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Towards Joint Authority

By NiallO’Dowd

NORTHERN Ireland Secretary of State Peter Hain was in the U.S. last month to give his assessment of the situation in Northern Ireland to Irish American leaders.

Hain has made a decent fist of the Northern Ireland job. He has been blunt and direct when needed. He has pointed out that the economic basket case where the British government and taxpayer endlessly subsidize the local economy cannot continue forever.

Hain has stressed that, unlike previous British governments, this one has a plan in conjunction with the Irish government and is sticking to it. He has pointed out to the local party leaders that if agreements are not reached on power-sharing, then their coveted sinecures where they get paid handsomely to sit in an Assembly that never meets are over.

Above all, Hain has pointed out that in British Prime Minister Tony Blair the Irish peace process has an ally unlike any other in modern times. Blair, however, is expected to step down within a year. In addition, an Irish election next May or June could also remove Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern, the other leader who has given endlessly of his time and effort to achieve peace.

In other words, the maximum potential for achieving the long dreamed of power-sharing administration with safeguards for both sides in Northern Ireland are now in place.

It was a sobering briefing by Hain, especially on the issue of what will replace power-sharing if the current attempt to achieve it fails.

Hain was less than convincing on the issue of joint authority, a form of which both governments have said they will implement if the power-sharing ideal fails. He was wishy-washy on the details, merely saying that it would obviously involve a large extension of the current cross border cooperation initiatives.

That would not be good enough for Irish America. For too long the forces of Unionism have thwarted every effort to create political institutions that reflect the effective reality that the North is almost evenly divided — politically, geographically and population wise — between the two communities. Anything less than a complete recognition of that fact in any joint authority formula would be insufficient.

If, as seems more likely every passing day, the Democratic Unionists are the ones who balk at power-sharing, then it is up to the two governments to show them that they have a plan that will deal directly with that refusal, and one that will make them understand that the price for failing to share power is a steep one indeed.

To their credit, the two governments have made it crystal clear to the Northern Ireland parties that if no deal can be reached in November then the entire exercise in power-sharing will be shelved indefinitely, no if, ands or buts.

The hope is, of course, that the deadline and the determined positions of the two governments will lead Democratic Unionist leader Ian Paisley to rethink his party’s recalcitrant position on the power-sharing issue.

Judging by recent events, however, that seems a long shot at present. Paisley gave a hate filled speech over the July 12th season, one that indicated that his visceral hatred of Catholics is still very much in effect.

Certainly, the opinion of his party and its leader is an important one, but it cannot defy progress for all the people of the North, no more than the Sinn Fein position on the other side can stymie progress.

What is needed is for both governments to continue to show the political mettle they have shown in recent times when it comes to taking decisions if the Unionists refuse to deal. Irish America will need to see a form of joint authority that is a meaningful reflection of the role of the Irish government in the affairs of the North if they are going to accept any compromise put forward.



 © IrishAbroad.com 2009