Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Back from holidays, on to horse-trading

Well, how's it going so far? As the Stormont Assembly finally gets down to business after its two-month recess - the website says it resumed on Sunday - are there any signs of post-honeymoon blues?

Of course there are. There had to be, since only an optimist, or maybe a government minister, would believe that for all their glad-handing, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness had changed their tune entirely. They're still unionist and anti-unionist, for heaven's sake.

They did the deal, at St Andrews in October and then between March and May, because it was the only way to get some power in their own hands and avoid even more direct rule by London and Dublin. Sinn Fein had done what it had to do, decommissioning weapons and recognising the police, so both could win Executive seats and face their internal critics.

The First and Deputy First Ministers have gone to it with a heart and a half, generally giving the impression that all's well at the top. The floods of May and the foot and mouth of July gave the Executive a chance to shine, stepping in where a direct rule minister would have hummed and hawed.

That was the easy bit, when there was cash to be splashed or phone calls to be made to Dublin, Brussels and London. Now for the weightier matters of state, where DUP and Sinn Fein policies are completely different, and which cannot be put off or reviewed any longer.

In no particular order, there's water charges (an official letter to pensioners about meters assumes that charges are coming); rates revision; reductions to the number of councils; 11-plus policy; stadium policy; victims and truth policy and return of justice and policing powers, to name just a few. Meantime, there is the constant background noise of the Cory inquiries into controversial killings, which someone reminded me the other day were a Blair inducement, to get the SDLP to fully support the PSNI.

Yes, it's going to be tough to retain the present equilibrium, with seemingly very few DUP or Sinn Fein defectors. Think back to the Faulkner era, or ask others who remember it, and imagine the DUP reaction to Aer Lingus's invasion of Aldergrove, or taking Dublin's "blood money" for road-building in Northern Ireland.

We've learned to look for help from any source and, just as important, to do it together rather than separately. The goodwill towards our miraculous peace process is endless and now is the time to tap it, hoping that Jim Allister's discordant voice in Europe isn't too off-putting.

The world is still bemused, but be sure that the newspapers and magazines who have been so loud in our praise will be back to take stock as soon as any cracks appear. Ian Paisley has to retire soon - doesn't he? - and then the peace dividends will be critically re-examined.

I've no doubt that the ministers are well aware of this danger, and are preparing for it, but are their grassroots supporters aware of the pitfalls that are to come? When Sinn Fein organise marches for truth, or bang on about state collusion (hoping that their more deadly intelligence sources are overlooked) have they no fear of the disconnect between this campaign and the harmonious relations between Martin and Ian?

Like the DUP, who like to pretend they have Sinn Fein on a leash, do Sinn Fein not think that their push for the Irish language, the hunger strike museum and the abolition of grammar schools cannot endanger the Executive applecart? Obviously both parties think it's time to reassure their voters about their election pledges, so we're looking to the same kind of horse-trading that won them two new paid political advisers over the holidays - without a word to the general public - to keep things on course.

That, I fear, is what we voted for, when we put the DUP and Sinn Fein at the top of the poll, and made Martin McGuinness the full equal, in law, of Ian Paisley. It's a work in progress, and perhaps will lead to a policy battle a day, but no one can complain, as long as the voters can see who's trading what for what.

The most positive take on the DUP-Sinn Fein work-in is that it has meant an end to "not an inch" politics, when giving an inch would inevitably become a mile. O'Neillite unionists like Sir Kenneth Bloomfield are now willing to consider, in principle, "some form of Irish unity or closer association" - and admit that they "care less which flag is flown and which anthem is played where I live".

Others look at the Assembly headcount - 55 out of 108 seats unambiguously pro-union and 50% of the total vote - and fear a slippery slope. They laud the case for the union, and unlikely unionist unity, while calling for exceptions to be made on corporation and fuel tax.

They will either be relieved, or made more fearful, by an article by Fergus Finlay, a former top Irish civil servant who helped draw up, for Albert Reynolds, areas for north-south co-operation that were incorporated in the Good Friday Agreement. He's warning southern readers that Aer Lingus's move from Shannon to Belfast is what Irish unity could be about. Are they ready for it? No, but at least they're beginning to think as hard as we are.

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