The sudden resignation of Peter Mandelson as Britain’s Northern Ireland secretary of state last Wednesday and his replacement by Dr. John Reid offers the opportunity to inject new momentum into a situation that is in danger of becoming stuck, yet again, in the quagmire of obstinacy and obduracy.
Mandelson’s departure has been accompanied by the usual polite regrets, but they were essentially meaningless. By the time he went, he had thoroughly alienated both Sinn Fein and the SDLP. The Irish government will also, in private, heave a sigh of relief. It regarded him as, in fact, something of a political lightweight. His high-handed manner — "patrician" it was called by some, "supercilious" by others — did not go down too well on the Unionist side either.
As for Dr. Reid, his credentials are being closely scrutinized. A Scots Catholic who comes from the British government’s Scottish office, he is reputed to be "tough," a man able and willing to speak his mind. That means he will have lots in common with the Northern Ireland politicians with whom he must now negotiate. They will speak in a similar accent, and it is to be supposed, with similar directness. The Ulster-Scottish connection has always been an important one, culturally and politically. It is hoped that these links can now be built upon in the struggle to find a way out of the current impasse.
Rumors of an impending deal have been circulating for weeks. The outlines have been there long before. The sequence must include a serious gesture of demilitarization, such as the removal of one or more of the South Armagh watchtowers, followed by an equally serious action from the IRA in relation to their arms dumps. Nationalist unease about the new police reforms would also have to be dealt with to ensure continued progress.
Already, a court in Belfast has ruled illegal First Minister David Trimble’s ban on Sinn Fein ministers that prevented them from attending meetings under the ‘gis of the cross-border Ministerial Council. Trimble said he would appeal that ruling. But this would fast become an unnecessary side-show if there was movement in the crucial areas of demilitarization, decommissioning, and policing.
The ingredients are all there, waiting to be put in the pot. It is a question of who is going to be willing to make the first move.
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There is no doubt about one thing: time is running out. Though it has not been actually announced yet, the date of the next British general election is looming on the horizon. It is almost certain to come as early as May. In this context, the loss of Mandelson will prove to be a complication. It means that the British prime minister, Tony Blair, will not now be able to pass the plans for his party’s campaign over to Mandelson, his master strategist. That is, Blair will have to spend more time on worrying about the election campaign and less on finding a way out of the Northern Ireland quagmire.
Of course, it will not only be Blair who will be focused on the upcoming battle. All the parties in the North will soon be positioning themselves. Already, the signs for David Trimble and the UUP are ominous. Two of his supporters, Ken Maginnis and John Taylor, have announced they do not intend to fight for reelection to their Westminster seats. The menace of the Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party is on the prowl, threatening those and other UUP constituencies. If an agreement is not reached soon, Trimble’s hands will be effectively tied by election considerations.
In other words, the new Northern Ireland secretary of state will have to be forceful and determined if he is to help fashion a deal. Lots of Scottish grit will definitely be needed.