14 May 2006

Figures in an altered landscape

Sunday Business Post

By Pat Leahy
14 May 2006

Contacts with the Northern parties are continuing this weekend as the British and Irish governments prepare for the reopening of the Northern Assembly for the first time in almost four years. At 10.30am tomorrow, the parliamentary-style ceremonials will begin, heralding the re-establishment of an assembly which was suspended in October 2002 and to which elections were held a year later.

Brief order papers for the Assembly’s business on Monday and Tuesday have already been issued. It’s expected that the former deputy leader of the Alliance Party, Eileen Bell, will be elected as speaker.

Speaker’s business will be followed by a roll call of members and an adjournment. A business committee, which will discuss a programme of subjects to be addressed by the body, will also meet.

It’s likely that a vote on the election of a first minister and deputy first minister won’t take place until next week, although nobody expects that Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party will consent to that election and the formation of an executive, and it can’t happen without them. The 108 members elected in November 2003 have never met in formal assembly, but many of the participants will hardly be strangers to one another. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness will sit opposite Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson.

They will (probably) cooperate on the election of the new speaker and a programme of limited quasi-parliamentary activity. After that, exactly what happens over the coming weeks is, officials acknowledge, anyone’s guess. Part of the two governments’ strategy in reconvening the Assembly is simply to force some kind of proximity on the putative participants in the North’s power-sharing government.

Whether that proximity breeds anything more than contempt is another matter. Nonetheless, the DUP is expected to engage in the various parliamentary rituals with Sinn Fein, and that, according to officials, could at least be the start of eventual cooperation.

‘‘A certain amount of familiarity could be helpful,” said one official. ‘‘Get them used to sitting down together, getting everyone into the same place at the same time. If they engage constructively, that might be an indication of long or medium-term prospects.”

Nevertheless, the limit of that ambition is getting the DUP to talk to Sinn Fein about the kind of issues - water charges, education, council structures - over which they would actually have power in the event of an administration being established. It’s hardly a lofty target, although one source said: ‘‘It’s about all we can hope for at this stage.”

Another source said that the governments were - not unexpectedly - cautiously optimistic about their own plans: ‘‘I think they’re all willing to give it a go. There’s no expectation that an executive could be in place before the summer or anything. But I think we might get some constructive engagement.”

In political terms, the hiatus between the election of its members back in 2003 and their meeting tomorrow is half a lifetime.

The great change in the landscape was the IRA’s decision to decommission its weapons last summer. It has liberated Sinn Fein from the shadow of the IRA, but deprived it of the clout its existence brought to negotiations, particularly with the British government - the threat that the IRA would revert to its ‘‘armed struggle’’.

It has also deprived the DUP of its most substantial objection to sharing power with Adams and McGuinness. Nowadays, Sinn Fein appears pretty close to satisfying the conditions still advertised on the DUP website this weekend: ‘‘Sinn Fein could then only be considered for entry to an Executive after

- Complete visible, verifiable decommissioning.

- A total end to all paramilitary and criminal activity.

- The community is convinced the IRA has been stood down.”

Noises made by Adams and Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern on the policing issue last week indicate that that particular obstacle can also be overcome.

The longer the DUP postpones forming an executive, the more it’s going to appear to international opinion and - more importantly - an increasingly impatient British government, that Paisley simply can’t bring himself to make peace with his ancient enemies, no matter how much they have changed.

The DUP’s pleas that, if Dublin’s parties won’t share government with Sinn Fein, then why should they, so und thinner the more events on the ground - such as the sectarian killing of Catholic teenager Michael McIlveen in Ballymena - demonstrate that the North is not a normal functional political or social entity. The impatience of the two governments is beginning to become palpable and, coming towards the November 24 deadline, it’s likely to become a more important dynamic in the process.

In 2003, the positions of Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair were pretty different to where they now find themselves. Blair is nearing the end of his term in Downing Street, and the DUP will have to decide whether to do the best it can under his stewardship or risk a new and potentially less advantageous dispensation with Gordon Brown. At the same time, Ahern is facing a dogfight of an election, in which his principal opponents in several constituencies - particularly across his own heartland on the north side of Dublin - will be Sinn Fein.

Tomorrow morning, the doors of Stormont will be thrown open, at least temporarily.

Whether Paisley is prepared, or is able, to walk through to the other side, perhaps not even he knows.

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