By Tommy McKearney (for Daily Ireland)
Last week’s proposals for reforming public administration in the North may eventually prove to be as significant as the abolition of Stormont in 1973. For the first time since the struggle for Civil Rights challenged an undemocratic unionist regime in 1968, Britain’s government is giving practical recognition to the fact that the political entity known as Northern Ireland is unworkable.
Peter Hain and the NIO will, naturally, deny any such intent. Nevertheless, the outworking of this package will provide for a sharing of local administration between (rather than by) the contending parties. This impact will be enhanced as different zones of influence emerge, something that could ultimately lead to separate cantons if not outright repartition. This is a fundamental change, away from previous British policy of treating the area as a viable homogeneous unit.
Anyone doubting London’s attitude change need only consider what its secretary of state recently told an American newspaper about the limited prospects for a six-county economy. Significantly, neither Tony Blair nor his cabinet contradicted Hain’s comments.
That the proposals for local government reform went further than many expected was predictable in light of unionism’s refusal to work the Good Friday Agreement. By ending its insurrection, accepting the principle of unionist consent, demilitarising its army and decommissioning their arsenal, republicans have compromised to an extraordinary degree. With unionism demanding still more, even the dimmest Sir Humphrey could recognise the futility of continuing with what amounted to the exclusion of the second largest player on the political field.
Reverend Paisley and his supporters know they can still alter the RPA findings but only by operating the Assembly. In this case, though, the cure - a Sinn Féin deputy first minister - will be as unpalatable in DUP circles as the ailment and unlikely to be accepted.
Sinn Féin is wise, therefore, to ignore criticism of its welcome for RPA. The northern state is already deeply sectarian and allowing unionism perpetuate the unhealthy status quo through either majority or direct rule takes us nowhere.
There is something, however, that republicans must be careful about when or if the new arrangement comes on stream. Areas where they have influence should not become Hibernicised, mirror images of unionist dominated councils. Republicanism is not about bi-lingual road signs, promoting Catholic maintained schools or developing the GAA. Where republicans have influence, they should settle for nothing less than democratic freedom, equality and a fraternal social system.