Time for Plan B
by Tom Deignan
THE usual plethora of statements expressing disappointment that no final solution was made at the peace process talks last week should not be taken as another indication of failure.
It appears that very significant progress indeed has been made on several fronts, most notably between Sinn Fein and the British and Irish governments on the issues over the quid pro quo for disbandment of the IRA.
To no one’s real surprise, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) led by the Reverend Ian Paisley balked at any settlement that did not enshrine in stone the hegemony of Unionists over Nationalists in the Assembly. The blatant attempt to turn the clock back to Orange rule was, not surprisingly, unsuccessful.
Clearly Sinn Fein laid a deal on the table which would have resulted in the disbandment of the IRA in return for major concessions on demilitarization, human rights, a devolved Assembly and north-south cooperation.
Just as plainly the DUP dismissed the deal and wanted to renegotiate the entire Belfast Agreement again. By such overreaching they may have dealt themselves out of the game. That is because there is a significantly different tone from British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern these days.
Both men realize what an immense prize is possible, if the IRA finally leave the field of battle and Sinn Fein are 100% committed to political methods. They are unlikely to allow Unionist obstructionism on this issue to derail the entire plan.
That is the dilemma for Paisley. Blair has already spoken of a “Plan B” if the Unionists continue to prevaricate and erect obstacles. The facts are that Unionists ultimately control only the Assembly and the devolved government, and that all the other critical issues are dealt with by the two governments.
Can Northern Ireland function without the devolved assembly? Yes, as long as the two governments are filling the vacuum with a facsimile of joint authority which ensures that neither side, Unionist or Nationalist, can feel their concerns are getting short shrift.
When David Trimble was in power there was no question that Blair had an obligation to the Unionist leader who took his political life in his hands to sign up, however unwillingly, to the Belfast Agreement.
Blair has no such obligation to Dr. No and his fellow members of the DUP who have adopted an obstructionist policy throughout the peace process — and indeed has maintained this policy for decades.
Would Blair or Ahern really walk away from an incredible political achievement of ending peacefully the IRA campaign in order to pacify Paisley and his followers who have tried to thwart progress at every turn?
It seems unlikely, and for Sinn Fein’s part they believe they can secure a deal which pushes the notion of joint authority, with Britain and Ireland sharing more responsibility together for Northern Ireland than ever.
It is inescapable that the IRA campaign has ended anyway and that the movement, under the prescient leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, has made incredible political strides since the first ceasefire in 1994. In order to reach the next level, especially in the Irish Republic, Sinn Fein needs to be an exclusively political entity.
The guess is that day is not far off, and that Blair and Ahern are as eager for that to be achieved as they are for Paisley to finally call an end to his obstructionism.
The beauty of the current situation, however, is that a deal can definitely be reached with or without Dr. No. The governments and Sinn Fein should go for it if working with the DUP proves impossible.