Belfast Telegraph

May must engage to help end impasse... and Northern Ireland parties must be left in no doubt about price of failure

 

By Owen Smith

This year is the 20th anniversary of one of the most important political achievements in modern British and Irish history.

The Belfast Agreement, signed on Good Friday in 1998, marked the end of the so-called Troubles, that sweet euphemism for a bloody civil war which killed 3,500 and injured 50,000 more.

For younger generations it may seem extraordinary, unimaginable even, that a 30-year conflict was so recently fought on these islands.

Or that the Good Friday Agreement, when it came, brought an end not just to that chapter of bloodshed, but a hope that political compromise might staunch, forever, the centuries of blood that had flowed in Ireland's name.

But in this anniversary year we have to remind ourselves, all of us who are citizens of Britain or Ireland, or both, that the Troubles were very real and that the progress - political, economic and social, which came with their ending - is real too.

What is far less certain today is that such progress can be maintained, or that violence cannot restate its claim on the lives of current generations.

Because next week marks another, less auspicious anniversary: the first since the collapse of the latest Northern Ireland Executive born out of the 1998 settlement.

And though 12 months may seem short in the long context of Irish politics - short even when compared to similar breakdowns over the last two decades - there are growing reasons to fear that this current erosion of trust between parties may be undermining the very foundations of the Good Friday Agreement.

Of course, Sinn Fein and the DUP, the largest nationalist and unionist blocs, claim they are each ready to re-engage.

The DUP immediately, it says, Sinn Fein after "past agreements" on various issues, the treatment of the Irish language in particular, are resolved.

Many experienced observers of Northern Ireland politics, however, see strong strategic reasons why neither side will be quick to compromise and collaborate once more.

For the DUP, the pain of being out of office in Stormont is salved by the power it now exercises at Westminster.

It can argue that it has served Northern Ireland well, with £1.5bn extracted for its constituencies, albeit at the expense of the rest of the Union it supports.

And it can bend the Government to its hard-nosed will on Brexit, albeit at the expense of the Remain-voting province it represents.

While for Sinn Fein, the current impasse provides shelter from the austerity decisions it rejects for Northern Ireland and allows space to fight the forthcoming election in the Republic.

And Brexit, of course, has a silver lining for the party, though it would never admit as much.

Taking Northern Ireland out of the EU along with the rest of the UK, irrespective of the nature of the border, will be seized upon as sufficient reason to call a poll on the issue that remains its raison d'etre, the unity of Ireland.

Now, perhaps such cynicism is unwarranted and a deal can quickly be reached when another round of talks begins, as it surely will, in the coming weeks.

But if there is any truth in the idea that the political parties each see more risk than benefit in re-entering power-sharing, then the Governments of the UK and Ireland, as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, have to do more than they have to date to keep its dream alive.

They have to do more to put pressure on the parties to show their commitment to the Agreement. Because both the DUP, which though it was never party to its inception, carries great responsibility

For it, as unionism's principal representatives, nor Sinn Fein, are honouring the terms of the Agreement in their refusal to share power. And if either party is now prepared to, in effect, breach the terms of their contract under the Agreement, then the feasibility of the Good Friday Agreement may be at risk.

That is not an outcome that we in the Labour Party, so proud about the role we played in helping forge the Agreement, are prepared to countenance.

And it is why we are calling on the current guardians of the Agreement in London and Dublin to do much more to safeguard its future.

They could begin, in London, by engaging the Prime Minister.

Mrs May currently shares with her predecessor the dubious honour of being the British Prime Minster least involved in the affairs of Northern Ireland in living memory.

Our Prime Minister has barely set foot in Ireland and has made no significant intervention or personal investment in the current process. That has to change.

The Prime Minster should use her first days back in Parliament to announce a substantive relaunch of the political talks, beginning with a summit of all of the political parties, chaired by herself and representative of the Irish Government.

Secondly, an independent chair, respected by all sides, must be appointed to take the subsequent talks forward to fruition.

And, third, a road-map and clear timeline, of a few short months, should be agreed and spelled out by the two Governments, including how and when direct rule will be implemented and political accountability reinstated.

The current Secretary of State has set and seen broken innumerable deadlines since the collapse a year ago.

That cycle of failure has to change.

And the consequences of a further, final failure must be made clear.

Returning to direct rule from Westminster will be a hugely retrograde step for Northern Ireland.

And in Labour we know, from bitter experience, that it is far easier to implement direct rule than to restore devolution thereafter.

But its threat may be necessary to focus minds, and its consequence may be to bring forward important economic and social reforms, such as modernising local taxation or introducing equal marriage legislation.

Though such an active period of direct rule would be controversial and contested, social reforms would be welcomed by many in Northern Ireland, and economic modernisation would significantly increase pressure on the political parties to retake their places at Stormont.

In any event, there is a final lesson that the peace process we oversaw in Labour, and the subsequent stasis we've seen under the Tories, should teach us: in Northern Ireland, as with the proverbial bicycle, you have to keep moving forward or fall over.

Now is the moment for Theresa May and her ministers to show that they can get things back on track and moving forward, or concede another reason why it's time for them to move aside.

Belfast Telegraph

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