‘What next for Northern Ireland?’ by David Ford

By David Ford, Leader of the Alliance Party

THE front page headline in Wednesday’s Belfast Telegraph said exactly what many of us were thinking after the collapse of the much-heralded UUP/Sinn Fein deal: “What next?”

After the governmental hype and spin surrounding the two party talks, expectations were raised. But instead of a breakthrough, there was a breakdown. While secret deals often fall apart, the blame must lie with those who thought that a quick fix could be formulated between the balaclavas and the bowler hats alone.

Alliance and the other pro-Agreement parties that were excluded have made a positive contribution to politics. When the two governments handed over responsibility to the two problem parties in the faint hope that they could come up with something, they excluded those who were capable of spotting potential pitfalls and who might come up with creative solutions.

Equally, there is a need to move away from ambiguity, ‘constructive’ or otherwise. If the IRA is going to put arms beyond use, they should do it in a manner that clearly maximises public confidence.

A deal sealed by all will prove much more durable than a half-baked plan cooked up by the UUP and Sinn Fein. That’s how we made the Agreement. Let’s hope that the two governments have learned this lesson.

Even if the deal had succeeded, there is no guarantee it would have resulted in a return to Stormont: we might still be asking: “What next?” After all, there is nothing to suggest that a ‘shared understanding’ between the UUP and Sinn Fein would be acceptable to the rest of the parties.

Alliance was disappointed that unionism – yet again – hung itself on the decommissioning hook, while republicans conveniently forgot that democrats like ourselves have moved beyond demands that the IRA state ‘the war is over’. We need to look at all the issues contained in Paragraph 13 of the Joint Declaration.

The UUP has concentrated on high-profile incidents such as Colombia and Castlereagh. Alliance also wants an end to the kneecappings of Catholics in republican areas, a total end to exiling, intimidation, disappearances and organised rioting. Sinn Fein has indicated that it is now “opposed to any use or threat of force for any political purpose”. I hope the IRA, which said this reflects their position, remembers this when dealing with republicans who disagree with its strategy.

Last October, Tony Blair made it clear that the time for any transition had long since passed and that republicans had to make a clear choice between democracy and violence. In the spring, the two governments were quite explicit in the definition of all paramilitary activity, and Alliance wants to ensure that there is no sidestepping of ‘acts of completion’. No window should be left open for them to continue their unlawful activities on the streets.

Simply put, Alliance wants to see an end to all terrorist and associated criminal activities, whether loyalist or republican, and we have no regrets for proposing an Independent Monitoring Commission to shine a spotlight on groups that disregard democratic and peaceful means.

If an acceptable deal is eventually reached, there is still nothing to suggest that an Executive could be formed, even if the UUP remained the largest unionist party. The problem of the use of divisive designations by MLAs remains. There is a real chance that we will see the next generation of Assembly members sleepwalking into yet another crisis on their first day in office.

Without a collective effort, the result will be failure. What we need to do now is to reclaim this process on behalf of the entire community. The two governments must take the lead in this by getting a Comprehensive Review of the Agreement up and running.

Although republicans may claim that the Agreement is set in stone, this review is part of the Agreement and is critical for future stability.

Much trust and confidence has evaporated from the political process in recent days, reflected in dashed hopes and a public apathy that could reduce election turnout to a trickle.

There must be no more quick fixes. No more ‘sticking plaster’ politics. No more secret side deals. Unless the politicians get together round the table, make a collective effort to break this logjam and make a real deal, Northern Ireland could become the new byword for political limbo.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *