Category: Archive

Editorial A man with no plan

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The dangerous state of demoralization that settled on the peace process in the wake of the reintroduction of direct rule shows no sign of lifting. Indeed, it is deepening as the days go by. Unfortunately, the recent visit to the U.S. of Peter Mandelson, Britain’s Northern Ireland secretary of state, has done nothing to alleviate it.

As one measure of the growing gravity of the situation, several of the major participants, including the leader of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, have begun to distance themselves from the Good Friday agreement, under the auspices of which the power-sharing government in Belfast was — all too briefly — brought to life. Adams told his supporters at a special conference held last Sunday in Dublin that it was time to start concentrating on future elections, to ensure that the party would be in a strong position to negotiate a new agreement more favorable to republicans. His timetable was measured in years.

Meanwhile, David Trimble, the head of the suspended government and the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, continues to sit tight, insisting on the same demand — "No guns, no government" — that helped bring down the government in the first place. But now he has placed himself in an even weaker position than he was before, surrendering the power to decide whether he should go back into government to his party’s ruling body, the Ulster Unionist Council. The result is he has neither guns, nor government, nor is he likely under the current circumstances to get either anytime soon. The UUC have now, effectively, become the arbitrators of an agreement that won the support of the vast majority of the Irish people.

So it was with some expectation that concerned people in the U.S. awaited Mandelson’s visit last week. After all, he was the man who pulled the plug on the power-sharing government on Feb. 11, halting that bold experiment in consensus democracy. Many were curious, indeed anxious, to learn what he as the British government’s man in Northern Ireland planned to do next.

They were more than a little perturbed when Mandelson told them that he did not know. He seemed more anxious to justify his decision to suspend the government than to explain what course he intended to take in order to get out of the current impasse the suspension created.

Of course, no one would deny the importance of understanding the reasons why the crisis of Feb. 11 occurred. But on this matter, it is safe to assume that Mandelson’s account is not the only one. The problem is, even with the most honest and cogent account of what happened on that day, an explanation that confined itself to the events of that day is not an explanation, at least not in Northern Ireland terms: a history lesson is needed. Unfortunately, in the midst of a crisis, we do not have time for a history lesson. What is needed is a plan on how to get out of it.

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While it is not reassuring to learn that the British government does not have a plan at the moment for Northern Ireland, it is even more unsettling to think that it adopted a course of action without having such a plan in the first place. This suggests it had not thought out the consequences of its own acts. At the time of the suspension, Mandelson expressed confidence that what was suspended could be unsuspended without too much difficulty. As the days go by, and Sinn Fein, the IRA, and the Unionists all refortify the barricades that they once seemed prepared to dismantle, that confidence seems rather facile.

Whatever Northern Ireland is, it is not facile. One would have hoped by now the British would have realized this basic fact.

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