Tuesday 27 September 2016

Sinn Fein's 1916 game betrays West Belfast

Thousands of Northern citizens pay the price for the Southern follies of Gerry Adams

Published 20/09/2015 | 02:30

STRATEGY: Gerry Adams at the City North Hotel as Sinn Fein meets to plan the new political term. Photo: Steve Humphreys
STRATEGY: Gerry Adams at the City North Hotel as Sinn Fein meets to plan the new political term. Photo: Steve Humphreys

I tend not to talk or write about the politics of the Northern Ireland conflict, having grown up in the North during 'The Troubles'.

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"The Troubles" is a particularly Irish euphemism: in reality it was a war.

I can still remember the sounds of the first bomb I ever heard. And to this day there are back roads at home that I can't drive alone after dark because of terrifying childhood recollections of British army, IRA and UDR checkpoints and the knowledge of the murders that took place on or near them.

But I count myself blessed that my family and I were not among the 7,000 parents who lost a child, the 15,000 who lost a sibling or the 3,000 who lost a spouse.

In all, the Troubles, which claimed almost 4,000 lives, are estimated to have created 500,000 victims, classified by experts as those people directly affected by bereavement, physical injury and trauma.

Given the intractable nature of the political violence, as well as the trauma experienced by so many, the path to peace and reconciliation was never going to be easy - there's a reason why it is called a process.

But the real tragedy, 21 years after the IRA ceasefire and almost 18 years after the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, is that the people of Northern Ireland are being held hostage.

They are being held hostage to Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adam's vainglorious plan to govern on both sides of border by the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 2016.

They are being held hostage by a refusal of the Unionist leadership, riven by internal hostilities and homegrown scandals, to share Northern Ireland with their Catholic brethren, to share power rather than share out spoils.

And they have been let down badly by the British and Irish Governments (the co-guarantors of the Belfast agreement) that succeeded Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern.

Northern Ireland was staring down the barrel of a major crisis long before the assassination of former IRA gunman Kevin McGuigan brought the North's Executive to the brink.

Its political institutions and economy are not fit for purpose and its people are disengaged, dangerously so.

One-in-four young people is unemployed and more than 50pc of 17 to 25-year-olds are not registered on the electoral roll.

For those that have jobs in Northern Ireland, their wages trail behind the UK by as much as 30pc and only 50pc of eligible adults say they are 'certain' they will vote.

Northern Ireland relies heavily on subventions from David Cameron's Tory government that is, it should be noted, happy to outsource low-pay services such as call centres to its troublesome Achilles heel.

Northern Ireland has, despite its difficulties, attracted decent levels of inward investment in recent years.

But its annual income is £13.6bn. And with an annual expenditure of £22.7bn, that leaves the North with an effective deficit of £9.1bn, more than the Republic of Ireland has ever had in any single year.

But the North nurses its deficit in the absence of leadership and with tough calls being made, such as cuts in public sector pay or revenue- raising measures such as our universally despised Universal Social Charge.

Of this fiscal nightmare, it is spending on welfare - some £8.4bn comprised in the main of benefits and pensions - that is the most controversial.

This has lead to credible threats from the British Government that it will impose welfare reforms if the assembly does not, a move that would get Sinn Fein off the welfare hook but raises serious questions about its ability to govern anywhere.

Despite the inescapable fact that Northern Ireland is a society emerging from conflict, arguments that the North is a "special case" are increasingly falling on deaf ears.

Mr Adams - who in my view abandoned his constituents of Catholic, working class West Belfast when he ran successfully for election in Louth four years ago - complains that the British Government is attacking the ability of the political institutions, including the North's executive, to deliver for its citizens.

That is partly true.

However, the reality is that it is the North's Executive, unsupported by its State sponsors, has failed to deliver for its citizens through a chronic inability to make any critical decisions on issues ranging from welfare to corporation tax, desegregation of housing and education as well as dealing with the past and reconciliation.

The absence of leadership and decision-making within a political system that presses the buttons of sectarianism and fear and eschews evidence for ideology, is crippling Northern Ireland.

As a result, much of its divided communities are dealing with abject levels of poverty, now a much bigger oppressor than sectarianism, as Susan McKay's harrowing series in the Irish Times illustrated last week.

It's not that politicians have not tried: First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (a man I laterally have huge admiration for) were close to a deal on welfare reform.

But the deal foundered last year amid claims that Mr Adams personally vetoed it. Sinn Fein denied Mr McGuinness had reached any agreement with Mr Robinson and rejected claims by Alex Attwood, a senior SDLP politician, that Mr Adams "pulled the carpet from under Martin".

But the dispute, coupled by the failure to reach a deal, did little to allay suspicions that Mr Adams wields de facto control over the North whilst gunning for a senior role in government in the South.

Mr Adams' primary (I would say only) duty is to the Belfast Agreement, to peace and reconciliation for all of the North's citizens before any notions of border polls and United Irelands are entertained.

But he walked off the pitch early to try and secure power in both jurisdictions in time for the 1916 centenary, in my view, placing his legacy and vanity before the needs and desires of those who put him in power in the first place.

Reminiscent of Bertie Ahern's long, drawn out valedictorian march out of office, the people of Northern Ireland are being held hostage to Mr Adams' ambitions for All-Ireland glory by Easter next year.

It's all about the South for Mr Adams, the Tungsten Taoiseach in waiting who seems impervious - like Tungsten, the world's hardest known chemical - to any scandal that surrounds him.

The irony is that Mr Adams' legacy from combatant to peacemaker has already been secured.

The tragedy is that thousands are paying the price for his 1916 follies.

Sunday Independent

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