By Jack Holland
There are certain phrases with which the Northern Ireland peace process will be forever associated — and none of them can be called verbal gems: "Moving the situation forward," "parity of esteem," "nothing will be agreed until everything is agreed," "level playing field," "putting weapons beyond use," to name but a few of the more famously fatuous.
More recently, with the signing of the Good Friday agreement, another has emerged — perhaps the most fatuous of them all — relating politics to show business, which on the face of it is not such a bad comparison. However, in show business there are certain principles which performers tend to adhere to — such as "the show must go on," to mention but one.
The British prime minister, Tony Blair, and his spin doctors were using this example of "peacespeak" frequently on his visit to the North last week.
"The Good Friday agreement is the only show in town," he kept saying, mantra-like, as he tried to deflect assertions that it was "in tatters" or about to expire.
By now his audience are asking: "Well, then tell us when is the bloody show going to start?"
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I remember, years ago, when we went to the Saturday matinee at our local cinema on the Donegall Road if the main feature was delayed for more than 30 seconds the whole audience would begin stamping its feet. And they would continue stamping and then throwing bottles if it had not begun.
I often wonder why that has not happened to Blair and his entourage upon uttering that bland and complacent phrase? After all, it has been two years since the show was supposed to begin. And here we are, still waiting. I suspect, however, that most of us have abandoned the theater by now and those that remain are too weary and cynical to think that it is worth expending any more energy on trying to get the performance off the ground.
So Blair flies in, spends five hours meeting with all the main players in the Good Friday Agreement Show, declares that it is still the only show in town, though he has not a clue when it might begin, and then flies out, leaving the stage still dark.
If this was a musical its backers would long ago have abandoned it as hopeless and fired the director — except in the case of the Good Friday agreement, it would appear a director cannot be found. Some would prefer to see it as a tragedy. Though others by now regard it as more of a farce. I would prefer to compare it to Sam Beckett’s "Waiting For Godot." Indeed, that could well inspire a title for the production, e.g. "Waiting For Guns and Government."
I’m betting on Godot showing up first.
To be fair, the show did actually start and ran for about 72 days before being forcibly closed by the manager, Peter Mandelson, even though everyone seemed to agree it was a great success. The reason it closed was because some of the players, led by David Trimble, were upset that some of the stage props were missing and said they could not continue taking part unless the other players supplied them. The other players, whose lead actor is Gerry Adams, said they did not have them and anyway, it wasn’t in the contract that everyone had signed.
Actors — they are such prima donnas. But as they say, "there’s no business like show business" — except, that is, when it’s "The Only Show In Town Business."
The Scotsman’s coverage of Tony Blair’s Northern Ireland visit painted a rather sad picture, at least for those who still hope that something can be salvaged soon. The reporter, Jim McBeth, wrote about the PM’s trip to Stormont:
"At 6:55 p.m. precisely, Tony Blair left by the back door, a paper tiger, tired and tamed by the intransigent politics of Northern Ireland."
There was little or no sign of that sound-bite word-spinning optimism, so facile and so characteristic of Blair and New Labor, that bounces over obstacles in the hope that they will disappear. In Northern Ireland, as Blair has learned, they do not go away.
After his meetings with the Northern Irish leaders, Blair fled south without comment to have dinner with the Irish taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, no doubt in the hope that Ahern would come up with a few new ideas.
David Trimble, however, did not eschew the sound-bite. He had obviously spent his time with the prime minister trying to convince him that it was time to show the republicans who is the boss. After meeting with Blair, he said this:
"Republicans only move when they are under pressure."
Words of wisdom, eh? After all, the proof is there for all to see. After putting the IRA under pressure for five years to decommission, look at the results. Did David show Tony the huge pile of weapons and explosives stacked up in Unionist Party headquarters that he had received from the IRA since March 1995 when the decommissioning demand took center stage?
I think not.
The truth is that putting republicans under pressure has had the opposite effect, and only postponed the resolution of the decommissioning conflict indefinitely. Look at what actually has happened since 1998 and the signing of the agreement.
In June that year, Padraigh Wilson, then the leader of the IRA prisoners, said the problem had to be faced — the first time republicans had even acknowledged it. But after the assembly elections, which Trimble ran with a hardline message meant to assure his right-wing, the IRA backed off, and continued to do so when it became clear that Unionists were delaying the setting up of the executive. Once it was set up, the IRA moved forward again on the issue and appointed a representative to liaise with the decommissioning body — a major step for the republican movement.
Then came the pressure from Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Council to get the IRA to decommission by the end of January or face the prospect of his resignation. What did this pressure produce? The IRA withdrew its representative from the decommissioning body and its offer of Feb. 11 was rendered null and void. And the executive was suspended. In the IRA’s most recent Easter statement, decommissioning is not even mentioned. Instead, the republican movement has gone back to basics, demanding a British withdrawal. Well done, David. A very productive approach.