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A View North Rescuing Trimble and other miscalculations

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

It was definitely a case of deja vu.

The night before St. Patrick’s Day, SDLP assembly member for Derry Mark Durkan and his wife were sitting across the dinner table from me at Kennedy’s on 57th Street. A few weeks earlier, Durkan had been minister of finance in the power-sharing executive, which was suspended by the British on Feb. 11. Now, here he was in New York, trying to figure out what might happen next to the experiment in democracy known as the Good Friday agreement.

Twenty-five years or so earlier, I was sitting across the dinner table from the late Paddy Devlin and his wife. Devlin had just lost his position as minister of health and social services in the power-sharing executive which had been set up under the terms of the Sunningdale Agreement. But by the time of our dinner party, the government had collapsed and Devlin was trying to figure out what the political future held for Northern Ireland. Not much, as it turned out.

Little did he (nor anyone else, for that matter) realize that a quarter of a century would pass before elective democracy would be restored to the North. A quarter of a century in which some 2,000 more deaths would occur as a result of the Troubles — the violence which filled the political vacuum.

Most observers agree that Durkan is one of the brighter and more able members of the younger generation of SDLP activists. He certainly displayed an impressive grasp of the political realities of the North as he cogently analyzed the events of the last month. He was extremely critical of Peter Mandelson, the Northern Ireland secretary of state, for having been so categorical about reintroducing direct rule on what is now being called "Frantic Friday" (Feb. 11).

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Durkan argued that part of the problem for many secretaries of state sent over from London to rule the unruly North was that they came from the British two-party system of political discourse. They see things in terms of Labor vs. Tories. But in the North, there are four main parties — the UUP, the SDLP, Sinn Fein and the DUP — and a host of smaller ones, so it requires a special skill, explained Durkan, to balance them all. Sometimes, he said, it is better not to be so clear-cut in the decisions one takes.

It is better to leave things open instead, committing yourself to one course of action. He faulted Mandelson for assuring the UUP leader that he would, definitely, suspend the government if IRA decommissioning did not take place by Feb. 12. This made suspension inevitable. It gave Trimble a way out, according to Durkan, without getting anything in return — other than the preservation of Trimble as leader of the UUP.

Durkan was also lamenting the practical consequences of the act — for instance, the fact that the suspension had cost Northern Ireland about three years’ worth of public expenditure. It occurred at the time that the chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, was about to announce his budget, which sets the public spending limits until 2004. There would be no separate concessions for the North, now its government was gone.

Durkan, a firm believer in devolved government, is also convinced that it would have helped the Harland and Wolff shipyards, which had just sent out layoff notices to its remaining 1,800 workers, had there been a local government minister working on its behalf, knowing that a lot of votes for his party could be at stake if he failed to deliver.

When Devlin served in the power-sharing government, Harland and Wolff still had about 8,000 workers on its books. Whether a vigorous local administration would have been able to save it from collapse is debatable. But what is not are the political consequences of the fall of the first power-sharing government in May 1974. It condemned a whole generation to the political wilderness.

Could history repeat itself?

There are obvious differences, of course. The most striking one is that the fall of the first power-sharing executive took place as a result of loyalist paramilitary action. Loyalist and republican organizations were in the midst of a bloody campaign of attack and retaliation and were utterly opposed to the Sunningdale Agreement.

By the year 2000, those campaigns had spent themselves. The UDA, the IRA and the UVF are all on cease-fire. Peace reigns. As of now, it is the political process, not the peace process, that has broken down. As long as the peace process remains intact, there is hope that the political process can be restored at some point.

In 1975, as Paddy Devlin mulled over the future, the prospect of the Provisionals becoming engaged in a peace process with the Unionists and the British seemed impossibly remote. (The Provisionals’ cease-fire at the time was highly conditional, and actually saw an increase in the amount of sectarian violence.)

However, the parallels between the two situations are as striking as their differences and some — particularly for nationalists — are hardly reassuring. The most obvious one is this. In 1974, the British allowed the power-sharing government to fold rather than confront the loyalist and Unionist opposition to it. Just over 25 years later, the British reimposed direct rule rather than face the prospect of a rebellion in Unionist ranks against the power-sharing executive over the fact that the IRA had not begun decommissioning. Mandelson did so in order to save David Trimble from the threat of being deposed as leader of the UUP.

This indeed is an all to familiar course of action for Britain to take. The category of disasters that characterized British policy in the North in the early 1970s were largely inspired by the desire to save Brian Faulkner’s government. Faulkner was then the only thing that stood between Britain and the onerous responsibility of taking over governance of the North. The heavy-handed security measures that Britain used in those years were meant to placate Faulkner’s hard-line Unionist critics. They included internment without trial (which the British army leadership wisely had opposed) and Bloody Sunday.

In the end, of course, these measures had the opposite affect. They made direct rule inevitable. Nationalists might just see a parallel in Mandelson’s recent action, which saved Trimble but at the cost of making direct rule unavoidable.

Let us hope that another generation is not condemned to wander in the political wasteland as a result of that calculation.

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