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Northern Ireland's parties need to step back before they pull institutions right down on their heads

The future of power-sharing could hinge on the report tomorrow of two 'wise men' and one 'wise woman' into ongoing IRA operations - including murder. Yet our relative peace and stability contrasts favourably with other post-conflict zones, writes Henry McDonald

Published 13/10/2015

The DUP’s Arlene Foster and Simon Hamilton speak to the media following the announcement of the three panel members who will oversee an independent assessment of paramilitary organisations
The DUP’s Arlene Foster and Simon Hamilton speak to the media following the announcement of the three panel members who will oversee an independent assessment of paramilitary organisations
Gerard 'Jock' Davison
Kevin McGuigan

If, as expected, the two "wise men" and one "wise woman" issue their report tomorrow over allegations of ongoing IRA activity, including murder, every word they utter will be dissected, analysed and pored over by the squabbling politicians at Stormont.

Because it is their assessment of whether, or not, the IRA not only exists, but actually killed Kevin McGuigan that will determine if power-sharing and devolution can be rescued.

There are a number of observations that ought to be made about this strange political limbo we are caught in at present.

Firstly, beyond the howling of a few leading figures in the community and voluntary sector, where is the clamour or the panic among real people about the prospect of the Northern Ireland Executive's imminent collapse?

While there is a commonly held view that devolution and power-sharing is good, try and find someone in the pub, the bus stop, on the train, or at the school gates who is really exercised about the crisis talks at Stormont House.

What the overwhelming majority in both communities in Northern Ireland are principally concerned is peace first and foremost. They don't want any slippage back to the old days of the Troubles and they have no truck with those who want to press the rewind button and take us back there again.

Certainly, those voices in the business community are correct when they state that instability at the heart of government is not good in terms of consumer confidence, wooing foreign investment, or encouraging our brightest and best indigenous entrepreneurs to stay here.

To those in enterprise and industry, a stable devolved administration is a necessary pre-condition for a growing economy.

The second truly bizarre nature of this crisis is that unionists are threatening a "Samson" option over the death of a republican who, if given the orders during the Troubles, would have killed any of them for the "cause".

What appears to have been a murderous personal vendetta between two IRA men - Kevin McGuigan and Gerard "Jock" Davison - has resulted in, first, the Ulster Unionists pulling out of the Executive and then the Democratic Unionists warning that they are ready to pull down every pillar of devolution in a fit of indignant rage.

The original Samson, of course, blinded and emasculated, asked the Lord for one more surge of strength that enabled him to destroy the Philistines' temple, killing himself and his enemies into the bargain in one of the most famous suicide-murder stories in human history.

Yet the DUP's "Samson" option is an entirely different affair - primarily because they are not tearing down their enemies' temple, but their own.

The DUP has always been one of the parties most enthusiastically pro-devolution and has clearly enjoyed all the trappings of power since devolution was secured after the 2006 St Andrews Agreement. The architecture of the devolved settlement, paradoxically, strengthens the Union itself - even as across the North Channel Scottish devolution has delivered a more confident pro-independence lobby.

None of the above is to suggest that the alleged continued existence of the Provisional IRA is somehow unimportant. The trouble with the unionists is that they are missing the real point.

An IRA structure remains in place for two basic reasons: self-defence against its enemies and resources. The latter has to do with the vast war-chest the Provisionals control from the diesel smuggling operations along the south Armagh/north Louth border to the huge property portfolios key figures in the movement invested in all over the planet.

These vast resources can be and have been used to create a vast army of party activists, constituency headquarters, researchers and even a dirty tricks/black ops outfit that would make Richard Nixon and his cronies look like choirboys.

While both the murder of Gerard Davison and Kevin McGuigan were morally abhorrent, the real corrosive threat to democracy lies in dirty money, whether that be cash raised through smuggling scams or largesse from big business to political parties.

Having said all of this, no peace and no political settlement can ever be perfect. There are glaring flaws in Northern Ireland politics and perhaps one positive outcome of this current crisis is that we now at least have a large, official opposition in the Stormont parliament (if and when the Executive is re-established) and this nonsensical hokey-cokey, in-out ministerial protest dance by the DUP is over.

Yet the parties here hardly need to look around the world to see how our relative peace and stability contrasts favourably with other conflict zones.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is about to endure a third Intifada and blow away any hope of a return to the heady days of the Oslo peace accord. Syria is fracturing and Russia is now engaged in a dangerous power-play to save their man in Damascus, while risking conflict with Nato countries.

Across the Middle East and North Africa, the prospect of democracy and pluralism is receding with the threat of Isis-inspired Islamist groups on one side and the return of the "strong men" forming military regimes in response on the other.

No, this local polity is far from perfect, but it is a million times more stable, humane, manageable and progressive than the nations turning once more into meat-grinders - thanks to their own brand of religious sectarianism.

Sometimes in this society, we are all guilty of being too introspective and parochial when it comes to what we have all come through over the last 40 years.

About 25 years ago, when I was in Beirut, I remember the terror of hearing missiles being exchanged between Christian East and Muslim West over the Green Line that divided the Lebanese capital.

The Troubles were still raging back at home, of course, while I was visiting Irish UN peacekeepers in Lebanon. On that night, when the missiles started firing, I remember shaking in a bed inside a UN-owned property, flak jacket on and blue helmet by my side. And I recall yearning to be back in the relative safety of Belfast.

That is perspective - and it's something our politician s need to take heed of before they pull the plug on this flawed, imperfect, but necessarily ambiguous settlement.

Belfast Telegraph

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