By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
It’s been the dialogue of the deaf this year again. Remember after their election triumph in 2011 the first minister and deputy first minister admitted they had failed to deliver in the 2007 to 2011 assembly? They promised this assembly session they would deliver. They haven’t and all the evidence suggests 2013 won’t be any different.
The assembly managed to pass a mere five pieces of legislation this year, none of them important. On the other hand everything important has stalled. The DUP has blocked every single proposal for change. So, the Education and Skills Authority, which should have been up and running in 2008 is stuck and unlikely to meet its latest target date of next April. No progress on the 11-plus fiasco. No progress on parades, promised as part of the Hillsborough deal in 2010. No policy paper on Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, which Peter Robinson claimed would be out before Christmas. He got the wrong Christmas obviously.
The decade of centenaries -- a shared history, remember that? -- got off to a great start with a massive sectarian parade through Belfast to Stormont to commemorate the 1912 Covenant. If you read any of the speeches from 1912 you can see nothing has changed in unionism, for the speeches at Stormont and in unionist councils were exactly the same this year. All around the north the great and the good were engaged in cross-community debates, symposiums, presentations but the leaders of unionism sank back into tribalism. The Irish government appointed a committee to manage the various commemorations due over the next 10 years. No wonder they’ve gone very quiet in the past six months.
With the centenary of the founding of the Ulster Volunteers and the Irish Volunteers coming up next year there’s not much chance of cross-community action if this year’s covenant events are the model. Curiously enough the centenary of the UVF is January 13 2013 and lo and behold, a century after the treasonous force was formed to defy the democratic decision of the Westminster parliament here is unionism again trying to subvert democracy by violence and the threat of violence.
The refusal of unionist leaders to condemn unequivocally the intimidatory road blocks that ruined Christmas trading and spoiled so many people’s enjoyment of the beginning of the holiday period is scandalous. Equally deplorable is for unionist leaders to take up and legitimise the undemocratic demands of the flag-waving rabble and present them at talks with other parties. Their retreat into tribalism is complete with the establishment of their so-called Unionist Forum instead of seeking an accommodation across the divide as Martin McGuinness offered.
None of it bodes well for Sinn Fein’s reconciliation project inaugurated last Easter by Declan Kearney. Kearney’s overtures were instantly rejected by all shades of unionism. A carefully worked speech he made at Westminster in October was greeted with alarm bordering on hysteria by unionists. Yet Kearney was speaking for Sinn Fein, the DUP’s partner in the north’s administration. Clearly unionists do not want to talk about the future about which it seems they are increasingly fearful. They lacked the confidence to respond to a single item of substance in Kearney’s speech. They rejected the opportunity to move forward by negotiation. Who are they to make progress with except Sinn Fein?
Turning inward into their ‘forum’ will achieve nothing, You probably don’t know this and there’s no reason you should but Robinson came up with exactly the same wheeze in 2008, a unionist think-tank called the ‘Unionist Academy’ and a ‘cultural fightback’. It never got off the ground. Even if it had, like the present attempt at unionist unity, it could take no decisions without Sinn Fein and sitting having substantive discussions with Sinn Fein is the only way forward.
That has never happened without pressure from the British and Irish governments who have remained completely disengaged in the present crisis.
Sinn Fein has taken the initiative by proposing a way to look at the future. Unionists aren’t listening. There are none so deaf as those who will not hear. It’s coming to the time when the two governments are also going to have to live up to their responsibilities.