SF should consider unilateral return

Posted By: April 09, 2018

SF should consider a unilateral return
Deaglan de Breadun. Irish News. Belfast. Monday, April 9, 2018

The anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement underlines the point that there aren’t many new issues in the politics of this island. The current impasse is principally defined by different stances on the Irish language, but this was something that also surfaced in those frenetic negotiations 20 years ago.

In his highly-readable memoir, A Journey: My Political Life (Hutchinson 2010), Tony Blair describes how the Irish government, at a very late stage in the proceedings, secured his approval to have two new north-south bodies included as part of the deal, one of them for the promotion of the Irish language.

But when the unionist side was informed, the entire process was almost derailed. Blair writes: “It turned out there was some obscure language called Ullans, a Scottish dialect spoken in some parts of Ulster which was the unionists’ equivalent of the Irish language.”

He goes on to describe a tense meeting between himself, Bertie Ahern and David Trimble where the Taoiseach of the day took a skeptical approach and suggested the UUP leader might like to speak some of the “fecking things”.

Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell in his book Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland (The Bodley Head, 2008) suggests that the Taoiseach got so angry at the tone adopted by Trimble that the meeting almost ended in total chaos, although Ahern himself has given a somewhat more relaxed version of events. Powell writes that, for their part, the Blair team were left “in hysterics” by the future Lord Trimble’s “lecture” on Ulster-Scots.

In the end, of course, a compromise was reached whereby a north/south language body was set up, comprised of Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency, or Tha Boord o Ulster Scotch in Ullans.

There was also what Blair described as a “surreal” issue when the unionists demanded the closure of what sounded like “Murrayfield,” and he writes that “Even I winced at the prospect of demolishing the Edinburgh home of Scottish rugby.” But of course, they meant Maryfield, the Belfast home of the Anglo-Irish Secretariat set up under the 1985 Hillsborough Agreement.

It’s good to see the funny side as a means of alleviating the depression, so many feel over the current stagnant impasse. The Good Friday Agreement has contributed greatly to the reduction in political violence, but the stand-off between the main parties does not reflect the bright hopes engendered 20 years ago by a peace deal that also boosted efforts to resolve conflicts in other places from the Basque country to Colombia.

Sinn Féin has at least shown some willingness to compromise, but the Democratic Unionist Party is in the grip of its hardliners. The only way out seems to be for Sinn Féin to take a unilateral decision to return to the assembly and the executive, at least on a temporary basis in an effort to influence the Brexit negotiations. The fact that this was put forward by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin means it will be automatically rejected by many in Sinn Féin, but the source of an idea does not make it invalid.

It would also help if Micheál Martin’s party took a slightly more balanced approach to Sinn Féin. In that context, it was fascinating to hear what Dr. Martin Mansergh, a leading Fianna Fáil intellectual and very significant figure in the peace process, had to say on RTÉ Radio One’s This Week on Easter Sunday.

Interviewed by Brian Dowling, he criticised those who would seek to exclude Sinn Féin from the government in the south on a permanent basis, and he continued: “Whatever about the past and some unresolved issues [in] the past, they are a mainstream and increasingly-typical political party.”

Pointing out that the DUP was in government with Sinn Féin for almost ten years, he questioned the stance adopted by major parties in the south that they would not contemplate such a move in Dáil Éireann.

He added: “About Northern Ireland, I would like to see Fianna Fáil being more a Republican party, not just an anti-Sinn Féin party.” Dr. Mansergh also said, in relation to the exclusion of Bertie Ahern from the party he once led: “That grieves me.”

Politics is, of course, competitive business and parties have to fight their corner. For its part, Sinn Féin does not give any quarter in the battle for votes.

Meanwhile, it does seem rather ridiculous for the parties in the north to be standing on the sidelines as the Brexit process continues. They need to be back in the Stormont chamber, using it as a platform to keep London and Brussels on their toes. As the saying goes, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” but someone needs to be there to turn the wheel in the first place.