Wednesday, May 09, 2007
INSIDE POLITICS - DEVOLUTION
There was an expression that became politically fashionable in the Northern peace process over the past seven or eight years.
Politicians – particularly Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British prime minister Tony Blair – as well as their advisers were fond of using it.
“We are where we are,” it went.
And where was that? Well, when they used it you could be as sure as night follows day that they were as stuck as the two poor elephants that fell into a ditch in Youghal in early April.
The problem was that every time progress seemed possible there was always a but, or a conditionality, or a problem, or a threat, or a suspicion, or mutual distrust.
Way back in 1999 the then President Bill Clinton got lambasted for comparing the North’s factions to two drunks in a bar.
He said that every time a peace agreement is made, “the two sides are like drunks leaving a bar – they reach the swing door and turn back.”
But never a truer word was spoken. For sure, the road between yesterday and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 is littered with the detritus of failed initiatives and rows and fallings out and Grand Canyon size levels of distrust and mutual misunderstanding. The rows over decommissioning. The suspension of the Assembly. The ‘deep freeze’ period. The failed initiative of November 2003. Ian Paisley’s “sack-cloth and ashes” speech that scuppered the next attempt in December 05.
At the time, that seemed like another low point of many. But in fact, if you look back at the reactions of Blair and Ahern at the time, both were sanguine about it. Ahern borrowed a metaphor from the Irish Examiner about high altitude mountaineers on Everest turning back when the summit seemed so close – the last few hundred metres, he said, were always the hardest.
Well we have seen how long and hard those last few steps have been. There have been difficulties and troughs since then – and the invariable missed deadlines. But there was a hardening of dispensation – a take it or leave it attitude – evident from both leaders. This time, the drunks coming in through the swing doors were entering the last chance saloon.
As the Taoiseach made clear in the critical days that led up to the final agreement on March 26, there was nothing left to concede, no more ground to give from either side, no fig leafs left as cover. It was as if all the oxygen that had fuelled the troubles and turmoil for so many years had been sucked out. That, of course, included that oxygen of publicity that Margaret Thatcher famously alluded to in 1988. The IRA had given up its arms, had ceased criminality; its political wing had embraced the rule of law and endorsed the police service. And on the other side, the DUP had crossed its own Rubicon, by agreeing to share power with its greatest enemies and adversaries.
It is axiomatic that there will be difficulties ahead. But once all parties had arrived to the rarefied air, there seemed to be a great clarity and in no other two people was it more evident that the two prime ministers. Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair have both seen their reputations shredded by events over the past 12 months. Maybe there was a greater clarity also in the fact that it was the two more extreme political groupings that finally came together. Each knew where the other stood. When the deal was finally struck there were no secret side-agreements or fudge or loose threads or get-out clauses.
But if nothing else, what happened yesterday was a testament to the optimism, the stayability, the durability and the vision of both men – who expended a disproportionately large portion of their time and efforts and political will to achieve what often seemed to us cynics as unachievable.
There was choreography to yesterday that began on the weekend before that fateful Monday on March 26. Yesterday was a day of mutual back-slapping, of congratulations, of set pieces, of carefully drafted speeches that captured a moment of history. It was deserved. Look at the men filmed for TV in the early 1970s. Martin McGuinness was a tousle-head young IRA leader. Paisley was the divisive Pope-baiting preacher, infamous for those table-thumping rabble-rousing speeches and publicity stunts.
But yesterday at 80, he was formally elected as the First Minister of Northern Ireland with a former IRA terrorist as his deputy.
A man of clear language if sometimes archaic expression, he talked about starting upon a road which would lead to lasting peace.
“I welcome the pledge we have all taken to that effect today. That is the rock foundation upon which me must build.”
We are where we are. And yesterday it was a good place to be.
This is from this morning's Irish Examiner