Those of us who still believe that the Northern Ireland peace process, for all its faults and frustrations, is an extraordinary work in progress, received a surprise present two days before Christmas: another last minute, crisis-defusing, expert-defying, all-night final session agreement between the five main parties and the two governments.
Its broad outlines are well-known: nearly £2 billion in new British government cash and loans to cover a range of things like reforming the public sector and paying off thousands of civil servants, ‘shared education’ and other cross-community projects, supporting victims and survivors and dealing with ‘Troubles’-related killings; reducing the future size of the Stormont Assembly and the number of NI Executive departments; a new Historical Investigations Unit to inquire into ‘Troubles’ killings; a commission to enable people privately to learn how their loved ones were killed; an oral history archive; a commission to report on flags and identity within 18 months of being established; devolving responsibility for parades from the Parades Commission to the Assembly. These last five proposals owe a great deal to the recommendations of US diplomat Richard Haass 12 months ago.
Some of this may work, some of it may not. The important thing is that the widening cracks in the institutions of the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements have been papered over for the present. The parties of Protestant unionism and Republican nationalism are pledged to work for another period in government together in a province where peace without reconciliation has now become normal. The astonishing, if sometimes deeply uneasy, alliance between those two extremely shrewd (and extremely different) political leaders, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, will continue. Democratic power-sharing lives to fight another day. And the forces of darkness and violence, never far below the surface in Northern Ireland, are kept at bay once again.
Not for the first time in the past two decades, one reaches for words like ‘miraculous’. However in the eyes of secular liberals like this writer, miracles are not created by divine intervention but by the sheer bloody hard work of politicians and civil servants: the exhausting and seemingly endless hours of negotiation; the trying to put yourself in your adversary’s position; the writing, parsing, finding the right phrase that all sides can live with, the minute wording of the compromise text, the rewriting; the return to the negotiating table, the writing again, the meeting again, the compromising again. If there was ever a graphic illustration of Samuel Beckett’s saying – “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” – it is the Northern peace negotiations over more than two decades. So let me pay tribute to some of the leading participants, many of whom I, like so many ‘hurler on the ditch’ commentators, spend a lot of time criticising.
I pay tribute to Peter Robinson, Nigel Dodds, Jeffrey Donaldson and the other DUP negotiators for their courage in facing down the backwoodsmen (and Jim Allister) who are still too numerous on their party’s back benches. These people would still much prefer that Ian Paisley had never taken the unheard of step of going into office with the loathed and feared party of the Provisional IRA and that they were back in their comfortable cots of Protestant supremacy and victimhood.
I pay tribute to Gerry Adams, Martin McGuiness, Gerry Kelly and the other Sinn Fein negotiators for their willingness finally to compromise on their deep reluctance to accept British-style welfare cuts which will particularly affect the poorer Catholics who are a core part of their constituency (and make their position as the leading anti-austerity party in the South more difficult). It is all too easy to see Adams as a brilliant and sinister modern-day Irish Machiavelli, moving the pieces on the Irish political chessboard to fit with his vision of a united Ireland ruled by Sinn Fein and its allies. However he has also been hugely influential in persuading both the IRA to give up violence for democratic politics and ordinary Catholics to begin to cast off their age-old addiction to self-definition as victims of injustice and oppression.
I pay tribute to Mike Nesbitt, Alasdair McDonnell and David Ford for pointing out where the Stormont House Agreement falls short but continuing in government to work it. As the agreement itself points out, the time may not be far distant when one or more of their parties will go into opposition and turn Stormont into a more normal political assembly.
I pay tribute to Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan and and British Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers. These two neophytes came out of their first dip into the cauldron of Northern political negotiations surprisingly well. The former’s personal commitment to peace was shown by the extraordinary 90 meetings he came to Belfast to chair and participate in during the 11 weeks of these latest negotiations. The latter showed real mental toughness and determination after she was ridiculed – not for the first time – and accused of ineptitude and lack of preparation in allowing David Cameron walk out of the talks two weeks ago.
I pay tribute to the civil servants: to Adrian O’Neill, Niall Burgess, Emer Deane, Shane O’Neill and their colleagues in the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, whose patient, tireless commitment to the hard legwork of peace and stability in the North I have always greatly admired. And to Malcolm McKibbin and all the OFMDFM, Northern Ireland Office and British Foreign Office officials whose names I don’t know for their equal contribution. They had every right to go home exhausted to their families at Christmas happy with a job well done. The great indifferent public in Ireland and Britain hasn’t an inkling about the vast amount of thankless work they have put into this latest push for peace.
And finally to Tommie Gorman of RTE and Gerry Moriarty of the Irish Times – the two main Southern media representatives at Stormont – who insisted on believing that the latest phase of the process would reach a happy conclusion, and kept an almost totally uninterested Irish public informed of this latest crucial development in contemporary Irish history. I will come back to the role – or rather lack of role – of a ‘switched off’ population in the Republic of Ireland in a future blog.
P.S. This column marks a small personal milestone. It is my 100th monthly blog on North-South and Northern Irish issues since September 2006, when, as director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, I wrote my first ‘Note from the Next Door Neighbours’.