Northern Ireland Secretary of State Paul Murphy recently
asserted that the establishment of a new monitoring
body for the Belfast Agreement and the status of paramilitary
ceasefires will be the key factor in the revival of
the devolved institutions at Stormont. As speculation
once more intensifies about a breakthrough in the
current impasse, a round of tentative discussions
between the British and Irish governments and the
major political protagonists is apparently gathering
low-key, yet significant momentum.
Since the latest unconvincing victory by David Trimble
at the last UUC meeting and the supposed banishment
of the distinctly unholy trinity of Burnside, Smyth
and Donaldson we have seen the greatest amount of
speculation about the restoration of the assembly
since its suspension almost exactly a year ago.
If we are to take for granted that Trimbles
latest survival, as it was really no more than that, is
the catalyst for the rebirth of a rigidly re-configured, unified
UUP then the path will probably cleared for some roughly
cobbled rehash of previous attempts to live out a
devolved parliament. The solidification of this latest
attempt we are told will be the new monitoring body, as
it will, according to Paul Murphy be the confidence
builder that is required to restore trust between
the political parties.
It is of great significance that the legislation for
the Northern Ireland Monitoring Commission Bill has
already passed committee stage in the Lords by 129
to 117 votes and is up for its final debate
and therefore its likely ratification in the commons
within the next few days.
Despite the fact that no one has actually been told
how the clauses of this bill will actually be enacted, on
what grounds they will be enacted, and that the bill
has been constituted and legislated for completely
outside the remit of the 1998 agreement, it has not
dampened the relish with which David Trimble and Gerry
Adams have once more engaged in face to face meetings.
This is as much official contact that they have at
least admitted to in the last twelve months.
So what has changed in the last few weeks that had
not been there in the past twelve months?
There is an automatic assumption that the people of
Northern Ireland are missing devolution
and want its return as soon as is humanly possible.
Its absence has certainly damaged the north in economic
terms as the trust felt by investors prior to its
demise has rapidly evaporated taking with it many
jobs that may have been otherwise secured. The knock
on ill effects to education, housing and health have
also been strongly exacerbated in the absence of the
greater fear is held by all those involved, especially
the political parties that the swelling apathy of
the population at large towards the missing assembly
has been too easily turned back towards the acceptance
of the return to direct rule.
The chance of loosing a new crop of first time voters
would prove anathema for to all the major political
parties involved. Also the acceptance by these parties
that since Mr. Blairs and Britains bloody
sojourn to Iraq has somewhat subsided and pending
a moratorium on the Dr. Kelly debacle, the Prime Minister
has new time and energy to devote to the solving
of the most irritating thorn in his side, that is us.
I strongly suspect that any cogent or successful progress
made here in the past few months as a direct result
of work between Sinn Fein and the UUP would have been
heralded with the loudest of fanfares by both parties.
Instead, after almost of year of seemingly intractable
differences, both parties have at the drop of a hat
announced, albeit fairly quietly, that they are ready
to try again.
The previously undisclosed introduction of the nascent
monitoring body was greeted fairly calmly by Sinn
Fein. Regarded By Gerry Adams as an unconstitutional
prerequisite to UUP re-entry the assembly, little more
than this was said. We can take this as a signal that
Sinn Fein and UUP inter-dependence on the Westminster
parliament for guidance on the way ahead has taken
the place of the howls of derision that a bill such
as this would have been previously greeted with, especially
from republicans. Tony and to a lesser extent, Bertie
have spoken, its now time to get the show on
the road again.
Common sense tells us that the introduction of this
new bill was a definite forerunner to the re-establishment
of the assembly, otherwise it would have not been manufactured
at all. Common sense should also tell us that its
manufacture is a highly sensitive spring loaded trap
door set against the republican representatives at
Stormont. For example, since a major remit of the new
body will be a ceasefire watchdog, will the body be
used to further demonize Sinn Fein and the PIRA in
the event of another highly likely implosion within
Any re-establishment of the assembly is already highly
dependent on a significant contribution from the IRA.
Understandably figures such as Gerry Adams and Martin
Mc Guinness are highly reluctant to discuss what this
may mean in real terms until they see exactly what
is on offer in the wider political arena.
Despite his electorally slender and personally precarious
hold on the UUP David Trimble is unlikely to sit back
down in the debating chamber minus full decommissioning
or at least a declaration by the PIRA that the war
is at an end, or that military struggle is to be replaced
by political struggle. In turn this will be completely
dependent on the result of an IRA general army convention, which
may not be totally prepared to fulfill the UUP wish
list, and this will only happen when the agreement
is fully implemented.
There at last appears to be a recognition of sorts
by the UUP that the PIRA is not going to vanish overnight.
Many commentators have already expended many column
inches trying to convince Trimble and his ilk that
the disbandment of the Provos may not be within
the gift of senior Sinn Fein figures or indeed the
Army Council of that organisation. Indeed it would
appear that it may actually suit Trimble to travel
this path with Adams and company, because there is
simply no way that the PIRA will let any disbandment
be construed as surrender whilst at the same time
a forcible expression of disbandment from the political
section of that movement may engender another costly
and dangerous split within the ranks of the PIRA.
This means that Sinn Fein are not only already potentially
hovering on the edge of the monitoring bills
trap door but are also unfortunately the only real
potential victims of this legislative booby trap.
We can only hope that the trap has not already been
It is also extremely indicative of the general perception
that another failure of this assembly will sound the
death knell of the agreement itself. In the event
of that happening the blame must be laid somewhere.
Hence the new monitoring body and the potential abuse
of civil rights. It is at the very least strange that
there was no trouble drafting and no popular consultation
on this legislation, but the last five years has failed
to produce the much mooted human rights bill, which
actually was part of the agreement to begin with.
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