Wednesday 21 August 2019

It's not an agreement if no one agrees

There's to be a new First Minister in the North, but the problems remain the same

STEPPING DOWN: Northern Ireland First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson, pictured with his wife Iris, is to retire
STEPPING DOWN: Northern Ireland First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson, pictured with his wife Iris, is to retire

Eilis O'Hanlon

Gerry Adams must be feeling confused now that Peter Robinson has announced his retirement as DUP leader and First Minister.

For the benefit of the Sinn Fein president, retirement is when a man has been doing the same job for far too long and decides to stop doing it.

Still confused, Gerry? No wonder. In Northern Ireland, politicians cling to power by the fingertips. Sinn Fein has had the same leader for 32 years. Robinson's predecessor, Ian Paisley, was in his role for 37 years, making Peter's seven years in charge of his party look like a mere flash in the pan.

Since the First Minister suffered a heart attack last May, stepping down has always been a matter of when, rather than if. As soon as he made it official, the tributes began. These are a traditional part of political life, not least because politicians who say kind things in public about their lifelong enemies are hoping that the same things are said about them when they stand down. They grit their teeth, and find the right words.

The tributes to Robinson were noticeably less warm or fulsome than they were for Ian Paisley, which is strange on one level because the Free Presbyterian firebrand was… what's the description we're looking for here? A dangerous, hateful, sectarian bigot... that's it. But Big Ian cloaked it with a certain gruff charm that won over the gullible, whereas Robinson is a more complex, reserved character.

That he should be less well liked than his predecessor highlights the superficiality of Northern politics. If Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley could end up earning the nickname "The Chuckle Brothers", it raises the question why so many innocents had to die in the clash between the two forces that they represented.

Robinson never sought or gained such a nickname from his relationship with his Deputy First Minister, and that, at least, is to his credit.

Now he will likely be succeeded by Arlene Foster, who, at 45, wasn't even born when the Troubles began. Colum Eastwood, the new SDLP leader, is even younger, in his early 30s. Both represent new blood, and it will be interesting to see if those who argued that Northern Ireland would make real progress only when the older generation quit the stage were right to put faith in the redemptive value of (comparative) youth.

In her favour is the fact that Foster will take over as First Minister at the end of the year, following a new agreement reached last week between republicans and unionists on the best way forward. Or at least that's what we're being asked to believe.

It's probably churlish to spoil Peter Robinson's going-away party by suggesting the agreement he helped negotiate is just another fudge - but it looks remarkably like one, despite all the hype.

The Economist probably got it right with its headline: "The beginning of a breakthrough." That doesn't sound too bad until you remember that it's nearly two decades since the Belfast Agreement. If you keep needing new breakthroughs because the previous breakthroughs haven't worked, then they weren't really breakthroughs. Is this a breakthrough?

Presumably - we'll have to wait for the next breakthrough to find out.

The clue to what's wrong with this latest deal is that it's 60 pages long. The Belfast Agreement was only 30 pages long. In other words, after 20 years of peace, the list of obstacles is twice as long as it was at the end of the conflict.

As with those breakthroughs, if a memorandum of agreement is that long, it's because you don't really have an agreement at all, you've just decided to chuck everything but the kitchen sink in there in the hope that something will turn up later.

Even now, they managed only to reach an uneasy accord by not tackling two of the most contentious issues. The first is how to deal with the past, which is still an infected wound that's poisoning the political bloodstream. The second issue is welfare reform, which, in time-honoured Norn Iron fashion, was dealt with by passing it on to someone else.

On Friday, Sinn Fein and the DUP jointly voted to hand power over welfare back to Westminster, a move rightly slammed by the SDLP's Alex Attwood as a "grotesque abdication of political responsibility".

He's not kidding. How are you supposed to take an assembly seriously when it's handing away key financial powers to a parliament on the other side of the Irish Sea?

That Sinn Fein is prepared to do this makes a mockery of its claim to want an end to direct rule. It makes an even bigger farce of SF's pretence that it is committed to opposing austerity at the coming Irish election. Fine Gael and Labour may have made some bad calls, but at least they take ownership of them.

They're not hiding like naughty children behind the skirts of Her Majesty's government in Westminster.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss