By Damien Kiberd (for Daily Ireland)
There is a lot of vainglorious talk about the place, but the reality of the matter is as follows. The politics of the Six Counties are now controlled by two political parties, one of which is linked to an army and the other of which is linked to a church.
Optimistic commentators believe that a deal between Sinn Fein and the DUP is possible. They point to last December, saying a deal was close at hand. They claim that as the final moment in what has been a remarkable career, Big lan wants to be the prime minister of the North.
They claim that there is a Robinson faction within the DUP that will smite down the Paisleyites. They claim that the lure of power will prove too much for the Young Turks within Dr Paisley’s party.
This, of course, is errant nonsense. The leadership of the republican movement must be aware that as a prelude to so-called “negotiations” about the future of the Six Counties, the DUP will make unbearable demands regarding the IRA.
It won’t just be a case of looking for “one grubby Polaroid” of acts of decommissioning, as Trimble called it, it will be a complete and visible capitulation. The bar will not simply be set high, it will be set to quote Dr Stephen King sky high.
Just take a look at those acceptance speeches made by the nine victorious DUP candidates in the Westminster elections. There was no hint of self-doubt here. Almost all saw the hand of God present in their victories. Some referred to their belief that they were involved in a “war” against evil forces.
Welcome not just to the 18th century but to the crusades of the 11th century! The DUP, further, knows that its electoral triumph over Trimble derives precisely from its refusal to play ball with Sinn Fein. In plain English, Trimble went down because he intermittently shared power with Shinners. Would you sit down and sup with the devil when the person who did just that is now consigned to the scrapheap of political history?
Now, coping with some of the demands that will emanate from the DUP is not beyond the capacity of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. They have worked miracles in the past, and may do so again. But it is difficult to see them achieving a cross-party government with the DUP when every step forward that they take threatens to be ruined on a whim by elements in both the security services and the media. They will be aware that every time they make a concession to Paisley, the progress they hope to achieve may be taken away on foot of some securocrat’s leak or some spurious media report.
There are always people who do not want to go that extra mile and who will look around for excuses to avoid making progress. There are people like this in the DUP too. And there will be no shortage of such excuses in the future. The media is stuffed to the gills with people who will seek to attribute every other crime committed. North or South, to “members of the Provisional IRA”. The security forces are full of people who are so embittered that they provide destructive leaks to the media every time political organisations like Sinn Fein reach a critical juncture. You must have noticed how every time there is an important political event in the Six Counties, it is prefaced by leaks about the imminent charges concerning the Omagh bombing.
This is just part of a wider process. The Taoiseach Bertie Aheen recently sought to ascribe responsibility for a security van heist at a place called Strawberry Beds in Dublin which netted over O2m (#1.4 million) to the IRA. Weeks later some 20 members of a north Dublin criminal gang have been arrested in connection with this raid, yet nobody has asked the Taoiseach to explain the link between the raid and the IRA. There is no link.
This sort of dissembling will not go away if the republican movement dismantles the IRA. Arguably it will get worse.
Sinn Fein succeeded in pushing up the party’s vote on May 5 to 24 per cent, an astonishing achievement given that the party has been the target of a relentless media campaign since Christmas. But the way ahead for Sinn Fein is by no means clear.
The belief that the DUP will somehow drift into government with Sinn Fein is naive. The DUP will see the results of Thursday’s election as a vindication of its intransigence. Even Peter Robinson, who is widely seen as less extreme than his comrades within the DUP, expressed the view that the House of Commons was the political arena in which he and others would advance their political ideas. There may be no appetite at all for the reconstruction of a Belfast Assembly.
Meanwhile the Ulster Unionists are surely going to move sharply to the right, having been rebuffed by the electorate for allegedly being too liberal. Bizarre though it may seem, the UUP will seek to outflank the Paisleyites on the right
Lady Sylvia Hermon the last man standing for the UUP at Westminster describes herself as a “liberal unionist”, a phrase which some might consider to be an oxymoron.
But after the drubbing administered by the voters last week, the next leader of the UUP will be somebody who is a lot more rigid in their political views.
The most obvious potential successors to Trimble all received a pasting at the hands of the electorate but Ulster unionism has not gone away. It will try to re-invent itself and at every step it will seek to apply the same tests to the DUP as the DUP applied to it in recent years. That rules out any power sharing with Sinn Fein.
What all of this means is that the elaborate structures of the Belfast Agreement are more or less finished. In his acceptance speech on Friday Dr lan Paisley, flanked by his wife and son, quoted Edmund Burke and referred to people he described as “bad”. It seems inconceivable that he and Nigel Dodds and William McCrea would sit down in government with Adams and McGuinness while, every day, the Belfast, London and Dublin media grind out stories linking present and past members of the IRA to gross acts of criminality.
Why on earth would the DUP risk the shipping of vast political damage in order to allow Sinn Fein access to the levers of power?
Meanwhile the decision of Tony Blair to give responsibility for both Wales and Northern Ireland to Peter Hain indicates that Downing Street no longer regards the Anglo Irish relationship as a top priority.
Bleak as this may seem it will be difficult for Adams and McGuinness to win the sort of attention that they won in the last Westminster parliament.
We are now entering what could be a very bad period in terms of Six County politics, despite the best efforts of a God from whom all blessings come, to quote Dr Paisley.
The checks and balances of the Belfast Agreement are more or less irrelevant when the force you are dealing with draws succour from battles fought in 16th century Europe.