Monday, October 16, 2006


St Andrews through the looking glass

If Alice thought Wonderland was bizarre she'd really struggle to cope with Ireland right now. After all this is a place where politicians can lie to both colleagues and compatriots and get rewarded for it. A place where politicians can decide to give themselves even less work to do and face very little criticism over it. And, if that's not all, apparently the north of Ireland is now on the verge of working properly at long last.

The political Cheshire cat himself Peter Hain, sporting the trademark grin, has been busy hyping up the recent talks involving the North's parties at St Andrews, Scotland, as an "astonishing breakthrough" and an "absolutely extraordinary achievement".

You see Alice, in Ireland's north, politicians behaving like adults instead of whingeing, petty children is astonishing and extraordinary.

Our very own Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair, have both been busy trying to keep the DUP and Sinn Féin happy and interestingly enough, Blair had to offer the DUP a last-ditch deal to prevent them taking their ball and going home. The concessions included Sinn Fein's acceptance that it could join a power-sharing government only if it signed up to policing and a promise to reverse the abolition of academic selection. Other concessions involved a cap on domestic rates in NI and the right of the Assembly to control the reform of local government.

Alice would welcome a tea party of course and she's in luck as potential first minister Dr Paisley (or the mad hater as I call him) and Gerry Adams are due to lead senior delegations to a meeting of the Assembly's Programme for Government committee tomorrow to agree priority issues for the Northern Executive - scheduled to be fully restored by March 2007.

'Wake up dormouse and tell us a story!'

Alice would be all too familiar with cards obviously and the key cards here involve policing for Sinn Féin and a commitment to power-sharing from the DUP. It seems to me however that there is a lot of political posturing going on at the minute. On the one hand you have the Shinners desperately trying to make out that their card - the policing issue - is a big deal. I don't believe it is because I think Sinn Féin will jump at the chance to support the PSNI if it means restoring the NI assembly. The DUP's card meanwhile - whether or not to share power with Sinn Féin - is another hokey, phoney debate. After all, they work with Sinn Féin on local councils. The reality is they are scared stiff of the two government's main card - a British-Irish "joint stewardship" scenario.

The whole thing strikes me as a load of hot air, spin and rhetoric. Alice would probably accuse me of smoking the caterpillar's hookah where I to tell her that I find myself agreeing with Reg Empey's take on the current situation as stated on the UUP's Party Talks blog:

"Sinn Fein will sign up to the PSNI being the only force of law and order and Ian Paisley or a colleague will share the joint office of First and Deputy First Minister with Martin McGuinness in a mandatory coalition.

"This is the Belfast Agreement for slow learners.

"What have the last 8 years of turmoil in unionism been about? A few minor operational tweaks here and there to the Agreement?"

Apparently so, Reg. I'm sure at this point if I were to ask Alice for her thoughts on the North's main parties she would borrow a line from the Queen of Hearts - "off with their heads!" but that might be a tad unfair.

It's important to acknowledge that this is an important time but I can't help but roll my eyes every time I hear the usual phrases - "extraordinary", "momentous", "groundbreaking", etc for these kinds of talks. I mean if we were to learn that Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams took a whizz together in one of the toilets in St Andrews it would be sold to us as a historic moment. Let's just calm down and be cautiously optimistic, folks.

It's worth keeping a close eye on things though. There's talk of a referendum to change the Irish constitution to implement some of the proposals talked about at St Andrews. That's something that makes me concerned as we all know what we had to do to our constitution the last time in order to placate the unionists.

I am going to reserve judgement for now until I see the whole picture. In this Lewis Carroll-type island of ours you never know what to expect.

I must admit though if a deal is reached, I'll be so shocked I shall feel like I'm in some fantastical dream. The DUP and Sinn Féin to finally start working together? Curiouser and curiouser...


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