News Liz O’Donnell

Friday 30 September 2016

North's leaders need to grow up and govern

Why ordinary people in Northern Ireland are fed up with jaded arguments based on historical grievances

Published 20/09/2015 | 02:30

Then taoiseach Bertie Ahern and prime minister Tony Blair meet the media in 1998 after the bones of the Good Friday Agreement were laid out
Then taoiseach Bertie Ahern and prime minister Tony Blair meet the media in 1998 after the bones of the Good Friday Agreement were laid out

RTÉ's Tommy Gorman is back on our screens every evening these days, against the familiar backdrop of Stormont. His task, for which he retains admirable enthusiasm, is the painstaking analysis of the never-ending fluctuations in the peace process. Like a political weather man, he forecasts and assesses the depth and gravity of the most recent crisis in Northern Ireland.

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The project of ending conflict and bedding down peace in the North has been a protracted affair. Although the Good Friday Agreement was finalised at Easter 1998, it took almost ten years for the power sharing Executive to stabilise and for arms to be decommissioned. Since then, the functioning of the devolved institutions has been erratic and peppered with frequent discord between unionists and republicans.

The governments have been called in regularly to resolve stand-offs. The Americans, too, have invested enormous time and advice in helping to overcome difficulties. The Haass proposals published after lengthy consultation and mediation two years ago about flags, parades and how to deal with the "past" were ultimately rejected despite containing some excellent ideas, particularly on victims.

However, this time one senses a public fatigue and even frustration that these parties and politicians in Northern Ireland are hopelessly incapable of sorting out their issues. How many times have we been over the same territory about the bona fides of Sinn Féin and their fitness or otherwise for office? Vox pops with ordinary members of the public in Northern Ireland in particular reveal a scathing disregard and disappointment with their elected representatives. The public are not obsessed with the old arguments about Sinn Féin's unsavoury paramilitary past. They appear to be over that.

What does concern most people North and South is the current behaviour of republicans and their capacity as distinct from their fitness to govern. Arguably this capacity and competence question is more important to both communities in Northern Ireland at this stage than the old vexed questions about the legacy of loyalist and republican paramilitaries.

The latest crisis was precipitated by a concern expressed by the PSNI that members of the IRA were involved in two killings and that the IRA retained a command structure. This understandably spooked unionists and unsettled the general public, prompting the resignations of both UUP and DUP members from their ministerial positions. Despite consistent denials by Sinn Féin that the IRA has "gone away" and the release of three senior republicans - including Bobby Storey of Sinn Féin - without charge, there is a risk that the institutions will collapse because of unionist withdrawal.

However, there was a political impasse quite apart from the suggested IRA involvement in the killings of Kevin McGuigan and Jock Davison. The long-standing row over welfare reform has rumbled on for over a year, at a huge cost in fines imposed from Westminster. The row has obstructed government cooperation and poisoned relations in the Executive. For this reason it could be said, with some validity by nationalists, that this latest "crisis" is contrived and opportunistic, with the UUP and DUP jockeying for electoral advantage.

Contrived or not, the crisis exists and urgent talks are needed to get the Executive back functioning. My own view is that it is a reasonable proposition, in order to soothe jitters, to have an updated independent assessment of loyalist and republican paramilitary activity. It is in nobody's interest in Northern Ireland for there to be questions over the existence of paramilitary groups involved in criminality, racketeering, and money laundering. The International Monitoring Commission, which lasted for seven years and was wound up in 2011, or a similar body, could be acceptable to all sides as a way out of the current impasse. What harm would it do to have renewed monitoring of such criminal activity?

Few people would have expected that any semblance of paramilitary activity, however "inert" would be coexisting with a functioning Assembly and Executive when we have come so far in bedding down the peace and normal politics in Northern Ireland. To be fair, Sinn Féin Leader Gerry Adams was amenable this week to a Monitoring Commission in the context of the talks next week. He and Martin McGuinness have been emphatic in condemning the murders and in stating their party's total commitment to democratic politics and peace. This will be helpful to ease unionist qualms and save the institutions.

The progress brought about by peace and stability in Northern Ireland should never be underestimated. But most people would have expected much more "normality" by now. They would expect greater competence from their elected leaders in running a devolved administration, responsible for policing, justice and delivery of vital services. The sight of politicians grandstanding and posturing like in the early days of the talks and calling on the two governments to come to the rescue has become tiresome and indicative of political immaturity.

This week, I watched a compelling BBC Northern Ireland television documentary which focused on the plight of victims of the 40-year conflict. Much is spoken about those who died violently in bombings and shootings. Less is spoken about those who were seriously injured and permanently disabled, most of them innocent civilians.

Two young women, sisters, going for a cup of coffee in the Abercorn restaurant in Belfast 40 years ago who had their limbs blown off by a bomb left under a table by two female members of the IRA. A woman blinded at 21 who tearfully claimed that had she known how she would suffer in her life from her injuries, she would have preferred to die. A young civil servant shot by loyalists in a botched armed attack. They got the wrong man. He has spent 20 years in a wheelchair paralysed from the neck down.

Hearing their stories of chronic pain, disability and poverty was instructive. And they were just a small sample of many more. The fact that legislation to give them a pension as victims has been stalled by disagreement in Stormont is a shocking indictment of politics in Northern Ireland. This is precisely the type of practical issue that should have been long ago sorted out by proper politicians focused on the present rather than constantly on the past.

Voters in Northern Ireland are entitled to expect their elected politicians to get on with governing and build confidence in the economy to generate inward investment and job creation. Ordinary people are fed up hearing the same jaded arguments based on historical grievance, recrimination and tribal politics. They deserve better after all they have been through. Government hand-holding has gone on too long. The party leaders in Northern Ireland need to grow up, move on and govern.

Irish Independent

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