April 28th 09
TWO YEARS IS A LONG TIME IN POLITICS.
President Obama is one hundred days in the White House. Early days indeed but already the record of his administration is being scrutinised by the media and by political commentators. Things on this little island move much more slowly.
Next month will mark two years since the establishment of the power sharing government involving Sinn Féin and the DUP and the other parties. That’s the longest period that the political institutions have been functioning since the old Stormont regime was stood down in 1972.
The deal which led to this development between Sinn Féin and the DUP, at that time led by Ian Paisley, was recognised as a historic step forward. And it was. Even if I say so myself.
Few thought it possible and many thought, and some hoped, that it would not last. But it has.
Of course working with the DUP is not easy. Remember this is a party established 40 years ago to oppose Civil Rights; a party which set its face against power sharing.
This is a party which pledged to smash Sinn Féin.
This is the party that wouldn’t take its seats at the Executive table the last time the institutions were in place and which wouldn’t attend all-Ireland Ministerial meetings.
Where is it today?
For the past two years the DUP has been at the Executive table; attending all-Ireland meetings; in government with Sinn Fein, and sharing the office of First and deputy First with Sinn Féin as equals.
And their leaders are to be commended for this.
But let’s be clear about it all.
Like the Afrikaaners some unionists continue to oppose change.
Over a decade ago, when we achieved the Good Friday Agreement, I said that it would be a battle a day making the institutions work.
Working and negotiating with the DUP is very like that. In private they can be courteous, good humoured and engaging - when they engage.
In public, for some of them, it’s a different matter entirely. For them, it’s all about fighting the good fight against the rest of us. Even if they do have to go out of their way to pick a fight or the pretence of a fight.
And that is the reality. Of course there are real and fundamental differences between us but with some of their representatives these fights are sham fights – more style than substance. They also have this really wearisome habit of couching their positions in the most negative way possible. No, Nay Never is a chorus line most favoured by their spin doctors. And for some their publicity is no more than a litany of outlandish claims about all the things they claim to have staunchly prevented Sinn Féin from doing.
Maybe they have worked out that this is the line the unionist constituency wants to hear. Maybe it reflects their own insecurities. Maybe they really believe it. Who knows? Who can tell? Is this heaven or is this hell? Anyone for the last few choc ices?
Clearly the DUP is closer to grassroots unionists than me but I fancy somehow that positive leadership is as necessary in that constituency as in any other one. On the other hand I suppose it depends on what you mean by positive. What sounds negative to the rest of us may be very positive in the acoustics of DUP land.
Anyway notwithstanding all of this, or any of it, the DUP are where they are. They are reluctant partners. They don’t like equality. They don’t like democracy. They don’t like being part of a system which they cannot dominate. But they are, to repeat myself, where they are. And that’s a good thing. And it’s two years on. And that’s also a good thing.
But it’s not good enough just to have functioning, if fledgling, institutions. They also have to deliver. On the economy. In the battle against poverty. Against sectarianism. For equality. The Irish language. Policing. All Ireland matters. And on all the other issues which are important to citizens.
So, one of our tasks is to keep working with the DUP and other unionists because we believe that they are capable of doing bigger and better things.
And I, for one, two years on, really believe this.
So this dimension of our work is about dialogue, good neighbourliness, consensus building. It is about eradicating sectarianism. It is about making friends with unionists. It is about nation building.
Our responsibility is to work the agreement and to build on it in the future.
That means engaging with unionism on every aspect of it.
It means pointing out to them that the main principles are their legal guarantees of fair treatment in a new shared Ireland.
Most unionists are persuaded of the merits of all Ireland co-operation and partnership. They know it makes sense.
We also need to persuade them of the logic and good sense of Irish unity.
This blog knows that that is a mighty challenge.
We are back with that great Protestant patriot Wolfe Tone. Genuine democrats and thinking republicans, will recognise the validity and wisdom at this time, of Tone’s great call for the unity of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. That my friends is what this is all about.