DR SAMUEL Johnson's remarks in the 18th Century have a contemporary relevance for all those shaping the form and future of constitutional politics in Northern Ireland in the months ahead. On May 15, the Northern Ireland Assembly will meet for the first time since October, 2002. And on November 24, unless the DUP and Sinn Fein have by then agreed to share power in a restored N
DR SAMUEL Johnson's remarks in the 18th Century have a contemporary relevance for all those shaping the form and future of constitutional politics in Northern Ireland in the months ahead. On May 15, the Northern Ireland Assembly will meet for the first time since October, 2002. And on November 24, unless the DUP and Sinn Fein have by then agreed to share power in a restored Northern Ireland executive, the Assembly will be wound up, and the salaries and allowances of its 108 members will be stopped.
Will the deadline for delivery of devolved government, and the political and financial sanctions for failure concentrate minds sufficiently to produce an agreement this time? On past form, the political outlook is not encouraging, despite some positive developments last week.
One such was the latest report from the Independent Monitoring Commission, which said it was satisfied that the IRA had "committed itself to following a peaceful path". The Commission also accepted the IRA had not engaged in training, targeting or recruitment for the three months under review to last February, and that it was seeking to end criminality. However the IMC also noted that individual republicans were engaging in crime for their own ends, such as the Meath truck hijacking last month.
Another encouraging development was the DUP's attendance at the British-Irish Inter Parliamentary Body in Killarney: the first time a unionist party has participated. There the party's deputy leader, Peter Robinson said his party was willing to share power with Sinn Fein. But that was not possible, he warned, before the IRA had ended all its paramilitary and criminal activity, and before people were satisfied that the IRA cessation was permanent, and not tactical.
What was not acceptable, he said, was sharing power with a party (Sinn Fein) that was inextricably linked to those in the IRA who were "sanctioning, organising, tolerating or benefiting from such criminality". As the DUP leader, Ian Paisley, in his reaction to the IMC report said: the political parties in the Republic "should pay particular attention to the wealth at Sinn Fein/IRA's disposal and the IMC's description of it as a strategic asset". And so they should.
The SDLP leader, Mark Durkan voiced a similar concern, when he said the IRA was still using laundered money as a strategic asset. "In an Ireland of equals nobody can be allowed to buy democracy with the proceeds of crime." In other words the proceeds of IRA crime cannot be used to finance Sinn Fein's political advance, either north or south.
The obstacles to Sinn Fein's participation in a Northern Ireland executive are largely self-imposed. The republican movement can remove the impediments to power, and to the restoration of devolved government at Stormont, should it so choose. One such impediment is the continued existence of the IRA, which has not disbanded, and which provides cover for some republicans to engage in criminal activities. The other is Sinn Fein's refusal to sign up to policing, by supporting the PSNI as the sole enforcer of law in Northern Ireland. The party refuses to do so, while demanding the devolution of policing powers to a restored executive.
For the IRA to disband and for Sinn Fein to sign up to policing would do much to restore trust and confidence, among unionists and nationalists. It would also make it far harder for the DUP to reject Sinn Fein as unfit for government in those circumstances. The IRA's slow progress towards politics by exclusively peaceful means, as recorded in the IMC report, is a necessary step in the right direction. But as yet it is not nearly a sufficient step towards ensuring that agreement can be reached, and the Northern Ireland executive restored, by the November deadline.