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Dublin Report Summer of discontent also a summer of possibilities

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By John Kelly

Exhausted, Seamus Mallon rested beside a concrete plinth. He’d come a long way from 1967 to Stormont last week.

The SDLP deputy leader was a teacher then, with a ready eye and talent for drama. He was also something of a young maverick, a teacher with the imagination capable of changing things for students in unexpected ways.

Mallon knew he could change things in his native city of Armagh, for example, a city dominated by two cathedrals proclaiming the split between the two main religions of Northern Ireland, Protestantism and Catholicism.

He reckoned even then that drama and theater might help to heal the divisions.

So, in 1967, he staged a controversial play written by the then famous and equally controversial Brendan Behan.

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The play was the English version of "The Hostage," and Mallon decided to employ a cast made up of Protestants and Catholics.

That was a troublesome decision in that faraway year of 1967. After all, the play had been written by a republican. It concerned a similar republican, jailed by the hated British. And it featured a mixed cast.

It was a recipe for trouble indeed. But, perhaps because it was conceived and produced by the teacher, who discussed it openly, there was no trouble at all.

Since then, along with fellow members of the SDLP, like John Hume, Mallon has continued to surprise and confound prejudices that seemed to be as stubbornly ingrained in the island as the overwhelming love for the land.

They are longstanding prejudices, 300 years old and more. They are as deeply etched in the minds of the people as a plowed field in spring.

So, it is not at all surprising that politicians like Mallon, Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair would spend 80 hours in the final turning of the screw. The question yet to be answered is if that screw has gone firmly home.

It may not yet succeed, but at least the reason for its failure will then be laid firmly at the right door.

What Blair and Ahern told the packed press conference after days of intense negotiations is that republicans have committed themselves to total decommissioning by next May 30.

It will be supervised throughout by Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain. In his report, he informed the political leaders that he was satisfied that such decommissioning was agreed.

He also said that the process would begin, literally within a couple of days after devolution. His team and he will enter into direct talks with leaders of the IRA along with other paramilitary organizations.

"We believe that it can happen and we will ensure that it will happen," he declared.

The unionists, Tony Blair declared, have finally gained what they wanted most, the disarming of the IRA and the concession of the principle of consent in Northern Ireland.

Republicans, he said, had been granted the right to enter the democratic government of Northern Ireland while embracing exclusively the paths of peace and democracy.

At the press conference, Gerry Adams told the unionists that he wanted to work with them in defiance of those who still want to tear down the institutions they are both prepared to build. He described the dissenters as standing in a chorus line that would commit young people to their graves.

For his part, thanking both the British prime minister and the taoiseach, UUP leader David Trimble confessed that he was amazed at the time both men had devoted to reaching agreement.

Most ominously, he pointed out that Sinn Fein still had not managed to gain the full confidence of unionists. There were question marks in relation to its commitment, he said. He blamed the republicans for any delay that had occurred in the last 14 months.

Clearly, he did this with a keen eye to potential divisions within the UUP ranks. Possibly, he also did so with a weather eye to the confrontation between the Orange Order and British Army at Drumcree.

Given that everything falls into place, Northern Ireland will now join Scotland and Wales, forming its own government on July 15, only two weeks from now.

It is obvious that Trimble has adopted the role of persuader within his own party. In the face of any vain euphoria about the settlement finally hammered out at Stormont, it also has to be pointed out that he may not succeed in persuading even all of the members of his own executive, which is not to mention his rank and file.

Hume noted that nobody would have forecast years ago that they could have made such progress. He also expressed the belief that the agreement will succeed. Decommissioning, he claimed, would be dealt with under the terms of the Good Friday agreement.

It will proceed within the period laid down by the de Chastelain team. The result of the procedures, he promised, will remove the unionist distrust of Sinn Fein.

That may indeed prove to be true. But within the coming weeks, quite apart from Drumcree, there are other massive Orange marches in train.

All of these are potentially dangerous because of the possibility that they can be hijacked by those who wish to return to violent means, such as the attacks that have continued against Catholics.

It is obvious that the agreement pushes the situation little further than the last marathon session at Hillsborough.

Sinn Fein spokespeople continue to be evasive on the timing of decommissioning. They also claim that the best way to take the gun out of politics is to solve the problems that have spurred people to use guns in the first place.

With Drumcree and other loyalist marches just around the corner, it is obvious that David Trimble will have great difficulty in convincing his party to move along the line.

We can only be hopeful. If he wants to sell it, he can do so, perhaps after the marching season ends.

On the other hand, Adams probably explained the republican position best when he said he would like to see decommissioning yesterday.

What he did not want to see, he stressed, was unionists continuing to use it as a prerequisite to kill the terms of the Good Friday agreement.

The best scenario is that once into government, the IRA will confound loyalist doubts by starting to decommission.

In short, agreement or no agreement, both sides have to prove quite a lot within the coming weeks.

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