In my weekly column for the Andersonstown News I wrote last week about the current political crisis. Today the talks begin.
This week 21 years ago the IRA announced its “complete cessation of military operations”. It was a momentous decision that came after many years of intense and difficult hard work. It provided, as Seamus Heaney insightfully put it at the time, a “space in which hope can grow.”
But the process that followed proved torturously slow. At times it collapsed. Hope was often in short supply. The British conservative government under John Major were reluctant participants who erected one hurdle after another in an attempt to stymie progress.
Ian Paisley claimed the IRA cessation was the worst crisis in the history of the northern state and Jim Molyneaux, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party – then the biggest of the unionist parties – described it as one of the most destabilising events for unionism and the Orange state since Partition. These attitudes have largely shaped the character and approach of political unionism since then.
Republicans and nationalists have focussed on achieving the maximum change, the greatest progress and to secure the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Unionist leaders have sought to minimise progress and dilute change. Successive British governments, generally backed by compliant and insipid Irish governments, have consistently backed political unionism.
The internal electoral battle within unionism – primarily between the UUP and DUP, but now also involving Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice - has also played a significant role as each unionist party seeks to win voters.
The current political crisis is the latest manifestation of this. The UUP decision to walk out of the Executive was no surprise. Mike Nesbitt claims that the decision is about taking a ‘principled stand’. Few believe him.
Four years ago the Ulster Unionist Party was in decline. It was desperately trying to carve out an electoral niche for itself, separate from the DUP. As part of this the then leader Tom Elliot argued for the creation of an opposition in the Assembly. A Belfast Telegraph opinion poll claimed that 80% of delegates to the party’s annual conference in 2011 supported this.
The following year the UUPs new leader Mike Nesbitt called for the ‘introduction of an official opposition.’ Last year Reg Empey another former leader, tabled an amendment in the British Parliament to the ‘Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill’ which would enable the introduction of an opposition in the Assembly. And he was supported in this by John Taylor, who at the beginning of this year publicly called for the UUP to go into opposition.
As explained by Taylor the rationale for such a move was because the Ulster Unionists were ‘losing ground politically.’
Mike Nesbitt’s ‘principled stand’ is therefore the fulfillment of a long standing objective of the UUP - to go into opposition in the Assembly.
At its most cynical it’s about electoralism – it’s about winning votes and taking seats. The once all powerful UUP – which ruled the north for 50 years - has been pushed to the margins. However, in May the UUP won two Westminster seats in the British general election – ironically in Fermanagh South Tyrone with the help of the DUP – and Nesbitt now sees a further opportunity to resurrect the electoral fortunes of his party.
His decision to exploit the brutal murder of Kevin McGuigan is about positioning the UUP as the party of leadership within unionism.
The same electoral motivation is at work south of the border. The government parties – Fine Gael and Labour - and Fianna Fáil are setting aside the imperative of peace in order to ally themselves with the northern unionist parties to attack Sinn Féin. This is short term narrow party political self-interest taking precedence over the peace process. This is a contemptible approach.
Sinn Féin’s condemnation of the murders of Jock Davison and Kevin McGuigan has been forthright and unequivocal. So too is our support for the PSNI in their investigation and efforts to bring those responsible before the courts.
Sinn Féin rejects any attempt to undermine the rights and entitlements of our electorate because of the actions of criminals.
In their desire to try and bolster the fortunes of their parties through attacking Sinn Féin the government parties and Fianna Fáil need to be mindful that the DUP and UUP have never been enthusiastic partners in the power sharing institutions. They were each brought grudgingly and reluctantly to participate in the Good Friday Agreement institutions.
Both parties remain wedded to the notion of majority rule. Peter Robinson in an interview only five months ago with the Economist said: “My view is that we should be moving to a voluntary coalition rather than a mandatory coalition, so that people who are like-minded form the government rather than being forced with people who are ideologically not only different, but opposites to each other being in the executive.”
If unionism succeeds in overturning the Good Friday Agreement, collapsing the power sharing structures, and turning the clock back to the bad days of majority rule, the political consequences for the island of Ireland will be very serious.
Now is the time for real leadership. To put the needs of the peace process front and centre. Since that historic IRA cessation on August 31st 1994 Sinn Féin and republicans have taken significant risks for peace and in support of the political process. If a resolution of the current crisis is to be achieved then sectional electoral interests and narrow party politicking needs to be pushed aside.
Any negotiations must focus on the real issues; the outstanding elements of the Good Friday Agreement and the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement. Anything less is not acceptable.