Chance for paramilitaries to turn backs on the gun

Posted By: November 04, 2016

Denis Bradley. Irish News (Belfast). Friday, November 4, 2016

 Reality seldom matches expectation. If some or many people are disappointed with the performance of a government led by Arlene and Martin, then he’ll rub it up on them.

 Twenty years ago, it would not have featured on the radar of hope and 10 years ago many of the same people would have been praying that the then embryonic relationship would survive the tensions that threatened to blow it apart. We got what we needed to extinguish most of the violence and so it is best to put it in our pipe and smoke it.

 But while the public is rarely held to account for their foibles or their ingratitude, the same does not apply to political parties or movements. The public has the luxury of being wholly and inconsistent but politics has to try to have some coherency and consistency.

 The DUP and Sinn Féin had decided that they were going to govern for the foreseeable future and public disagreements over ideologies and legacies would be set aside for that purpose. After so many years of yelling and hubbub, it resulted, for a time, in an atmosphere of unreality and awkwardness. But the agreement and the truce were holding and for the greater part it was working and the public was adjusting to the new reality. However, the decision preceded Brexit and it will be fascinating to see if it can survive Brexit.

 And the same applies to the opposition parties, especially the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP. Both had little choice but to go into opposition. Being in the government, but with little or no influence,  was strangling both parties. The opposition has given them some purpose and if they can continue to rattle and annoy the ‘big two’ the more kudos they will get from the public. And had the referendum delivered a vote to remain in Europe, they may have had the space and the time to explore how best to cooperate in the coming years.

 But Brexit now means that ‘vote Mike and you get Colum; vote Colum and you get Mike’ is pie in the sky. What would have been, before, an uncomfortable relationship has become an impossible one. The SDLP are the party most wedded to Europe, imagined and founded on a European model. They cannot now get engaged, never mind get into bed, with a party that is so split over Brexit that it cannot afford to travel to Dublin to have a conversation about economics. Nesbitt would split his party further if he followed his own instincts and argued for continuing relations within Europe and Eastwood has no choice and no inclination other than to fight Brexit with all his might. Both parties are going to have to divert their eyes from each other if they are to find a long-term future.

 Brexit is huge. It wraps bread and butter issues, like jobs and wealth, around fundamental questions of rights and identity. It will subsume our constitutional issue and place it in a broader European context. Our tensions around British/Irish identity are now placed within the great cauldron of Europe. Some people are already finding it scary and upsetting but history is more likely to judge it invigorating and transformative. So dominant is it and will continue to be that Arlene Foster’s scolding and admonition to ‘get over it’ only makes her look childish and shallow.

 But the ones most radically affected will be dissident republicans. If their arguments and actions have appeared marginal during recent years, the Brexit debate is going to drive them totally out of the ballpark. The ‘totality of relationships’ is now hot currency. Scotland may be center stage but some form of Irish economic and political togetherness is no longer relegated to the wings. And it has happened without a stone being thrown or a bullet fired.

 The coming months and years are going to be a hothouse of ideas and debate, fighting for hearts and minds. In that atmosphere, a gun is not just irrelevant but anathema. Anyone with a titter of political nous and ambition can read the signs of the times and would want to be involved. A gun in one hand and a ballot box in the other was always more mythical than real but are a no-no in this climate.

 And the same political nous would see and understand the opportunity that is now available to leave down the gun in a half-dignified manner.