Wisdom of letting North's two tribes settle differences
The two-government roadshow is running out of steam in the latest peace bid, says John-Paul McCarthy
Published 19/01/2014 | 02:30
There was an interesting exchange in the Dail last week between the Tanaiste and the Sinn Fein TD Sean Crowe.
Crowe complained about the suggestion in some quarters that the Irish and British governments had adopted "a sort of ambiguous role" in the Haass talks in Northern Ireland, and that "they were actually hard-hearted in regard to their involvement and were stepping back".
The Tanaiste replied without missing a beat, and reminded his questioner that "the deputy must remember this process was initiated in Northern Ireland ... It was always intended that these would be talks between the parties in Northern Ireland."
The Tanaiste's emphasis on the role of the Northern Ireland parties themselves helps us take stock somewhat of the merits of the so-called intergovernmental approach to the remaining problems surrounding parades, symbols and the like.
Sinn Fein can never get enough of the two-governments roadshow, if only because it rather flatters their ancestral belief that Northern Ireland is a failed political entity that requires firm handling from outside.
The intergovernmental approach may well be the next best thing to joint authority over Northern Ireland, this being one of the three options canvassed by the New Ireland Forum report in 1983.
But it is worth auditing the record of the two governments over the last few years.
It is not as if they have always displayed a sure touch.
Think back to Easter 1998 just before the Good Friday Agreement was published.
Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair famously asked senator George Mitchell to present, in his own name, a joint paper on north-south co-operation that had been written by Ahern and Blair themselves in London.
Mitchell reluctantly went along with this wheeze, knowing full well though that mainstream unionism could never accept the elaborate constellation of north-south bodies Ahern had somehow managed to extract from Blair.
As is well known today, Ahern had to tear up that paper in the end and fly personally to Belfast to negotiate directly with the Ulster Unionist Party to keep them from collapsing the process for fear of having another Sunningdale smash-up.
Think too of the decommissioning saga as it was handled by the two governments.
Neither the British nor the Irish covered themselves with glory here either. The unionists were never really convinced that Blair and his chief of staff Jonathan Powell ever fully understood the scale of their fears about allowing a mafia-style situation to develop in Northern Ireland whereby one faction in a local executive retained a private arsenal and army.
Few outside observers could make sense of the Irish government's behaviour either.
They remained committed in principle to "de Chastelain", that is to say, to the decommissioning process, were wary about the British or the Bush administrations' methods of pressurising the paramilitaries into doing what was required here.
Things looked even stranger when people recalled the fact that a huge amount of the IRA's arsenal was actually buried illegally in the Republic itself, a fact that should have made the Irish government the hardliners on decommissioning if only to show they were masters in their own house.
Instead they allowed the process to drag on for years, for fear of splitting an already fragmented IRA.
Another way to understand the Tanaiste's reply above is to see it as a call to let the main players get on with things themselves.
After all, the major parties in Northern Ireland understand each other more intimately than any of the parties in the Dail.
The various factions in Northern Ireland write about each other with more insight and elan than anybody else.
The best critiques of modern unionism come out of UIster itself.
We have, for example, Lord Bew's imperishable doctrine of "stupid unionism", this being the thread within that community that struggles to capitalise on objective advantage.
We also have Arthur Aughey's critique of unionism's poor presentational skills.
Writing in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in his book Under Siege (1989), Aughey wondered if "the idea of the Union has suffered not so much because of inherent defect or because of the stupidity, ineptness and intellectual sloth of those who for one reason or another, were presumed to have their defence in charge".
And the debate about the limitations of Irish nationalism and the pan-nationalist front has been at its sharpest in Northern Ireland too.
Think of the ex-IRA volunteer Anthony McIntyre's blistering critique of the Adams-McGuinness "peace strategy", or his hardnosed book on the collapse of the republican project, Good Friday: The Death of Republicanism.
We cannot really match these kinds of exchanges down here, and as such, the Tanaiste is justified in batting away talk of more interventions, summitry and "optics".
Like Amos Oz in the Israeli context, the Tanaiste spoke last week like someone who knew instinctively that he was facing not some misunderstanding, but "a clash between one very powerful claim and another".