Friday, February 10, 2006

Sitting on your rear, Ian, just ain’t an option

Jude Collins:

For politics operating at the daft level, the DUP take some beating. On television they show how reasonable they’ve become by sitting in the same studio as their political opponents, which gives you some idea of the low base of rational behaviour they’re coming from. On the policy front they show the freshness of their thinking by proposing (whack the drums there, Billy) rolling devolution. Under their moral care, the body politic will be kept unsullied, the door barred against republican intrustion until… well, certainly not until General John de Chastelain and the IICD have given republicans a clean bill of health, because that has already happened.

Not even until the IMC has given republicans a clean bill of health, because Mr Paisley has made it very clear that if the IMC comes up with something different from what he wants, they’ll be ignored, the same way the IICD was ignored. So when will the DUP decide that the representatives of most nationalists in the North are sufficiently pure to be allowed near the body politic? Around the Twelfth of Never, I’d say. Left to their own devices, the DUP will go into partnership with Sinn Féin a fortnight after holy water fonts become standard equipment in Orange lodges and Sammy Wilson starts sunbathing with his nether bits hid.

So let’s park that little issue right now. The DUP are not power-sharers, except maybe with nationalist politicians who raise their glass, take oaths of allegiance to HMQE2 and know their place, and that particular breed gets scarcer every election.

So what to do?

Well, we could do what the DUP say we should, and declare the GFA dead. All bets off. That’d mean the re-instatement of Articles 2 and 3 in the South, the increased prospect of fresh paramilitary violence and the presence of even more armed men from the island next door than at present are encamped here. Not a pretty prospect.

Alternatively, nationalists might accept that the devolved government part of the Good Friday Agreement has been locked by DUP obstructionism and turn their attention to the other parts of the Good Friday Agreement over which Mr Paisley cannot squat.

In the brouhaha about Stormont and its restoration, it’s easy to forget that the GFA has other significant parts, such as the all-Ireland dimension. When the Dublin and London governments put their pen to the 1998 document, they committed themselves to developing cross-border bodies in a range of areas. So have you noticed these bodies changing your life much over the past eight years? No, me neither.

Education is a nice instance. In the North people are fretting at the prospect of university students having to take on a £3,000 (€4,327) annual debt in fees alone. In the South, people are fretting over what school league tables will do to the education of their children. The North’s system and the South’s system spin and clank and clatter on, side by side, virtually free of contact, learning nothing from each other.

What’s true of schools and universities is true of the teaching profession as well. The skills and understanding needed to cope with classes of young people are the same north and south of the border, yet eight years after the signing of the GFA there is no co-operation, much less co-ordination of initial teacher training or in-service.

Common sense says the two systems have much to learn from each other, but no serious effort has been made to see that it happens. It’s not just the MLAs that should have their salaries docked. Those responsible for the non-delivery of GFA commitments in education and other areas should feel the displeasure of the people they are cheating, and be told to shift into action mode at top speed.

British secretaries of state and British prime ministers like to talk about the need to establish trust before any progress can be made. Trust schmust. What’s needed are SoSs and PMs to introduce consequences, not trust.

None of us are trusted to avoid being in a drink-driving situation. The cops get out their with breathalysers, they flag you down, and if you’re caught you’ll be sorry. No trust involved – just consequences. Ditto if you shoplift, or embezzle or assault. If we try such tricks and are caught, we’ll end up being very sorry for what we did.

So it’s time the two governments accepted that appeals to politicians’ good nature is a waste of time. It certainly hasn’t worked with the DUP, and it won’t work. Every day since the IRA decommissioned its weapons, it’s becoming increasingly clear to everyone that the true barrier to political progress is the DUP.

Peter Hain says the clock is ticking; Paisley says they won’t be rushed into anything and thinks he can get away with it. And so he will, if the British and Irish governments don’t make clear that continuing to sit on their backsides will leave the DUP with some painful political haemorrhoids.

After last Monday’s meeting, the British and Irish governments declared that they will be pressing for political progress by April. Good. The South’s enterprise minister Micheál Martin recently declared that the British and Irish governments are committed to economically transforming the north-west border area of Ireland. Good. Given that the Good Friday Agreement was signed eight years ago, progress and transformation should have happened long ago, but let’s not dwell on the the failures of the past.

What’s needed now, as Donegal councillor Pearse Doherty says, is follow-through. The Irish and British governments must work together so that Derry and its natural Donegal hinterland can maximise their potential. Partition has penalised Donegal perhaps more than any other county in Ireland; it’s past time that county was given some of the Celtic Tiger benefits enjoyed to excess by so many in the southeast.

Similarly, if political progress is to be made, the Irish and British governments will have to indicate, by deed as well as word, that DUP stalling comes at a price. Left to themselves, Paisley and company will go on inventing excuses for turning representatives of nationalists away from the exercise of power.

What the DUP must be helped learn is that actions, or in this case inactions, have consequences. You want to sit on your bum? Fine. The Good Friday Agreement contains a lot of stuff about cross-border co-operation, so this is what it looks like when we take it seriously. You still want to sit on your bum? Fine. Local exericse of power doesn’t have to happen at Stormont - we’ve got seven, maybe six supercouncils lined up which’ll allow the great majority of nationalists to elect representatives who have access to real power at a local level, and there’ll be nothing you can do about it.

Sitting on your bum is fine, if everyone and everything around you is frozen in response to your inaction. Sitting on your bum watching the border become increasingly blurred and big sections of the map turn increasingly green may prove a lot less fine. In fact it’ll be so unfine, you'll begin to really regret not having shifted your arse while there still was a chance.

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