The path of least resistance
The path of least resistance

By Brian Feeney (for the Irish News)

The default position of the British administration here is the status quo. Put another way, that means when faced with any opposition or even controversy about a policy issue, their proconsul chooses the way of least resistance. In short, he does nothing. The default position should be the opposite.

Doing nothing in this place means preserving the status quo which is unionist in every respect.

After all, unionist politicians had 50 years to perfect their system, followed by another 30 of British civil servants and politicians resisting change, allegedly because any change would be seen to be giving in to a campaign of violence.

That's no longer true, nor has it been since 1997. Since then the only campaign of violence has been by the UDA to terrorise Catholics.

There's no policy paper which advises British proconsuls not to promote any change unless compelled to do so. On the contrary, they would claim to be even-handed. The facts suggest the opposite. That makes it especially important now to point out that not only have Mandelson, Reid and Murphy failed to drive change with all deliberate speed, they have deliberately gone slow when they weren't being obstructive.

Why is it important now?

Because the review of the Good Friday Agreement is going to fail. The only question is when.

Some say it'll be lucky to stagger on until Easter. Others think St Patrick's Day is optimistic.

For however short a period it continues, our proconsul will do nothing in case it alienates the DUP.

The real problem is that when it collapses he will continue to do nothing in case it prevents the DUP sitting round a table again after the European elections.

It seems we're back to the position of 10 years or more ago when unionists refused to talk unless meetings of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council were suspended.

The reason unionists oppose change now is not because of a campaign of violence but ostensibly because any change is 'a sop to republicans', code for 'concessions to Fenians'.

Our proconsul's refusal to expedite change therefore places him entirely in the unionist camp, indeed in the anti-agreement unionist camp.

The only issue over which unionists have a veto is constitutional change.

They have always managed to twist this position into having a veto on any change whatsoever and the British administration has always connived at that.

It needs to be remembered that it is the duty of the British administration here to implement the Good Friday Agreement, not as 'a sop to republicans', but because it is right to do so, because the British government committed itself to do so but most importantly because the people of Ireland north and south voted for it. To date the record is poor.

The damage Mandelson did by modifying the Patten proposals and enshrining that modification in law will be with us for a long time. The prevarication on criminal justice is another shameful area.

At the weekend the so-called security minister announced consultation on a review of criminal evidence procedures which might become law in 2005. The whole section in last April's joint declaration entitled 'Rights, Equality, Identity and Community' has stalled. They haven't even delivered on the promise to make TG4 available in the north. Pathetic. A fundamental problem is that the timescale for all progress seems to be trapped within the contents of the joint declaration.

Yet unionists of all shades reject the joint declaration.

Does that therefore mean that the British administration here will hide behind the absence of agreement on the joint declaration to avoid bringing in any changes, even non-contentious ones which have no effect on unionism - like transmission of TG4?

Furthermore, implementation of the provisions of the joint declaration seems to depend on getting devolved institutions up and running again. Indeed, the joint declaration was seen as the road map for getting those institutions up and running.

What if that doesn't happen, as seems increasingly probable?

Does that mean all progress is stalled until unionists agree with the joint declaration?

If so, there will be no progress.

Remember, the review is only the review of the operation of the agreement. It doesn't mean all other aspects of it grind to a halt.

If the review fails there is absolutely nothing to stop our proconsul from laying out a programme for change in aspects such as rights, equality, identity and community which can develop without any institutions at Stormont.

Absolutely nothing that is, apart from his own shortcomings as a politician. Trying to pin him down, someone said, is like trying to nail a jelly to a wall. His capacity for blather can be useful. He offends no-one but that's because he does nothing. It can't go on.

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© 2004 Irish Republican News