Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Can parties heed Clinton's call and 'finish the job'?

President Clinton showed he has lost none of his old, persuasive charisma during his brief visits to Londonderry and Belfast last week.

As he surveyed the cheering crowd in Guildhall Square and the welcoming smiles of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness on the steps of Stormont Castle, Mr Clinton might even have wondered whether we needed his message – "finish the job" – but need it Northern Ireland definitely does.

It seems like only yesterday that the former president and his wife, Hillary, switched on the Christmas tree lights at Belfast City Hall in November 1995.

Later that evening, I attended a reception at Queen's University and was one of only a few guests who dared to be seen with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. The Sinn Fein leaders stood isolated in the Whitla Hall, shunned as political pariahs by most of the invited company.

Peter Robinson's DUP were separated at one end of the hall from Sinn Fein, as the president shook hands with them all – a far cry from the cordial joint welcome for Mr Clinton (above) last Thursday evening at Stormont.

In the ensuing years, since Christmas 1995, the graph of Northern Ireland has shown peaks of peace and compromise and troughs of division and crisis.

The peaks came in 1998 with the Good Friday deal and, again, when the DUP and Sinn Fein agreed to share power.

The first trough spelt the end for David Trimble and now another trough is deepening towards another breakdown of trust.

If history is to repeat itself, then some time soon, another new negotiation and settlement will be required, embracing differences not just on flags, parades and the past, but on the wider issues of cultural identity, equality and constitutional allegiance in the state of Northern Ireland.

Finishing the job, as Mr Clinton puts it, means many different things to many different people. Can Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness and the other parties even begin to define the actual job which needs to be finished?

For example, many unionists believed previous deals did finish the job, as they saw it. Conversely, republicans seem to interpret each agreement as a stepping stone towards their ultimate constitutional ambition – a united Ireland.

Electoral ambition is seen as more important at Stormont than finishing any job. The countdown to the council and European elections in May is already under way. Sparks are starting to fly between rival parties vying for the unionist vote. Even as you read this, some printer may be churning out the first election posters for the unionists bearing the slogan 'Enough is enough'. The question is: who will get first call on the copyright – the DUP, TUV or UUP?

Meanwhile, the legions of Sinn Fein are assembling on the other side of Ulster's churned-up waters to fight a separate electoral battle with the SDLP, while the Alliance party will hope that the deeper the divisions, the more its message of moderation can find new appeal.

It can be little comfort to the parties that 548,000 people did not vote in the last Assembly election. As an online reader of my column points out, that represented more than 10 times the Alliance vote, three times Sinn Fein's and 2.5 times the DUP's support.

All in all, it appears finishing Mr Clinton's job, if ever it can be finished, is not much of a priority and will be more difficult with elections each year between now and 2016. Politically, the foundations are built, the scaffolding is erected, but there are few bricklayers at Stormont. Finishing the job requires northern nationalists and republicans to set aside their dream world of Irish unity and concentrate more on uniting Northern Ireland.

Finishing the job requires unionists to accept British and Irish cultural identity must exist side-by-side in a spirit of true equality, respect and tolerance.

When President Clinton spoke outside Londonderry's Guildhall in 1995, he quoted Seamus Heaney (as he did again last week):

'History says don't hope on this side of the grave, but then, once in a lifetime the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up. And hope and history rhyme.

'So hope for a great sea change on the far side of revenge. Believe that a further shore is reachable from here. Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells'.

The great sea change has been peace. The "further shore" of Seamus Heaney is still unreachable.

Finishing the job has become one hell of a tall order in today's Northern Ireland.

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