Back to the dour old past in Northern Ireland politics











So here we go again. Just when we thought it was all over and consigned to history, we're back to another crisis in Northern Ireland.

If they ever make a movie about it, it will be called Back to the Past instead of Back to the Future. This latest crisis which could sink the power-sharing administration and wreck stability up there has been going on for over a week now.

It may be resolved by the time you read this. But I'm not betting on it.

Watching the dour faces of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen as they arrived in the North last week to deal with the crisis, I could not help thinking back to the famous remark made by the late Reggie Maudling.

When the Conservatives took power in Britain in 1970 the North had just exploded in violence, making it the number one problem for Maudling, the new British home secretary. He came over to the North for a look, and after the visit he gratefully boarded the plane back to London, settled into his seat, and called out, "For God's sake, bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country."

Brown, a Scot, probably felt like doing the same in the middle of last week as he left the North after a couple of days of frustrating talks that failed to produce a result.

Cowen, a man who knows his history, was probably thinking of a pint rather than a Scotch as he headed back to Dublin. He may also have been thinking of the famous quote from Churchill.

Speaking about the North during the House of Commons debate on the Irish Free State Bill in 1922, Churchill referred to the way the First World War had changed everything:

“Then came the Great War -- every institution, almost, in the world was strained. Great Empires have been overturned. The whole map of Europe has been changed.

“The position of countries has been violently altered. The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous changes in the deluge of the world.

"But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.”

Yes indeed. Everything changes, but the North remains the pain in the behind it always was.

Churchill's words are as true today as they were 90 years ago. Despite disarmament, peace and power-sharing, the place is still a problem.

Despite enough years of normality to make even Belfast a tourist destination, the ancient quarrel bubbles away beneath the surface. Despite truckloads of money poured into the place and endless encouragement for the local politicians, the new beginning has been on the point of collapse for the past 10 days.

Once again, the political facade cracked and the backwoods men threatened to bring the house of cards down. That's the last thing we need, given the potential there would then be for a return to violence.

That is unthinkable. Which is why Cowen and Brown immediately put everything else on hold and hurried to Belfast early last week.

They left the talks after a couple of days, but the negotiations have continued now for over a week with the Irish foreign minister and the British secretary for the North keeping an eye.

By the time you read this, some compromise may have been cobbled together. Or maybe not.

One way or the other, enormous damage has been done to trust and confidence, to hopes of building a normal society in the North. The whole episode has left a very bad impression.

While the rest of us grapple with real problems and try to pay our way, the Northern politicians (on both sides) split hairs and spill out their old venom while Britain spends billions to keep the place going. They're not only different, they're on a different planet.

People down here in the south have watched in disbelief. Cowen has his hands full right now as the true extent of the banking black hole created by our property collapse becomes visible. The challenge we face to avoid national bankruptcy is immense.

And where was the taoiseach last week? Up in Belfast talking to the looney tunes.

Brown is also in a battle for survival. He's up to his neck in Iraq and Afghanistan and he faces similar economic problems to us, with the added problem of an election in a few months. Yet he was also stuck in the North.

Both of them are extremely busy men. Yet last week they had to drop everything to go to the North and babysit the toddlers who were throwing everything out of their buggies again.

This column has not been concerned with Northern Ireland for a long time, for the very good reason that the place no longer impinges on us in the south the way it used to do.

But this mini crisis up there dragged it back on to our agenda again, and people here are not happy about that. In fact it would be fair to say that people here are disgusted with the bickering, the intransigence, the sheer bloody-mindedness.

For a lot of people down here, if they ever hear another whining, self-righteous Northern accent again it will be too soon.

The crisis, as you probably know, was caused by Sinn Fein's warning that it was about to pull out of the power-sharing administration because of the failure to devolve responsibility for policing and justice from Westminster to the administration in the North. This is the final part of the transfer of power to the North's new administration, which already handles everything else.

It's way overdue but the Unionists have been dragging their feet, still suspicious of giving Sinn Fein a say in such a critical area.

In fairness to Sinn Fein, one can understand their frustration. It's nearly 12 years since the Belfast Agreement was signed. It's over three years since the St. Andrews Agreement, after which the transfer of policing powers was supposed to follow without further delay.

But here we are three years later, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which shares power with Sinn Fein are still not ready to play ball.

The frustrating thing is that -- apart from the Neanderthal wing of the DUP -- the people in the North don't care that much about who controls policing now. As long as it's fair and even-handed it's not an issue.

What they do care about now is the economy, jobs, health, education and all the other bread and butter issues.

The DUP’s extreme wing can't bear the thought of the former gunman Martin McGuinness and his colleagues having an influence on policing. So they are saying no and they could yet split the party and topple their unfortunate leader Peter Robinson. They want Sinn Fein to prove it is trustworthy for another few years.

This is all nonsense, of course. The main threat at the moment up there is from the Real IRA and the other dissident Republicans, and Sinn Fein is likely to show those boys little mercy if it has a hand in directing police policy.

The DUP hardmen's intransigence on this is not only stupid but dangerous, although after the 30 years of IRA mayhem and murder, you can see why they find it hard to listen to McGuinness discussing policing. Nevertheless, it's time for them to move on.

As for Sinn Fein, their threat to collapse the administration was not what the North needs right now. The power-sharing administration already has responsibility for finance, jobs, business and all the other areas that affect people's everyday lives like health and education.

Given the state of the North's economy, there is no shortage of work to be done. It may be irritating for Sinn Fein, but there is no real urgency about the transfer of policing responsibility.

Both sides are at fault in this latest crisis, but this time the Loyalist hardliners are by far the most culpable.

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