The dawning of a new era?

by David Granville

(A slightly edited version of the article below was originally published in the Morning Star newspaper a few days before the restoration of the Stormont assembly)

A FEW months s back I suggested, somewhat tentatively, that developments within Irish republicanism and growing pressure from the British government, particularly the threat of joint British/Irish authority, would eventually convince Paisley and the DUP leadership of the need to throw off the outward trappings of sectarian, backward-looking unionism and to adopt a new political creed embracing devolved power-sharing and political pragmatism.

That said, it's perhaps only fair to admit that I was never 100 per cent sure that the DUP leader would go for it, or that if he did he'd have been able to take what had become an increasingly fractious and divided party with him.

Even now, though the all the signs are positive, part of me still isn't, and I doubt whether I'm alone.

Although devolution wasn't achieved on the 26th, nor was the dissolution of the Stormont assembly as was threatened by the Blair government. What we got instead was Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams, on behalf of the DUP and Sinn Fein, sitting side by side and unequivocally pledging themselves to power sharing.

With this historic about turn on the part of what had been, until then, the dominant component of 'rejectionist' unionism, Sinn Fein, and not for the first time, had the good political sense to keep their eyes on the bigger picture by agreeing to a six week delay. As Sinn Fein MP and assembly member for Newry/Armagh Conor Murphy informed a briefing meting at the House of Commons in mid-April, the delay had been necessary in order to ensure DUP unity.

Paisley's success in maintaining party unity appears, so far at least, to have been a success. The number of resignations resulting from the DUP's volte face on power sharing has been minimal - the most prominent to ship out being rejectionist MEP Jim Allister, who in the months prior to the 26 March deadline had been busy positioning himself as a contender to succeed Paisley as party leader.

Without getting all W.B. Yeatsian and declaring that things have "All changed, changed utterly..." (besides, it is worth remembering that Yeats ended up writing marching songs for the Irish fascists, the Blueshirts) no one should doubt the significance in terms of a return to the stalled Good Friday process of what took place on 26 March and the fact that this now looks certain to lead to full devolution on 8 May.

Things may not have changed utterly, certainly in terms of partition or the financial control that the Westminster government will continue to hold over developments in the six counties, but things have changed none-the-less, and significantly so.

Only a few months ago few would have predicted with any confidence that nominations for the new assembly executive would have been tabled and agreed by the DUP, Sinn Fein, UUP and SDLP in April, or that the two top positions, first minister and deputy first minister would be occupied by the DUP's Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness. The executive appointments are to be confirmed by when the full assembly re-convenes on 8 May.

Or, for that matter, that one of the first acts to be carried out by the prospective first and deputy first ministers would be to send a joint letter to direct-rule minister Peter Hain asking him to pack his bags and vacate Stormont in preparation for the power-sharing executive to take up its devolved responsibilities.

Since then there has been a joint delegation to visit labour chancellor Gordon Brown to demand that the British exchequer provides the levels of financial support necessary to combat decades of financial under-investment under direct rule and the legacy of a society emerging from a period of bitter and protracted conflict - a demand which the leader-in-waiting of the British Labour Party is reported to have treated with an unconcealed degree of indifference. A similar visit was also organised to the EU headquarters in Brussels.

As if to complete the positive 'mood music' there's even been a joint letter sent to Crossmaglen GAA congratulating the team's gaelic football team on its victory in the recent all-Ireland Gaelic football final and news that the DUP leader has accepted an invitation from Irish taoiseach Bertie Ahern to visit the site of the battle of the Boyne in May.

The Boyne battlefield, in County Meath in the twenty six counties, marks the spot where the armies of the then recently installed British monarch, Dutch Protestant, William of Orange, defeated the army of the ousted former Catholic monarch James II. The rest, as they say is history.

With all this 'love bombing' going on one wonders whether the taoiseach, who will soon be facing the twenty-six county electorate, will take the opportunity to point out to Mr Paisley that the Vatican was on the same side as William of Orange at the battle or that the Pope ordered special masses held in Rome to celebrate his victory? Probably not.

As a precursor to the re-establishment of the Good Friday institutions and the day-to-day graft of getting down to implementing the equality agenda set out in the Good Friday deal, of ensuring that the assembly does all in its power to attend to the needs of the people of the six counties so far as housing, health, economic and community development and education are concerned, it's a case of so far, so good. There's clearly a long way to go.

Although broad agreement has emerged on the issue of direct rule attempts to introduce water charges and the need for massively improved levels of funding from the British exchequer, there's still plenty of scope for disagreement - especially over the abolition of the elitist 11plus exam, which the DUP wish to retain, policing issues or the proposals for local government reform.

As Ian Paisley himself commented on the day he finally committed himself and his party to power sharing, it's going to be a "work-in, not a love-in".

But then, this is approaching politics as we know it - not perfect in terms of a class perspective, but a big improvement on unionist dictatorship, bloody conflict or the overt colonialism of direct rule.

Yet, before anyone gets too euphoric, it's worth remembering that British troop levels in Northern Ireland, though planned to fall to 5,000 by 1 August, remain higher than those in Iraq and around the same as are currently stationed in Afghanistan - two more recent glaring examples of British colonial misadventure and aggression.

Details of collusion between British security forces and loyalist paramilitary groups increase with each passing month. Though heavily infiltrated by the security forces, these groups remain worryingly active, unstable and armed.

The UVF's recent statement declaring an end to its armed campaign and giving a commitment to assume a non-military, 'civilianised' role is certainly welcome, though it remains deeply worrying that there are no plans to give up or destroy its armoury.

On the republican side, a number of tiny and politically insignificant, but armed, dissident groups have also shown that they are capable of major acts of violence. Despite growing levels of co-operation on a practical and pragmatic all-Ireland basis in many spheres of activity, including sport, culture and, importantly, the economy co-operation and development, the disastrous and illegal partition of Ireland by Britain remains in place ultimate political and economic power continues to reside, not at Stormont or in Brussels, but at Westminster.

For those of us who wish to see an end to Britain's colonial involvement in Ireland it is important to remain focussed on the actions and responsibilities of our government, the British government.

While the completion of Ireland's democratic revolution would undoubtedly be in the best interests of working people in Britain and Ireland and it is right to support those working for progressive change, our immediate task remains to ensure that our government shoulders its responsibility in terms of the Good Friday agreement.

It must also be to ensure that it is not allowed to wriggle free from the responsibilty for creating the whole sorry mess brought about by partition and the decades of sectarian misrule, conflict, murder, mayhem and military occupation which followed.

However, in doing so, it is important to avoid any temptation to meddle directly in Irish politics by being overly proscriptive concerning the best political solution for our comrades, friends and neighbours across the Irish Sea.

It's up to the people of Ireland, the forces of national democracy north and south, to determine their own political future - not for us to tell them how it should be determined - that would be just another form of colonialism. Unfortunately, it's a basic principal of anti-imperialist solidarity which many left groups and parties have had difficulty in adhering to.

One of the most effective acts of solidarity we here in Britain could engage would be to put our own house in order, something which we have patently failed to do as the obscenity of New Labour reminds us almost daily. Now, that would be the dawning of a new era.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2007-05-17 10:01:54.
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