Tuesday 12 November 2019

Sam Smyth: Same old story in North but with a different cast

Sam Smyth

TWO weeks ago, Peter Robinson looked like a beaten docket, taking quality time out to care for his ailing, cheating wife while he considered his position as first minister for Northern Ireland.

Yesterday, he was strutting around Stormont as born-again king, awaiting the Taoiseach and British prime minister, who had dropped everything to meet him.

His ace card was a demand that the Parades Commission be abolished as a pay-off for agreeing to the devolution of policing and justice.

Robinson has greedily seized back all the authority of his office as first minister.

Earlier in the afternoon, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness looked gaunt and frustrated as he emerged after only 35 minutes from talks with Robinson aimed at saving the power-sharing executive.

The body language of McGuinness was swearing loudly that abolition of the Parades Commission was not on, although a compromise may be brokered to break the impasse.

We have been here before, of course. The world holds its breath while the political leaders in the North are cajoled and coaxed by the two governments.

Through the years, a US president or secretary of state would lard the political leaders with flattery and money. Now and then, comforting noises and a financial contribution would emanate from the EU.

Yesterday, the panic button was pressed again when Brian Cowen and Gordon Brown flew from London to Belfast -- same old routine with a new cast.

Ian Paisley, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern are history and Gerry Adams was standing behind McGuinness, who stood centre-stage with Robinson, Cowen and Brown.

Last night, there was hope that the new players could defuse the first crisis of 2010 but old hatreds and distrust die hard in the North.

The governments in Dublin and London look back nostalgically to the Chuckle Brothers who morphed into the Brothers Grimm when Robinson replaced Paisley beside McGuinness.

Paisley and McGuinness were wreathed in smiles when they were first and deputy first ministers but their easy relationship offended hard-line unionists.

Just last weekend, Paisley revealed that he said prayers for McGuinness's mother when she was dying.

"I did the praying while he did the listening," he recalled at an interview in Queens University.

Robinson has kept a very formal and frosty relationship with McGuinness, although he did shake hands with him recently.

McGuinness privately offered sympathy and support to Robinson while he was running a media gauntlet after news of his wife Iris's infidelity and questionable financial dealing had hit the headlines.

The DUP -- and most unionists of all hues -- deeply dislike Adams, whom they see as arrogant and distant, always keeping both eyes on his place in history.

Adams' own family difficulties, over his brother Liam's alleged sexual abuse of his daughter, have embarrassed him and Sinn Fein but are unlikely to impact on the current political crisis.

By contrast, many unionists, including DUP MPs, privately say that they personally like McGuinness.

It seems that unionists can suspend their hostility to McGuinness, a one-time IRA commander in Derry and a member of the ruling army council, and say they can do business with him.

Adams makes a point of speaking Irish on any public occasion and is from a traditional Republican family that has paraded its colours for two generations.

McGuinness's family was never involved in politics, he never uses the Irish language, is pro-EU and he didn't even campaign in the Republic for a 'No' vote on Lisbon.

But doing business with any Republican is not easy for the DUP and Robinson sees every problem with their government partners as another opportunity for victory.

After McGuinness designated yesterday's one-to-one meeting with Robinson as crucial, the fact that it barely lasted for half-an-hour was a public humiliation for Sinn Fein and the deputy first minister.

Robinson is an extremely shrewd political strategist and sees an opportunity to sideline his rivals for the leadership of the DUP by making a bid for the leadership of unionism.

An election pact with the UUP before the Westminster election would be the sort of bold move that would increase the number of unionist seats and put Sinn Fein seriously on the back foot.

But Robinson's cold-eyed strategy has revived fears among many nationalists that little has changed in 40 years of the Troubles and that the North will always be a cold house for Catholics.

It has also tightened Sinn Fein's grip on the nationalist vote as the best choice to stand up to Unionists.

Who would ever have believed that Northern nationalists would one day look back fondly on Paisley as the moderate and reasonable face of unionism?

Jim Allister and his ultra-extremist Traditional Unionist Voice is the fallback position for unionism if Robinson is cast aside.

It is a chilling prospect and a grim reminder that history in the North does indeed repeat itself.

Irish Independent

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