Despite the air of crisis generated a week ago when Northern Ireland’s first minister, David Trimble, imposed a ban on Sinn Fein ministers, preventing them from attending meetings of cross-border bodies, wiser councils have prevailed. It was noticeable that even though nationalists were angry, and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams even threatened a lawsuit against Trimble, their response to the unfortunate and clumsy Unionist move was, in the main, tempered with caution.
Even Trimble’s harshest critics in Sinn Fein muted their reply. Adams called it a tactical blunder. Though his party called on the British Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Mandelson, to use the power at his disposal to lift the ban, the general approach has been softly, softy.
Likewise, the deputy first minister of the Executive and deputy leader of the Social and Democratic Labor Party, Seamus Mallon, has, while decrying the ban, cushioned his criticism of Trimble.
So far, so good.
Too often politicians in the North have talked themselves into a crisis and then found that they could not talk their way out again. This time, it seems, they are not about to repeat that mistake.
In an interview on the BBC over the weekend, Mallon insisted that the power-sharing Executive could survive this latest snarl up and once more defy the prophets of doom.
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The Irish government, too, helped to defuse the crisis with a finely nuanced response. The cross-border meeting that was scheduled for last Friday was allowed to proceed, with Sinn Fein Health Minister Barbara De Brun holding discussions with Michael Martin, her opposite number in Dublin. However, it took place outside the auspices of the North-South Ministerial Council.
This managed to help assuage nationalist anger over the ban, while at the same time avoiding a humiliating slap in the face to Trimble, which would no doubt have occurred if Dublin had blatantly defied it. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s government showed a commendable degree of sensitivity to all sides. The North needs precisely this kind of delicacy.
Meanwhile, Trimble himself has shown courage by admitting — as he did at the weekend — that his move would probably not bring about the results he wanted, namely deeper IRA involvement with the independent arms decommissioning body. He added that he had done what he did because he had no other option. It sounded almost like a plea for help.
The problem, however, remains. The ban stands and a further, potentially more serious, crisis is just weeks away, when another cross-border meeting is scheduled on Nov. 24 involving the minister of education, Martin McGuinness.
As Mandelson pointed out in an interesting article in last week’s London Times newspaper, there are two simple steps that need to be taken. Trimble must lift the ban and the IRA must reengage with General De Chastelain, the chairman of the Decommissioning Commission. Such a synchronized move is surely not beyond the bounds of political skill in the North. It could be facilitated, of course, if the British were to make another demilitarization gesture. That would give republicans something to which to respond. They could call up the general and not seem to be doing so under Unionist threats but as a reply to the British move.
Such a nuanced response might invite cynical denunciations in some quarters. But better that than allow a real crisis to fester.
If people need reminding of what happens when politics fail, let them view this week’s funerals of the loyalists killed in the latest feud. It used to be like that all the time in Northern Ireland.