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It’s spending cuts we have to fear, not ghost of troubles past

Perhaps time will tell why Enda Kenny's first safari when he felt safe to leave the circled wagons of the Fine Gael parliamentary party rooms should have been a visit to Northern Ireland.

He had never shown great interest in the area over the years, or made any serious pronouncements on the progress of events here.

Perhaps, fresh from his triumph in the internal party conflict, he was going to teach the tyro-politicians the secrets of party management, of conflict management and resolution. Or perhaps he was there to learn these skills from more experienced operatives.

If so, he might have noticed that there are now emerging post-graduate disciplines in post-conflict traumatic stress counselling, and on healing and memory. He might find one or the other, or both, useful as he attempts to bind up wounds in his own party.

The visit was, in fact, a bit of a non-event as an effort to make friends and influence people.

It was not much of a fact-finding mission either, and apart from a brief encounter under the auspices of an NGO in the reconciliation business, there was no contact with the man and woman in the street; no exposure to the rawness of life in the more disadvantaged areas of Belfast in challenging economic times.

Despite this degree of insulation and protection, Enda did succeed in rattling the teacups in Stormont, offending both main parties in the Executive — Sinn Fein members by questioning their legitimacy as democratically elected politicians and the DUP by rubbing their noses in it for having accepted them as such.

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Whatever the validity in terms of southern politics of his refusal to accept Sinn Fein as a possible partner in a coalition government (which he and his party are fully entitled to do), to do so on the grounds of its association with a moribund army council could be deeply destabilising in Northern Ireland if he keeps on banging away about it up here.

It is probably more of an irritant to Sinn Fein, as being no more than the party might have expected, but it could not only be embarrassing, but politically damaging, for the DUP to be told that a party that it was required to govern with in partnership in the province was regarded as being unfit for government in the Republic itself.

The DUP faces attack from its own sceptics and from the dissidents of the TUV for sharing power with a party that a senior Irish politician has told them still has suspect paramilitary links. This raises, for the DUP, serious questions about its continued participation in the Executive.

For most people in Northern Ireland, it does raise the awkward question of double standards being applied, of their being required to accept people in government who would be rejected in the south, and the doubtful proposition that there are higher standards of political morality in Dublin than Belfast.

The basis of political progress in the province is that, the IRA having declared and maintained a ceasefire, having decommissioned arms and having effectively disbanded to the satisfaction of the International Monitoring Group, Sinn Fein has the credentials required for participation in democratic politics in the exercise of its electoral mandate.

The resolution of conflict depends on a belief in the capacity of former opponents (and indeed, former combatants) to change both their methods and their mindsets and to work together on an agreed (even if restricted) range of activities for the common good.

In Northern Ireland, in particular, people on both sides have had to convince themselves that this can indeed be so, and some have displayed heroic degrees of tolerance and forgiveness in overlooking the past histories of some of the participants in order to give peace a chance.

It is not merely a willing suspension of disbelief. Signs are reinforced by the results of the recent Westminster elections that politics are well-embedded, that society has turned its back on violence, and that the strong desire is for politicians on both sides to get on with the job of running the place.

And there, indeed, is the rub. Politics means more than the rejection of violent conflict. Jaw-jaw might be better than war-war, but even that begins to pall if there is no end-product in the form of economic policies and social betterment.

What a visitor from the south might have told the parties was how to arrive at decisions in government and, particularly in the present context of UK public finances, how to face the challenges posed by economic recession and swingeing cuts in public services.

In recent years, when public funds flowed relatively freely into the province, the main parties, and hence the Executive, showed an unenviable inability to reach agreement on almost anything, from education to water charges to the reform of local government, now postponed until 2015.

In these circumstances, the challenge presented by the recent Budget and the impending cuts in public expenditure look all the more threatening.

The cuts in social welfare and benefit rates will hit people in the north heavily, given the high dependency ratios that are found there. Given the high reliance on public expenditure both for services and employment, cuts, when they come, will impact more severely here.

It will fully tax the capacity of the Executive to manage the cuts and to handle the fallout.

There, rather than in a ghostly army council, lies the most immediate threat.

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