Is it deal or no deal?
The absence of gloating at the Robinson and Adams families' personal problems could pave the way for agreement on the devolution of policing and justice, argues Henry McDonald
Published 04/01/2010 | 08:00
It is a tragic and bizarre coincidence that two of Northern Ireland's main political dynasties have been devastated this Christmas over deeply personal problems that have been aired in the public domain.
Gerry Adams' family has been rocked by the allegations his brother Liam sexually abused his daughter Aine and the revelation that the Sinn Fein President's father, Gerry senior, was a paedophile. Meanwhile, First Minister Peter Robinson and his family are still coming to terms with Iris Robinson's very public admission that mental health problems have driven her from politics.
What has been encouraging amid all this disturbing exposure of personal pain and anguish is that the two families' political opponents have not, in general, sought to exploit their troubles.
Of course, Gerry Adams still has to face charges of inconsistency in his account of when he found out about the allegations levelled against his brother and the fact Liam Adams continued to work with young people many years after the Sinn Fein boss first heard of Aine Tyrell's allegations.
Claims that Gerry Adams attended his brother Liam's second wedding ceremony in the 1990s - almost a decade after he was supposed to have ostracised the younger sibling - fuel suspicions the republican movement covered up the alleged abuse scandal.
Nonetheless, the lack of gloating or the desire to exploit the Robinsons' or Adams' personal issues among the political class here perhaps indicates a wider phenomenon: maybe this general cessation of hostilities is more than just humanitarian concern for two families enduring a miserable Christmas and New Year. It may indicate a desire among all the parties not to do anything to jeopardise what has been acheived.
Just a few weeks ago the atmosphere among the two main parties - Sinn Fein and the DUP - was toxic. The public squabble between the First Minister and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness put the deep differences between the two parties into sharp focus, particularly over the vexed question of devolving policing and justice powers.
There were bellicose hints and threats from mainstream republicans that Sinn Fein was seriously considering pulling out of the power-sharing Executive and collapsing the devolved institutions.
These warnings were based on an assumption within Sinn Fein that fresh Assembly elections could result in the party being the number one force in Northern politics; that, with the DUP losing votes to Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), Sinn Fein would emerge as the largest party at Stormont and have the power to make Martin McGuinness First Minister.
Yet Sinn Fein strategists must have surely calculated already that no unionist would enter an arrangement where they would be serving under a republican First Minister. There are enough realists inside the party who are prepared to stick to the present dispensation in order to continue exercising some form of governmental power. Mainstream republicans argue - with some justification - that the lack of progress on policing and justice only gives succour to the republican dissidents.
Although the creation of a Justice Ministry will not dissuade the Real IRA, Continuity IRA and Oghlaigh na hEireann from their 'armed struggle', Sinn Fein fears that some of the republican base could become disillusioned and alienated from the political process.
Conversely, the more the unionists are seen to be halting progress the more the dissidents can claim that Stormont is built on shifting sands and that the entire state of Northern Ireland is permanently dysfunctional.
The current power-sharing coalition is still undoubtedly fragile because of the relations between Sinn Fein and the DUP. However, there are very good reasons why it would not be in republicans' interests to crash the Assembly and force elections.
With the party excluded from power in the Republic and marginalised as a force inside the Dail, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly are the only shows in town. The devolved administration creates a space for Martin McGuinness to strut the political stage as a statesman, which was certainly the case when he united with Peter Robinson in denunciating the dissident killings last March.
Without that platform, the party is disconnected from any power and influence - especially now that there is absolutely no prospect of the return of the Provisional IRA.
Reasons why the DUP would be loathe to provoke an Assembly crisis and collapse are more obvious. The party potentially faces losses to Jim Allister's TUV. The anger over some of its MPs' expenses could easily result in a low unionist turn-out, which might still occur in the General Election. It would be self-destructive if the DUP pulled down the institutions by failing to take control of powers they have repeatedly said they want devolved.
While the security picture has darkened over Christmas - particularly after the discovery of a bomb-smuggling plot on the south Armagh border - there were signs of hope emanating on the political front. Senior unionist sources have been briefing the media that a deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein is possible early this month.
The trade-off between devolving policing and justice and concessions to unionists on the parading issue have been mooted over the festive period.
Even the TUV believe there will be a breakthrough - although the party has claimed this will be because the DUP will bend to Sinn Fein's demands. There is a tentative optimism emerging about a deal in January.
It could be blown off course because, as Harold Wilson pointed out, even a week is a long time in politics. But there is one more compelling reason why all politicians - not just the DUP and Sinn Fein - might be better off concocting a compromise over policing and justice in the next few weeks. After a year of controversy over politicians' expenses, voters here might be inclined to punish candidates seeking new jobs in the Assembly by simply staying away from polling stations.
Although voters have traditionally turned out in far higher numbers in Northern Ireland for elections compared to their counterparts across the Irish Sea, we are now living in a whole new political landscape where public contempt for the political class is at an all-time high.