11 May 2006

Anniversary highlights changed times


It is difficult to pick a date in Northern Ireland that is not the anniversary of something depressing or divisive, but I wonder if they consulted their calendars in Downing Street before deciding to reconvene the Stormont assembly on 15 May.

By Kevin Connolly
BBC Ireland correspondent
11 May 2006

It will be exactly 32 years on from the day in 1974 from the start of a loyalist general strike designed to smash the fragile experiment in power-sharing government agreed the previous year in talks at Sunningdale in Berkshire.

Ian Paisley was excluded from the deal back in 1974

On one level, they succeeded. Power-sharing collapsed and was gone for a generation.

On another level, the strikers probably inflicted a degree of damage on the image of loyalism in the eyes of the British establishment from which it has never really recovered, but that's an issue for another day.

Much has changed of course since 1974.

Between the first day of January in that year and 15 May, more than 100 people had been killed in acts of political violence.

This year, it is no more than three - and the shock which has greeted the sectarian murder of the schoolboy Michael McIlveen in Ballymena is a grim demonstration of how far we have come.

But there are, of course, some common features hewn from particularly hard-wearing historical rock which have survived however much time may have eroded the rest of the Northern Irish political landscape.

Gerry Adams has seen Sinn Fein's political power increase

Now, as then, Gerry Adams was a key figure in the republican movement, although his public profile in 1974 was much lower.

Ian Paisley, by contrast, was as much a public figure back then as he is now - although back then his ability to articulate the anger of the Protestant street wasn't filtered as it is now by decades of parliamentary experience.

The longevity of public figures in Northern Ireland is worthy of study in itself.

Gerry Adams was on the IRA delegation flown to London for secret talks with the British government in 1972, and Ian Paisley has been making headlines since at least 1963 - the era of John F Kennedy and Harold Macmillan.

Anywhere else in the developed world, it would seem extraordinary that the same two men find themselves at the centre of events again now, just as they did 32 years ago.

Roads were blocked by loyalist paramilitaries during the strike

Again, there are differences, of course. Gerry Adams has a huge democratic mandate now, which the IRA did not have in 1974.

And the power-sharing game is being played for higher stakes in a sense - in 1974, Britain was trying to engineer a deal between the relatively polite, relatively centrist parties from each community.

The Paisleyites on one side, and the republicans on the other were excluded.

This time, thanks to the results of the last Stormont election, they are centre stage and the inclusion of Northern Ireland's two extremes in the political equation makes it harder than ever to secure a deal - and securing a deal was never easy.

The republican movement wants devolution and power-sharing restored immediately - for all their discomfort with the politics of Paisleyism.

Mr Paisley's Democratic Unionists say they want devolution too; just not yet.

They argue that Sinn Fein hasn't done enough to distant itself from the paramilitary violence and criminality in the IRA's past.

'Benign friction'

The DUP is perfectly content to see the Stormont assembly recalled but will not permit the formation of a government from its ranks.

Neither Sinn Fein nor the nationalist SDLP is happy to see the assembly resurrected as a toothless talking shop, but they have reluctantly agreed because there is no other hope of progress.

DUP leader Ian Paisley pictured outside Stormont in 1969

The government's plan is to somehow keep all the parties involved at Stormont and hope that a kind of benign friction produces some sort of agreement.

The government has set a deadline of 24 November, warning it will close Stormont if no deal is reached by then.

Not everyone is convinced they will carry out the threat, not least because it would mean 32 years of aspiration down the drain, but for the moment, Downing Street insists that the next six months represent a last chance for power-sharing.

The DUP is still very much Ian Paisley's personal vehicle, and probably only he knows for sure if he will agree before that deadline.

The smart money in Northern Ireland, sadly, is always on no.

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