By Brian Feeeney (for the Irish News)
Bertie bounced in from Tokyo on his way to Shannon to meet Bush. Blair swanned in on his way to Istanbul. They patted the politicians from the north on the head, held a cursory press conference and made off.
Do you think either Blair or Ahern had the north uppermost in his mind? Do you think any of their main advisers were focused on the north?
It’s no way to do business. Then of course there was no business. It’s postponed until September.
The north is on the back burner where it has been since the Iraq war began in March 2003. Any chance of the Irish government pushing it to the forefront vanished when Ireland took its turn as EU president this year.
Even if Blair had been able to lift his mind from the ever-worsening quagmire in Iraq, Ahern would not have been able to devote the necessary time to pressing on with a resolution in the north.
In a new book, The Northern Ireland Conflict, Professors Brendan O’Leary and John McGarry remind us it’s been like that for years. They pull together thirteen essays they have written over the last twenty years examining various stages in the conflict. In one essay O’Leary analyses the
Conservative stewardship of the north from 1979-97.
It was indeed a grave misfortune to suffer continuous Conservative government for the bulk of the Troubles: it prolonged the agony perhaps by as much as a decade.
O’Leary shows that the main features of Conservative rule were inconsistency and contradiction. Senior Tories toyed with integration until the mid-eighties yet government policy was to produce a devolved administration here with no input from Dublin. Secretaries of state, however, quickly learned that there had to be input from Dublin. Often the NIO in London and at Stormont pushed different lines and the Foreign Office yet another one.
There was the contradiction between Thatcher’s rhetoric about sovereignty and the reality of involving the Irish government in policy making, however much at arm’s length.
The most obvious contradiction was the ‘talking and not talking to terrorists’ policy. We now know that despite the public statements, at no point in all the years of Conservative rule did the British government close the door to contacts with the IRA.
Finally there was the contradiction of Thatcher’s defence of capitalism policy in England versus social justice practised here to such an extent that ministers worried about her seeing the quality of the roads and public housing when she visited. How could Thatcher’s New Right, free marketeer party reconcile legislation like the 1989 Fair Employment Act with the rights of employers? The answer to all these questions, O’Leary says, is that after years of slow learning, Conservatives concluded: “Northern Ireland is different, so it must be governed differently.” They didn’t have to reconcile anything with British practice.
Interestingly Garret FitzGerald came to the same conclusion after dealing with British governments over twenty years.
He said: “British policy as observed by us did not appear to be coherent or consistent.”
It sent the wrong messages and gave comfort to people it was never intended to comfort.
Are we now back to that lamentable position? As Blair and Ahern flitted around the world stage in the last year, can anyone say their policy on the north has been coherent or consistent?
Pro-union civil servants at Stormont have once again their dead hand on the administration of the Good Friday Agreement.
Even if they hadn’t, none of them would take the risk of pressing ahead with implementing the parts of the agreement which do not require unionist consent.
That needs political direction.
The complete absence of political direction from our proconsul ensures there is no pressure from the top to make progress.
He has been circling in a holding pattern now since October 2002. He won’t emerge from it until he gets the nod from traffic control in Downing Street. That’s why he’s here of course. British prime ministers prefer to have emollient nonentities at Stormont who offend no-one and can be relied upon not to make a solo run.
In the meantime Blair sends conflicting signals. He wants to get the assembly up and running he says and lists yet again what needs to be done for that to happen. Then he adds that it might have to be dissolved because it can’t stay in limbo forever doing nothing with members being paid. True. So what would he put in its place? Isn’t he the guy who said he wasn’t coming over here to have Groundhog Day every six months and then proceeded to do exactly that every six months from October 2002? Talk about consistency and coherence.