Forget the hokey-cokey, deal with the realities

Posted By: October 23, 2015

Alex Kane. Irish News(Belfast). Friday, October 23, 2015

The speed with which Peter Robinson ordered his ministerial team to leapfrog back into office took many people by surprise.

It was almost as if he had skipped over the difficult bits of the assessment commissioned by Secretary of State Theresa Villiers – you know, the bits about PIRA structures and the army council – because he didn’t think they really mattered. Or maybe he just moved at lightning speed because he didn’t want his MLAs to have enough time to read it and discuss it in detail: so it probably made sense to bounce them in at more or less the same time as Villiers had finished her statement and resumed her seat.

But, let’s be honest, was anyone really surprised by the conclusion that, “seventeen years after the 1998 Belfast Agreement, paramilitary groups remain a feature of life in NI…and all of the paramilitary groups maintain a relatively public profile in spite of being illegal organisations”? A few weeks ago Robinson said he required clarity about paramilitarism. Well, he got that clarity on Tuesday: and a startling, brutal clarity it was, too: “Dissident republicans will continue to pose the most significant terrorist threat to NI. We judge that the other paramilitary groups on ceasefire will continue to exist and they will continue to pose a threat to national security and engage in serious crime. Efforts by these groups to reform will be ongoing but the limits of leadership authority will continue to impede wholesale change.”

So, it looks like we’re lumbered with the structures, realities and vestiges of paramilitarism for decades to come. What was Robinson to do? He could have walked and allowed the institutions to collapse, but that would have led to suspension or direct rule and the sort of crisis from which recovery would not be possible for a long, long time. And his retirement party – which can’t be that far away – would have been held against the sort background that would have made David Trimble look like an outstanding success.

Robinson, like McGuinness, had a question to answer on Tuesday afternoon: is the best way of encouraging the removal – even if it takes a long time – of all paramilitary organisations the existence of stable cooperative political institutions and clear evidence that unionists and republicans can work together? The answer, of course, is  yes: so collapsing the institutions wouldn’t have made sense. Worse, collapse would probably lead to circumstances in which the paramilitary organisations would be much more difficult to contain.

The DUP’s response to the assessment makes a crucial point: “The report sets out very starkly the issues that the talks process must deal with. Any agreement flowing from these talks must include proposals to tackle the matters identified in the review. This report has brought clarity to this key issue.” Martin McGuinness made a similar point in his response: “We all have a responsibility to deal with these issues to tackle criminality and bring paramilitarism to an end and Sinn Féin will play a full part in this important work.”

When all is said and done there was nowhere else for Robinson to go on Tuesday afternoon, other than back into the executive and on with the present talks process. He may not like the comparisons with Trimble – he hates them, in fact – but there were many times when Trimble found himself in similar positions. You bank progress, however modest, and move onwards. Collapse would have been catastrophic for both Robinson and the DUP; and probably for everyone else, as it happens.

Where Robinson did get it wrong, though, was in the handling. He allowed himself to be spooked into kneejerk responses by Mike Nesbitt’s decision to remove the UUP from the executive. He allowed himself to get trapped into a bizarre in-out strategy which he knew would play badly and be almost impossible to explain. He allowed himself to be thrown on the tactical backfoot when he misread the intentions of the prime minister and secretary of state a few weeks ago. Put bluntly, he hasn’t been firing on all cylinders for a few months now.

There is, in fact, a case to be made for staying in the Executive and talks: but, so far, he has failed to make it. He looks and sounds dithery and incoherent. That said, no one should assume that the DUP is now seriously weakened. It is at its most ruthlessly efficient when its back is to the wall; and the UUP, TUV and other unionists don’t, at this point, have a credible strategy in terms of a deliverable alternative.

We need to deal with paramilitaries and paramilitarism: but hokey-cokey, huff and puff and high moral ground condemnation won’t cut the mustard. The report confirms what most of us knew or suspected about paramilitaries. That leaves just one question: how do we respond to that confirmation?