They terrify me… Stormont and the return of devolution May 8, 2007Posted by WorldbyStorm in Democratic Unionist Party, Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, Ulster.
“I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but, by God, they terrify me.” … or so goes a quote attributed to the Duke of Wellington about his own troops. Was there something of that at today’s events in Stormont? The good humour appeared unforced, the palpable delight on the part of Blair and Ahern evident. But beyond that a certain sense that they were still not quite, not yet, prepared to believe that there amongst them was Ian Paisley? And also a degree of – well, not terror – wariness as to how things might go. Not that they thought things would go wrong, but rather that somewhere somehow someone, and that someone having the initials IP, would speak with perhaps a little more frankness than the day required.
It passed without incident. Choreographed probably to within an inch of it’s life. A number of small issues around the edges. Seamus Mallon AWOL, David Trimble working on his barge?
So there they are. McGuinnes, Ahern, Blair, Hain and Ian Paisley. Even the seating is revealing. Although I was impressed that Paisley and McGuinness sat beside each other during the speeches. Did they look entirely happy? They certainly did not. Did they look antagonistic. Well no, they didn’t. To be honest they looked businesslike, although perhaps McGuinness is a little bit retiring in his current incarnation – but then again, who isn’t when set against a Paisley who caught off-mike asked “I don’t know why people hate me, I’m such a nice man!” ?
And now Stormont is back up and running.
This seems to be a real step forward, very simply because it seems the only serious way for something like normal politics to manifest itself in the North and then on the island as a whole. That depends upon an engagement between Unionism and Republicanism both on the macro and micro level, people getting to know each other, to work together and to make the sorts of connections, develop the sort relationships which engender trust.
It’s education in other words, which to my mind is at the root of socialist thinking. Education, engagement, progress are the means by which we change a society. Hence my aversion to an over emphasis on purity of philosophy or ideology. Those have proven to be poor substitutes in the past for real progress. There is no evidence they would work in the future.
But if one is to recognise the utility of pragmatism, then it’s necessary to be uncynically and realistically pragmatic. Interesting to hear Edwin Poots, DUP Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure about how ‘excited’ he was. To be honest there was a lack of spin in his comments, an openness which may well be a good sign. These are ordinary people who have suddenly after extremely rigid political positions been thrust into positions of responsibility. Perhaps too ordinary. It will be interesting to follow Mr. Poots progress in that Ministry over the next number of months.
But, let’s drag this south of the border for a while. How does this play on an electoral level? David Davin-Power said something very interesting on the news today, that Fine Gael were concerned because the Bertiegate issue wasn’t playing with voters. I’ve warned (well, that’s a bit pompous of me, sure who’s listening?), I’ve suggested that there is a terrible level of complacency amongst the opposition if they think that Fianna Fáil are a spent force. Ever since the first election I truly remember (I have a vivid memory of being in a shoe shop in Coolock when the 1977 results were coming in, and yes, I remember Seamus Brennan’s voice too *shudder*) I’ve learned never to underestimate them as a force. Another anecdote. The first year I was working with the WP I remember meeting an old school mate who was a member of Fianna Fáil. He took one look at the WP leaflets in my hand and laughed, then pointed out that FF were the real party of the working class. Problem is, it was – and is – very largely true. No other political formation has such strong roots into the urban and rural working classes. These days, there is some competition in the shape of parts of Labour, Sinn Féin, the Socialist Party and some of the Independents. Yet the party with the largest share of the working class vote remains FF and that share gives it enormous power.
So, already Bertiegate has no traction. We have seen the FF poll rating go up slightly, Friday will tell us more as to whether that is a sustained increase. FF can call upon a growing sympathy, and now at the very moment Ahern needs it he has photocalls aplenty to point to. Wait until the Boyne and the symbolism of the First Minister of Northern Ireland and the Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland. Even today the Lemass/O’Neill meeting in the 1960s has tremendous symbolic importance. Who is to say that the Boyne meeting won’t be as significant? And it doesn’t go downhill from there because next up it’s the Houses of Parliament in London.
One thing that came through extremely clearly was the genuine camaraderie between Ahern and Blair. This isn’t a matter of calling in favours. This is their joint victory lap. And that it coincides with an election, one that has proven ‘difficult’ so far? Well, all the better.
At the same time, the actions of the Progressive Democrats has been odd and this is a real problem for Fianna Fáil, if only because it breaches the monolithic, well nearly monolithic, facade of the outgoing Coalition. How to present yourselves as the credible governing force if your partner is running towards the exit sign, then wheeling around and running back towards you. Marvelously inept. At best.
And tonight we have Enda Kenny on the RTÉ news telling us that the Irish people are, if I paraphrase correctly, ‘sick and tired’ of the whole thing and want to move onto matters of substance. Perhaps that is true. But it’s also true that Politics.ie has been hopping with those who would support him making most interesting pronouncements on this very issue. I think that’s a pity and a tactical error which clearly wiser voices within Fine Gael have decided to rein in.
There are differences between both the primary options available to the electorate and other less publicised options. They may not be huge, but they exist. And beyond them we have a tranche of progressive parties who are entirely drowned out by the events of the last week. They are worthy of examination in a serious and coherent fashion away from rumour and innuendo and competing charges of smear.