Category: Archive

Editorial: Political paralysis — and the people pay

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

As the deadlock continues between the Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Fein over the issue of decommissioning, it is salutary to repeat a point made this week by Seamus Mallon, a leader of the SDLP and deputy first minister of the still-to-be-realized Northern Ireland executive. Mallon, angry and frustrated at the impasse created by those two parties in their absolute refusal to concede, reminded them that the Good Friday peace agreement, whose fate now hangs in the balance, was the property of the Irish people, North and South. They voted for it in overwhelming numbers in 1998. It was not the property of the Unionists nor of Sinn Fein to be thrown away because their interpretations of the agreement cannot be reconciled.

In 1998, the vast majority of the Irish people voted in favor of the agreement in the hope that it would guarantee peace. Both nationalist and unionist populations showed a willingness to accept the compromises it contained concerning their traditional political aspirations in order to achieve that end. They have been cheated of their goal by the intransigence of some political leaders. Meanwhile, the hopes for peace are being eroded on a daily basis in Northern Ireland with mounting sectarian attacks on vulnerable Catholic families carried out by loyalist extremists who find only inspiration in the current failure of the parties to enact the settlement the people voted for in May 1998.

When the Irish people voted, they did not vote for the Unionist precondition that the IRA must disarm before Sinn Fein can become part of the new executive. But they did not vote for an agreement that would allow the IRA to refuse to disarm and hold on to its horde of weapons forever. What would be the point of voting for a peace agreement that did not require the paramilitaries to eventually disarm? That would not constitute a peace settlement by any sensible or logical definition of the word peace.

Former Taoiseach John Bruton hit the nail on the head recently in New York when he spoke at Fordham University, reminding the paramilitaries and their representatives that by signing up to the six Mitchell Principles on non-violence they committed themselves to a process of disarmament. All parties, including Sinn Fein, had agreed that "the resolution of the decommissioning issue is an indispensable part of the process of negotiation." One does not resolve the issue of decommissioning by a dogmatic refusal to hand over one bullet or one ounce of Semtex, as the IRA has repeatedly done.

What is going on in Northern Ireland at the moment has nothing to do with the wishes of the vast majority of the Irish people. It has to do with the political machinations of hidden, or at least unspoken, political agendas. That of the Ulster Unionists seems to be the exclusion of Sinn Fein from the Executive. Ulster Unionists have long sought to set up a power-sharing government with the SDLP minus Sinn Fein. What better way than by insisting on a precondition that the republican movement refuses to meet?

As for Sinn Fein and the republican movement, they seem to be hoping that a crisis will force the British government to confront the Unionists at long last. From the earliest days, they have sought such a showdown in the hope that it will convince the British to abandon their continued support for Unionism. In the meantime, the Irish people stand by powerless as their democratic wish is trashed by the narrow political ambitions of doctrinaire politicians determined to score a victory over their opponents.

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