It’s all words and no actions

SO THERE we were, one week after the historic IRA stand-down, anticipating an act of decommissioning any second and what happens? Up pops Jim Monaghan with Charlie Bird on the six o’clock news.

In an instant the entire body politic on this island - with the possible exception of Sinn Féin - did the human equivalent of Tweetie Bird’s “I thought I saw a puddy cat” phrase.

On beaches from Kerry to Australia members of the Cabinet choked on their drinks as reality hit home: “I did see a puddy cat.”

Like a dark tunnel at the end of the light, the surprise appearance of the Colombia Three threw what was supposed to be the beginning of the end of the peace process into yet another IRA-induced crisis.

Only crisis is too strong a word. Yes, in a soundbyte 24-hour news world this will be called a crisis. But so was the brutal murder of Robert McCartney and last December’s Northern Bank robbery. So was insistence by the DUP on photographic evidence of decommissioning.

Ultimately none of the above needed any more than the usual response; lots of angry reaction and rhetoric from Governments and unionists; the mandatory defensive hard neck from republicans, lots of ferrying to and fro in the background - and time.

After a deep breath and a break from balancing on the abyss, each so-called crisis is left behind and the bandwagon moves forward for another try, something Sinn Féin and the IRA bargained on every time.

This time will be no different. Once again the right words, rather than concrete actions, will be the main currency as the Government seeks to extract itself from the awkward position the IRA/Colombia Three has left it in.

They won’t say it out loud but no one in Government buildings expects anyone will ever be going back to Colombia in chains.

Even before breaking his Kerry holiday to deal with the issue, Bertie Ahern will have known the chances of ever achieving that, much as he’d like to, were non-existent.

The problem is the Government has to look like it wants such an outcome more than anything else in the world - and never admit to having already privately discounted any such possibility.

So Art Agnew - the Irish Ambassador who is actually based in Mexico - was sent to tell the good people in Bogota that Ireland would stop at nothing to ensure justice is done.

What that really means, as Mary Harney said this week, is that justice must be “seen to be done” - an altogether different prospect allowing for all sorts of in-betweens that the peace process is used to.

We have seen justice done to countless IRA bomb experts already. They now pop up on documentaries talking freely of their adventures, write books and frequent the best TV chat shows baring their souls. “Legitimate” politics is of course the other popular option for such people.

So despite fanciful - but necessary - talk of Colombia signing up to European Council Conventions to allow sentences to be served here, the road from fugitive to chat show circuit is not nearly as far as the authorities would have you believe for the Colombia Three.

In reality that plan, welcomed by Colombian vice president Francisco Santos Calderon as setting the right “tone” this week, was dreamed up by an enterprising Justice Department official and pushed out as a press release on Tuesday.

It will never work, and was never passed by the Attorney General to see if it would. But as a diplomatic gesture to the Colombians, the US, Britain and the unionists it was perfect. In the end, this so-called crisis will wind up in the courts with human rights lawyers doing what they do best, a fact quietly acknowledged in Government circles.

Sooner or later you will see the headline “Colombia Three Get Legal Aid” followed either by freedom or a brief token spell in jail here.

In the meantime, until the process moves on, the Government will continue putting out the right words.

Asked why the Dáil would not reconvene to address the issue, the Tánaiste told RTÉ: “It might create the impression that we can do something.” It was a rare slip.

Creating impressions is what this is all about - just as long as those impressions don’t show the Government is helpless.

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