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DUP ministers return but problems haven't gone away, you know


Bobby Storey

Bobby Storey

Bobby Storey

Theresa Villiers admitted in the Commons that "in some ways" the report of the paramilitary assessment panel "makes depressing reading", but it does seem to have opened a way forward.

The DUP was, as predicted, returned to the Executive once it got the report, the unanimity lending weight to suggestions that the party had seen it earlier and had time to absorb it. If anything, it was worse than the Chief Constable's assessment that preceded the resignation of DUP ministers.

Peter Robinson said they only resigned when "the PSNI arrested a member of the Sinn Fein leadership during a murder investigation, the DUP concluded it could not carry out business as usual until the issue was cleared up".

This was a reference to Bobby Storey, the former IRA director of intelligence and jail breaker who had an office in Stormont.

Another facer for the whole community, not just unionists, is the statement that the Provisional IRA Army Council "oversees both PIRA and Sinn Fein with an overarching strategy" to achieve Irish unity. Unionists are wondering if the IRA rackets and undecommissioned weapons are helping finance this push.

Sinn Fein firmly denies that the IRA still exists but, since no sanction was imposed, will continue in talks.

The assessment of the loyalists is, if anything, even darker. Some UVF leaders encourage politics but far more are involved in organised crime. The UDA is an armed network of fiefdoms with little central control. The newly formed Loyalist Community Council now looks risky.

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Since loyalists are not in government dealing with them is largely a matter of the police. Unionists need to avoid being tainted by association with them unless progress is reported.

Holding things together medium-term won't be easy. Money is a massive problem.

There were no signs in recent Sinn Fein speeches that republicans are willing to accept further cuts without compensation from London, and more cuts are planned.

The talks, which may stretch into next week, will discuss a clampdown on paramilitaries and continued monitoring reports. The talks were meant to end this week but most people now think they will run in to the beginning of November.

Whatever the difficulties, it is essential to cross this hurdle. A breakdown serves nobody's interests except the dissidents who claim this is an inherently ungovernable state. With trust levels so low, we could soon run into another crisis of overspending or paramilitary accusations. Our budgets will only get tighter under current Tory plans.

Meanwhile, politicians need to bend their minds to two things. They need to put sensible requests to London, and elsewhere, for money to cover problems that are unique to Northern Ireland and which can boost our budget.

Next they need to legislate for an opposition. One major party, the UUP, is already out of government. We need arrangements that do not require all-party government but do include a cross-community element and strong protections for minorities. If we mess up again, that would be a better option than direct rule.