By Tom McGurk (for the Sunday Business Post)
Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair must have the patience of Job. As the political Rubik’s cube that is the attempt to turn the North into a power-sharing democracy continues to revolve unsolved (entering a ninth year since the Good Friday Agreement), the week’s events in Armagh seemed like the flogging of a dead horse.
There was more than a note of exasperation as the Taoiseach reminded all those present that he had given some of the best years of his political life to this cause. Many, many people have given the best years of their lives to this process.
For the first time this week the notion of a ‘Plan B’ emerged. The joint communique from both governments carried the following significant paragraph: ‘‘If restoration of the Assembly and the Executive has to be deferred, the governments agree that this will have immediate implications for their joint stewardship of the process. We are beginning detailed work on British-Irish partnership arrangements that will be necessary in these circumstances to ensure that the Good Friday agreement, which is the indispensable framework for relations on and between these islands, is actively developed across its structures and functions.
“The work will be shaped by the commitment of both governments to a step-change in advancing North-South co-operation and action for the benefit of all.”
So does ‘‘joint stewardship’’ and ‘‘British-Irish partnership arrangements’’ - not to mention a wholly new concept first referred to here as ‘‘a step-change’’ - add up to joint authority if devolution flops again?
Imagine the midnight hours that the London and Dublin mandarins spent with their dictionaries to ensure this veiled warning to unionism didn’t provoke the boys in Ballybackwards.
Interestingly, the final sentence in this paragraph stresses ‘‘co-operation and action’’ which in itself is a meekish depiction of ‘‘joint authority’’ if that’s what’s intended. However, for all that, this is the first time Plan B has been allowed to show itself - and it’s no secret that for some time now the situation papers on Plan B have been typed up and ready to go in both London and Dublin.
The problem with Plan B is that is it is only concerned with North-South matters and as such will still have little impact on political and social matters within the North. It may well bring about a huge improvement in cross-border or even all-Ireland relations in certain matters, but it can hardly affect all that much the day-to-day bread and butter matters of local politics in the North. It’s hard to image where it could affect critical matters now emerging in the North to do with education, local government reform, health and the increasing possibility of water charges.
One does not have to be unionist or nationalist to recognise that the system of direct rule ministry in the North is less than satisfactory. The direct rule ministers rarely stay very long. Essentially they are the politically ambitious who are doing their stint in the ‘colonies’ over in Belfast until they can get back to London and resume Westminster politics. One would be hard pressed to think of one who has made any impact in recent years.
They have really no affiliation to, or interest in the place - it’s largely an outposting to be endured on their way up the ministerial ladder.
For example, recently Jeff Rooker, the minister in charge of planning matters, signalled the virtual ending of all one-off house-building in the Northern countryside.
It is an extraordinary piece of legislation, which is telling country people that if they want new houses they will have to go and live in villages or towns. Mr Rooker, in the process of justifying this extraordinary decision, then manifested his total ignorance of Irish geopolitics and traditional patterns of land ownership by decrying the numbers of one-off houses built in the North in comparison to England and Wales. Mr Rooker’s suburbanite English mentality only serves to point up the mediocrity and cultural unsuitability of direct rule ministers.
It is, of course, now within the political psyche of Ian Paisley to press the button for democratic, locally administered power-sharing. But one has only to watch the recent idiotic television performances of DUP spokesmen such as Edwin Poots to understand just how incapable these people are of dealing with their own phantoms.
By any standards, the DUP response to almost anything is more psychosis than politics. The party has painted itself into a corner with its own rhetoric and, in doing so, has trapped thousands of ordinary unionists who would like to exercise some political power again. Paisley heads up a community whose members are lost and politically sleepwalking.
Now - at last - both Blair and Ahern essentially have told them that their interminable squabble and bad faith with anything that originates more than 30 miles from Ballymena can no longer waste our time. Beyond is the real world, where people are getting on with their lives, and where there are actually many more important matters to be got on with.
They’re now in the last chance saloon and, come November, if they don’t use their political mandate, it will be used for them. And, of course, what makes the DUP position so unacceptable is the massive price their political failure is exacting on their own communities. The North’s economy is a basket case, indeed nowadays crossing the border into the Republic is, more and more, like leaving a third world country. The DUP’s political mandate comes from people who are among the lowest achievers, educationally or economically, in Europe. The six counties still seem frozen in time, with many large provincial towns dreary and poorly serviced.
And every year, huge numbers of middle-class Protestant children go to third-level education in Britain and do not return.
It’s part of a brain drain that has left the Northern Protestant community almost bereft of a new generation that might offer some hope for the future.
In the end, Ian Paisley did become king of the unionist castle. Now, every morning he can wake up, close one eye and be king.