The peace process is in a hole, but the Governments are still digging. And David Burnside and Jeffrey Donaldson have walked right in.
Both anti-Agreement MPs are in for a major disappointment if they think walking away from the peace process is going to get us anywhere.
What they seem to forget, or rather choose to ignore, is that Northern Ireland is a deeply divided society. There are Unionists, Nationalists, and a growing number of other people who don’t want anything to do with the two tribes.
Any peace process and political agreement needs cross-community support if it has a chance of working. If we are all to live together in a shared society, then we must learn to understand the other side and be prepared to compromise. Compromise is not a dirty word.
The Good Friday Agreement remains the best way forward. No one can expect to get their own way all the time. There are even parts of the Agreement that Alliance finds hard to swallow. But it was a good start, and a platform on which we can build.
However, implementation has been a mess. We have now spent more time trying to implement the Agreement than actually negotiating it. Too many parties have been allowed to evade their commitments, most notably over decommissioning. Meanwhile on our streets there is a real law and order problem.
Surely now is the time for positive leadership. The Agreement remains the only show in town. It is not up for renegotiation – just full implementation. Let’s focus on getting it right, and put the old arguments over arms and policing behind us once and for all.
As I said on Thursday, Jeffrey Donaldson is off his rocker if he thinks his approach will solve anything. He says he wants to go back to square one and only negotiate with the British government. What makes him think that Tony Blair will want to negotiate with him?
Any process is going to involve all the parties, including Sinn Fein. The Governments won’t have it any other way. Fresh talks will not produce anything much different from our current Agreement. Whether it is this week, in six months, or even ten years, we will still find ourselves back at this point. That is the harsh reality Jeffrey and David have to face up to.
So what are their real motives? Surely they don’t seriously believe a return to the bad old days of Unionist majority rule is possible.
During the recent election, David Trimble said a vote for David Burnside was a vote for him. Today, as he removes the knife from his back, I hope he is reconsidering this statement.
Running away from the process accomplishes nothing. It didn’t work for Jeffrey in the final hours of Good Friday 1998, and when he abandoned the process again on Thursday, he only made a bad situation worse.
But the Governments should take their share of responsibility for this situation. The delay in the publication of the peace package has only given people like Donaldson and Burnside the opportunity to wreck things.
While the failure of the Weston Park Talks was not unexpected, the Governments should have published their package in the aftermath of those discussions.
The Governments said the negotiations were over and the package would be presented on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis. Immediately, a big danger was evident: one or more parties would come back with ‘Yes – but…’ questions seeking further explanations. What would the Governments do in these circumstances – resume negotiations?
But the slowness in producing the document has only fuelled suspicions that more discussions are going on behind the scenes to ‘fine-tune’ the document. On top of this, almost all parties have been involved in a media ‘bidding-war’, stating what they will and won’t accept. Donaldson and Burnside seized the opportunity.
The situation may be bleak, but it is not terminal. While politicians grandstand, pipe bombers and rioters are trying to take us back to the darkest days of the Troubles.
However, it is not too late to put things right.
If this peace process is to survive, two things are clear – trust must be re-established and everyone must live up to their responsibilities in the Agreement.
We must all consider the package as a whole and with an open mind. It will involve pain and gain for all sides, if it is to have a chance of succeeding. But all sides must reflect and realise that it is only through compromise that we can have the peace and stability that the people voted for in 1998.