North faces new dilemma as it slides into politics of mediocrity

Adams says the perpetrators of the Quinn murder are criminals and everyone should cooperate with the PSNI.

But most analysts seem to be sure the IRA did it and there have been suggestions that prominent republican personalities may know rather a lot about these events

THE singer Van Morrison always gets the mood right doesn’t he? In the summer of 1998 his song Days Like This was employed by the Northern Ireland Office to conjure up a mood of contentment. It played over the ads which underpinned the Yes vote in the referendum on the Good Friday agreement.

More recently, however, Van the Man has released the CD Magic Time containing his meditations on politics, religion and superstition. One of the tracks includes the immortal line, “you have to fight every day — to keep mediocrity away”. It’s very apposite because mediocrity is indeed the name of the game in Northern politics these days.

On May 8, 2007, hardened and cynical mandarins allowed tears to trickle down their cheeks when Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness made their vows of accommodation. But how does the new Assembly look today? The DUP and Sinn Féin, it seems, can only get their act together when the purpose is entirely negative.

The two parties agreed to reopen the direct rule team’s shortlist for the post of victims’ commissioner: a sign that while they might not be able to agree about the past, they are loathe to allow anybody else to adjudicate upon it. Then the two parties agreed to beat up on the SDLP’s Margaret Ritchie, the social development minister, for calling time on the subsidisation of loyalist paramilitaries who refuse to decommission.

To make matters worse, Northerners have witnessed a deeply dispiriting controversy concerning the development of the Giant’s Causeway; allegations have been made of improper links between politicians and a developer.

They have had to listen to the new Executive’s public spending plans delivered by DUP finance minister Peter Robinson in his best pouting style. But as SDLP leader Mark Durkan pointed out, the key ideas derived either from the period of direct rule or from the first SDLP-UUP phase of devolution.

Above all, the people of the North have had to contend with the horrific murder of Paul Quinn. By all accounts, he was beaten so violently his face was no longer recognisable. After a weekend of graphic and apparently well-informed newspaper reports on the tragedy, the DUP did appear to be taking a firmer line at the beginning of this week. Jeffrey Donaldson’s language in particular seemed to have firmed up.

Nevertheless, few commentators believe this incident will bring down the Executive. One dead Catholic from Cullyhanna will not cause too many sleepless nights in the DUP heartlands. Something like this was almost bound to happen. So, in the negotiations and the discussions behind the scenes that led up to the St Andrews Agreement of 2006, the DUP allowed Sinn Féin to gain the strong impression that they would be ‘good boys’ and would not act like that ‘bad man’ David Trimble who brought down the Executive when the IRA did embarrassing things. The DUP will be held to that half-promise.

At most, the DUP will parley it for a delay in the timing of devolution of policing and justice powers. The truth is that when the IRA statement of September 2005 came, supposedly ending all activities, the issue of IRA disbandment was suppressed by London and Dublin.

In exchange for dropping their demands for disbandment, the DUP was persuaded to accept Sinn Féin’s endorsement of policing. The ambiguities of this settlement are now coming home to roost.

In 2005, the British and Irish governments accepted a formula from the IRA on dumping arms which was eerily close to the instruction issued to IRA volunteers by Frank Aiken to dump arms. That formula effectively ended their campaign when it was endorsed, in turn, by de Valera in his ‘Legion of the Rearguard’ speech.

However, an internal IRA memorandum of May 28, 1923 stated: “The dumping of arms does not mean that the usefulness of the IRA is past, or releases any member from his duty to his country. On the contrary, a disciplined volunteer force, ready for any emergency, will be a great strength to the nation in its march to independence. It is clearly our duty to keep the army organisation intact.”

There may not be much of a march to independence going on in the North of Ireland today, but the Quinn murder shows that the army organisation is most certainly intact in South Armagh .

Gerry Adams says loudly that the perpetrators of the Quinn murder are criminals and everyone should cooperate with the PSNI. But most serious analysts appear to be sure that the IRA did it and there have been suggestions that prominent personalities in the republican movement may know rather a lot about these events. There has also been a renewed focus on the continuation of major crime in the border region.

But this is the settlement that the DUP accepted. It cannot now wriggle out of it. And, anyway, it is too happy to bathe in the great vat of patronage that is the modern Stormont — and so is Sinn Féin. So expect the mediocrity to continue.

Nor will it be counterbalanced by any significant unionist presence or activity at Westminster. Symbolically, on the Monday after the Islamist bomb attacks in London and Glasgow this summer, the DUP MPs were conspicuous by their absence from the House of Commons. Moreover, as the UK Borders Bill has made its slow and stately way through the British parliament, the DUP does not appear to have grasped the profound implications this could have for the relationship between North and South and between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Who wants to present their passport travelling from Dundalk to Newry or from Larne to Stranraer?

IS THERE there any hope for a better type of politics in Northern Ireland? At the weekend, Margaret Ritchie made an effective and widely applauded speech at the Ulster Unionist Party conference. She was well-received amid much talk within the UUP of withdrawing from government, perhaps in alliance with the SDLP.

One thing is clear: the UUP in its current stance will not be able to pull itself up by its own bootstraps. Either the party has to enter a new relationship with the DUP or the British Conservatives, or it has to go into opposition. Carrying along on its current pathway is certain slow death on the worst terms.

The same point applies to the SDLP. Either they move closer to the UUP or they move closer to Fianna Fáil: they cannot stay in the same place. The people currently in the SDLP and the UUP are still the best hope for the coalition of the decent in the North of Ireland. If they are further marginalised, it will not be possible to keep mediocrity at bay.

It is important to remember that, in certain phases of its history, Belfast was a great city by any standards. In the 1790s it led the way in progressive politics, fighting for democratic change and opposing slavery on the world stage. On the eve of World War I it was one of the world’s leading industrial cities. In World War II it withstood Hitler’s bombs. It is hard to accept that it is forever doomed to the quality of political leadership that currently dominates the local assembly.

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