his intended part even next week. Tony Blair's decision on Wednesday to give this round of talks a miss, after initially committing himself to take the chair and make a substantial speech in an attempt to force the pace, underlined both the fragility of what is about to take place and the fact that the prime minister may no longer have the clout to bend the process to his will.

The road to devolved government in Northern Ireland is littered with the corpses of many political careers, Irish and British. It does not take a genius to recognise either that Mr Hain, for all his energy and optimism, is at risk of joining their number or that many unionists are likely to prefer the current stasis to the uncertain rewards of power-sharing for some time to come. Nevertheless, a comprehensive settlement involving the DUP and a peaceful Sinn Féin has been tantalisingly close before, and the way to achieving it lies open again next week. The prize of a Northern Ireland governed peacefully by its own people under agreed laws and through shared institutions is a huge one. Mr Hain deserves credit and good wishes as he embarks on his task, but only a fool would suppose success is certain.

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