Category: Archive

Editorial The old triangle

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

People in exasperation have often spoken about "squaring the circle" in Northern Ireland as they strive to resolve the issues threatening the coherence of the Good Friday agreement. But it would be more accurate — if even more nonsensical — to talk about "squaring the triangle." Because in fact the three issues at the heart of the problem, demilitarization, decommissioning and policing, form an old triangle that has been jingling and jangling most irritatingly now for well over a year.

However, as the negotiations in Belfast, London and Dublin drag into another week, it is becoming clear that of those three issues, the most difficult one is policing. That is proving to be the real stumbling block. The reasons why are plain.

One doesn’t need legislation to knock down a watchtower or take foot patrols off the streets. One doesn’t need a special law to "put arms beyond use" — just an agreement, more or less, between the parties as to what that phrase should mean in practice. The law was drafted last year and met with many criticisms from the SDLP and Sinn Fein, who claimed it was not an accurate rendering of the original Patten report’s recommendations. But under the guidance of the then secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, the bill was enacted into law, after some of the points raised by the objectors were taken into consideration.

The legislation now in force, setting up the Police Service of Northern Ireland, is still not completely acceptable to the nationalist parties, especially Sinn Fein. Its leaders have been playing hardball on policing, ruling out the possibility of any progress on decommissioning until their concerns are fully addressed. And, of course, without progress on decommissioning there can be little or no headway made on demilitarization.

It would seem that the only way of resolving this would be more concessions on policing to nationalist opinion. But the problem is, the Policing Bill is already law. So, what is being asked in fact is redrafting of a very complex piece of legislation. There is no prospect of such a move being made by the British government before the next general election, scheduled, it is thought, for May. But even if the British prime minister, Tony Blair, who has been deeply engaged in the negotiations, were to promise to look at the law again after the election, it would put the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, in a difficult, if not impossible, position in relation to his own party, which has been warning him that too many concessions have already been given away on the police issue.

The old triangle is complete and fixed as ever.

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Undoubtedly, part of the blame for this sorry mess rests on the shoulders of Mandelson. He made the mistake of not believing that Sinn Fein would ever come on board and support a new police service, however reformed. His strategy seems to have been predicated on the assumption that enough would be given to keep the SDLP tagging along while not alienating the Unionists completely. As a result, a lot of valuable time was lost, as well as, more important, trust between the government and nationalists.

The situation is now critical. Within a few days, unless a deal is cut, Trimble will go before his party’s executive with nothing to tell that body except that decommissioning is where it was when he entered government with Sinn Fein last spring. Yes, there have been two arms inspections of IRA dumps, but that will not be enough to quell the rising tide of anti-agreement sentiment within Unionist ranks. Even worse, he must then face a general election and an assault from the Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party eager to exploit UUP difficulties. There is a real prospect of Trimble’s party going down in defeat the way that Brian Faulkner’s Unionists, who supported him in the Sunningdale Agreement, did in early 1974. (Already Trimble has lost two MPs on whom he could rely, Ken Maginnis and John Taylor, neither of whom will run for reelection.)

If Trimble’s pro-agreement ranks are decimated, the consequences for the Good Friday agreement would be dire indeed. Britain could not attempt to resurrect it confronted by a Paisleyite block at Westminster. The agreement would become another headstone in the cemetery of failed Northern Ireland initiatives.

It all hinges on policing. There is an argument that policing is a work in progress and that though not perfect as far as nationalists are concerned, what is on offer now is surely good enough to sign up to for the time being. The prospect of taking another look at the issue sometime in the future, ironing out whatever wrinkles remain, is certainly tempting to the SDLP. The party’s political instincts are always toward engagement.

Sinn Fein faces a much more difficult problem. In May, the IRA issued a statement linking decommissioning to the "full implementation" of Patten. That has not happened. Therefore, Sinn Fein would have a difficult, if not impossible, time endorsing the proffered reforms. Since it is unlikely that the SDLP will break the nationalist consensus, it seems that, despite the growing dangers, the current political stalemate will continue.

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