By Brian Feeney (for the Irish News)
Now that the proposals of the two main players in the Good Friday Agreement review are known you can see how far apart they are and how little chance there is of political progress.
It's not merely a question of how many ministers there should be or whether the DUP will share power with Sinn Féin in an executive. That's what most people seem to concentrate on. No. You're looking at two completely different and incompatible views of the north of Ireland. Surprised?
The DUP obviously sees the north as a 'great wee place'. They're talking about running it just as it is with a toy-town regional administration allocating British money as efficiently as possible through as small a bureaucracy as possible. How they see the north relating to the rest of the country remains a mystery, though it should also be said that Sinn Féin should not have agreed to reveal their own arrangements for the north in isolation from the all-Ireland dimension.
Even so, SF's plans for a northern administration show that it wants to get its hands on real political power to change society here, something the DUP opposes in any shape or form: it believes that change has already travelled an unacceptable distance.
Have you noticed?
SF is absolutely right that elected representatives here should control policing, justice and equality.
Its proposal for a children's minister is just trendy, cock-eyed balderdash. How could you justify having such a minister on an equal footing with policing or health?
Can you see the turf war with the education ministry?
Back to the main issue though. Policing, justice and equality are central to the north because they show who controls this polity. Nationalists naturally want changes in all these matters.
Unionists want none and reject any which have already happened in policing. Sinn Féin's demands in these matters will in time expose the dishonesty at the core of the British administration's view of the north because, as far as the British are concerned, the regional administration is just that - the administration of a region of the UK.
Republicans and nationalists naively cling to the notion that implementing the Good Friday Agreement is the outworking of a phrase in the agreement that the British government committed itself to, namely: 'it is for the people of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination'. In fact, the British government sees the north's administration, executive, assembly and all, as a twig on the branch of the Northern Ireland Office.
Peter Mandelson demonstrated that attitude by rushing through the powers of suspension in defiance of the wishes of northern nationalists and the Irish government leaving the all-Ireland bodies high and dry and their implementation committees in suspended animation.
The UK parliament continues to exercise sovereignty as it sees fit, even to micro-manage northern politics. Tony Blair interfered repeatedly in 2003 to prevent elections in the hope that he could engineer the result he wanted.
Nothing new in that of course, since British proconsuls here have spent 30 years giving artificial respiration to their front party, Alliance, despite the commendable determination of the electorate to ignore them. Result last November: the awesome total of 75 votes in west Belfast, 305 in north Belfast, four per cent overall. Will it stop the NIO trying to boost the status and credibility of those middle-class no-hopers? Not a bit of it.
On the other hand, compare the complete silence of the NIO about the SF proposals with the praise lavished on the DUP proposals even by our normally reticent proconsul. Just think, the NIO is supposed to be supporting the agreement.
How could you tell from the NIO's responses which party is supporting it and which seeks to destroy it? The answer is quite simple. The party which seeks to use the agreement to bring about change and equal status for both communities here will be undermined by the NIO.
A party like David Trimble's which successfully stalled on change for almost six years was sustained and indulged. Isn't it extraordinary how quickly the British administration here now slots the DUP, the extremist party they dreaded, into that role? The next stage is to ask Sinn Féin what it is going to do to accommodate the DUP's reasonable demands. Why should it be so? Obvious. The DUP supports the status quo as do NIO officials.
A party like Sinn Féin which wants to change the nature of this place is on a hiding to nothing. The fact that it represents most nationalists doesn't matter. The British respond as if they're still at war with the Adams-McGuinness leadership of Sinn Féin by refusing any request for fundamental change.