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Deadline? Pull the other one!

David Adams Irish Times, 10 November 2006

In line with the two governments' latest deadline, Northern Ireland's political parties will today give their formal responses to the St Andrews Agreement. For Sinn Féin and the DUP in particular, there is a clear choice to be made: either they support the joint proposals or the Assembly will be shut down for the foreseeable future.

That at least is the notional situation; the reality, however, is entirely different. Neither of the two main parties has any intention of giving a definitive response today. Nor is there any likelihood that the British government will carry out its threat to close the Assembly.

Instead, what we will get is more obfuscation and another government climbdown. Such deadlines mean nothing to the political parties, and little wonder. They have been allowed, without censure, to disregard so many in the past we can hardly expect them to treat one seriously now.

As any parent soon learns, ultimatums are only effective so long as there is at least a suspicion that they might be acted upon.

The parties realised a long time ago that they have nothing to fear on that score: every previous government threat has turned out to be an empty one.

They know that instead of being forced to grapple with issues that could be sorted out in an afternoon if there was sufficient willingness, they will be allowed to continue grandstanding and arguing around them for as long as they like.

In our political process, the parties are like spoilt children who get to set the agenda and dictate the pace, irrespective of what the governments might want. For their part, the governments are like the over-indulgent parents who, at their wits end, struggle to understand why their spoilt brats won't behave as they would like them to.

Instead of putting their foot down, their eagerness to placate and even accede to often mutually exclusive demands has them striking separate little side deals and reaching nod-and-a-wink understandings that ultimately return to haunt and further pollute the whole process.

All of this merely encourages the DUP and Sinn Féin to continue scurrying back and forth to London and Dublin to lobby for government support for their particular positions when, instead, they should be knuckling down to the cut and thrust of genuine negotiations. The upshot is that these parties take no responsibility at all for finding a way forward. They are content to simply present demands and preconditions in the expectation that they will somehow be accommodated.

How serious the DUP is about actually contributing to the restoration of an Executive can be measured by its refusal to meet Sinn Féin and the other parties to discuss outstanding issues in the Preparation for Government Committee (typo: should read Programme for Government Committee) outlined in the St Andrews Agreement.

They had no such qualms, however, about joining Sinn Féin in an all-party delegation that travelled to London to lobby the British chancellor, Gordon Brown, for another multi-billion pound "peace package" for Northern Ireland.

Extra money from Westminster, it appears, is far more important to them than taking responsibility for trying to get the political institutions up and running again. In the few weeks since St Andrews, both Sinn Féin and the DUP have been consulting their respective party memberships and broader constituencies.

Yet, rather than trying to convince people of the merits of the joint proposals, each has used this period of internal consultation merely to rehearse and reinforce existing positions.

Promises have been made to their electorates, attitudes have hardened, and further demands and preconditions have been added to existing lists.

Today, both the DUP and Sinn Féin will certainly indicate their willingness to accept the St Andrews proposals, but only on condition that mutually exclusive requirements are met.

As compliant as ever, the two governments will make every effort to present this non-event in the best possible light.

They and large sections of the media will simply ignore all of the crucial qualifications and caveats, and scramble to hail the responses as some kind of political breakthrough.

Far from the party pronouncements being a signal of any kind of advancement, they will merely be further indication of how weak the governments are and how counter-productive is their setting of deadlines and issuing of threats when they have no real intention of holding fast to them. Solutions have not been found to the problems around powersharing, support for policing and a timetable for the devolution of policing and justice; they have merely been pushed a little further down the line.

Despite the obvious lack of any real progress, general focus will now shift to the next "deadline" of November 24th, when a shadow Assembly is expected to nominate the first and deputy first ministers.

No doubt, Sinn Féin, the DUP and the two governments in their separate conclaves are already considering how, in the absence of any agreement, they can get around that obstacle and keep alive a perpetual process that has now become an end in itself.



Republished with permission from the author.









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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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19 November 2006

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