By Jim Gibney (for the Irish News)
What were the British and Irish governments, the SDLP and the DUP doing when they tried to exclude Sinn Fein from negotiations 10 days ago?
Where did this silly proposal come from? Who suggested it? Was it the British government, the Irish government, the SDLP, the DUP?
What did those behind the exclusion proposal think would happen? Did they think Gerry Adams would accept such an undemocratic suggestion?
Did they think he would meekly withdraw Sinn Fein’s negotiators from the room and allow those opposed to Sinn Fein free reign?
The proposal was not only unworkable it was undemocratic and insulting to Sinn Fein and the tens of thousands of people who vote for the party across this island.
The proposal raises questions about the intellectual capacity of Britain’s secretary of state Peter Hain and the Irish government’s foreign affairs minister Dermot Ahern.
Sinn Fein had no prior warning of the proposal nor were they aware the governments were thinking along these lines.
The first Sinn Fein knew about it was when Peter Hain proposed to exclude Sinn Fein.
Gerry Adams’s swift response was as you would expect. He accused the two governments of ambushing Sinn Fein and trying to turn back the clock 10 years to an earlier period when both governments excluded Sinn Fein from negotiations at Dublin Castle.
It did not work then when Sinn Fein had less political strength. It had no chance now with Sinn Fein’s enhanced mandate.
So what is it all about?
It is hard not to believe that those advocating exclusion are doing so to suit the current needs of the DUP.
The DUP are trapped in a situation of their own making. On the one hand they know they have to share power with nationalists and republicans yet they have not prepared their party for what they consider is a seismic shift on their part.
Whereas in the past David Trimble was looking fearfully over his shoulder at a menacing DUP, the DUP leadership is now looking fearfully over its shoulder at the menacing rebels in its own ranks.
Instead of pandering to the DUP the two governments should be confronting them with the reality that the days of unionist majority rule are over.
They foolishly think they can deal with the DUP’s tactics by appeasing them. They are preoccupied with locking the DUP into some sort, any sort, of negotiating process, even one which is flawed and undemocratic.
In their desperation they are floundering around testing absurd ideas, like last week’s.
It is easy to understand why the British government would side with the DUP. They do after all swim in the same unionist tide.
But why are the Irish government and the SDLP swimming alongside them? The Irish government have a national responsibility to safeguard and promote the interests of all the people of this nation.
The nation includes the people who live in the six as well as the 26 counties. After deluding themselves for decades that the nation stops at the border this might be difficult for the Irish government to accept.
But it is one of the new realities they face as a result of the peace process.
At all times but especially when times are difficult, like now, the democratic imperative for the Irish government is to think and act in the national interest.
They might think it is in their sectional or indeed electoral interest to exclude Sinn Fein, or make them look unreasonable but this is putting the interests of Fianna Fail and the PDs above the national interest.
Serving the national interest means upholding the peace process, opposing parties like the DUP or anyone else, including the British government, who seek to undermine it.
Serving the national interest also means being on the side of northern nationalists against whom a great wrong has been and is being committed.
The SDLP also need to publicly explain their support to exclude Sinn Fein.
Partition and the society which emerged from it was purposely designed to exclude nationalists.
The Irish government and the SDLP know this well. Exclusion is the politics of failure and the past.
Under no guise should it be advocated.