North needs an election to purge system on the brink of breakdown

GREAT news. Green shoots, at last. One of the key drivers of the Irish economy has officially emerged from recession. Yes, the Cassandras are back in business. What with bombs here and shootings there, the Troubles junkies can hardly believe their luck.

At last, those with an insight into the 57 varieties of dissident scum are receiving the attention they deserve on the evening news. Ireland unfree can never be at peace, didn’t you know? Their agendas might be unsubtle, but we live in a free market economy: the siren voices are only being heard again because the North really is in the grip of a political and security crisis. British counter-terrorism resources are quietly being diverted from the fight against Islamism back to Irish duties.

Thankfully, history does not repeat itself, even if it rhymes. The North was supposed to be pointing in the right direction under Terence O’Neill and then the Provos rose up from the ashes of Bombay Street.

But the times they have a-changed. CIRA, RIRA and the rest might have acquired some knowledge and resources but, to adapt Mao’s dictum, guerrillas need seas of people to swim amongst.

Today’s “freedom fighters” don’t swim in a sea so much as a boggy pool. Terrorists can prosecute campaigns without significant public support but, to be truly effective, they need not just gunmen and bombers, but a vast chorus of sneaking regarders who are prepared to hide them and lie for them.

Lines on maps might arouse the passions of a few diehards but, so long as people’s culture isn’t held up to ridicule, so long as they don’t think the size of their car or their house is determined by where they worship, they are unlikely to join the terrorist back office.

The days when tens of thousands were prepared to turn a blind eye to murder are over. Nor is there a sophisticated network of sympathisers in the South, in Britain and in the US. The ideological climate globally is scarcely propitious either. But there are still enough people who are romantic or bored or fanatical, or viscerally sectarian, to call into question the future of the political settlement which 85% of people on the island voted for.

A complex interplay exists between the two main parties in the North, the DUP and Sinn Féin. They enjoy sham fights; they indulge each other’s game-playing. Each has a mutual interest in maintaining a strategy of tension, playing on their respective community’s worst fears to maintain their political hegemony: the DUP over the UUP and Sinn Féin over the SDLP. Crudely, only the DUP can put manners on Sinn Féin, and only Sinn Féin has the heart to challenge loyalist bigotry. The two parties have become adept at choreographing these manoeuvres aimed at securing their own precious political bases. So long as they both scored some sectarian points and so long as the final result was a draw, no one seemed to mind too much, least of all the mandarins in London and Dublin.

But the public mood has turned increasingly nervy of late.

The gunfight in Co Fermanagh and the mighty car bomb aimed at the policing board’s headquarters last weekend were just the latest in a string of operations by dissidents. They might have only killed three this year, but their political impact is out of all proportion to their strike rate.

Every time a bag of fertiliser with a detonator attached is found in some Armagh byway, what used to be the core of the DUP’s support becomes agitated. Unable or unwilling to distinguish between the different brands of IRA, they suspect their nightmare scenario — political republicans inside government having their arguments bolstered by military republicans on the outside — is becoming horribly real.

No wonder then that last Saturday DUP leader Peter Robinson had to devote so much of his party conference speech to a full-frontal assault on the “cave dwellers” in Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), the breakaway ultras led by former DUP MEP Jim Allister.

TUV might be home to the swivel-eyed brigade, but there are plenty of scared unionists who worry that the dissident attacks might be taking place with the Provisionals’ connivance. In such an uncertain security environment, is now the time to allow republicans of whatever stripe anywhere near the policing policy levers, they fret? To make matters worse, a recently leaked internal PSNI report was severely critical of the organisation’s functioning as is. And the unionist hardliners’ position does have a certain internal logic to it.

As soon as there is an incident, officials scurry to put out statements about “redoubling our efforts”, code for ensuring Sinn Féin’s agenda is fulfilled in double-quick time. Adams and McGuinness still have masses of credibility, but their position requires constant bolstering.

At the same time, having been beaten into third place in the European elections, the DUP is anxious to put off the day of reckoning until after the British general election next spring, such is the TUV’s capacity to split the fundamentalist vote in the seats around Belfast and perhaps even to uproot the DUP entirely from their North Antrim constituency heartland. Besides, many ask, what is so wrong with leaving responsibility for policing in the hands of a UK government relatively impervious to local political pressures? Sinn Féin has an equally strong reason to be seen to win this confrontation. Despite its electoral hegemony within Northern nationalism, a deep malaise afflicts the Provisionals.

Their activist base has shrunk and, as junior minister Martin Mansergh has admitted, the economic crisis has made the case for Irish unity less compelling, even if there are savings to be made from avoiding the pointless duplication of services in the border region. No one really believes that the Northern Catholic birthrate is going to magically tip the balance for the foreseeable future either.

THE famed “Southern strategy” — Sinn Féin inveigling its way into government south of the border as well as north – was thwarted first by Michael McDowell in the last Dáil election TV debate and then again by Joe Higgins back in May.

If policing has become too big a deal, perhaps a measure of confidence can be restored by making progress on other fronts. Foreign Affairs Minister Micheál Martin, in a comprehensive statement to the Seanad earlier this month, listed a whole array of outstanding issues on which the DUP and Sinn Féin need to move forward, from a policy to promote reconciliation, to dealing with the past, to human rights, to parades, to the Irish language.

What the minister didn’t dare say was that we are witnessing the outworkings of the failed policy pursued so eagerly for years of relying on the extremes to deliver a stable peace. A coalition of opposites, the DUP and Sinn Féin, was supposed to be invulnerable to attack from the Orange ‘right’ and Green ‘left’ respectively.

That has proved to be a false hope. Instead, Stormont teeters on the brink. Decision-making is paralysed. Why? Because power rests with two parties incapable of making reasonable compromises for the common good.

In situations like these, there is nothing like an election to purge the system. It cannot come soon enough.

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