TALKING IT THROUGH

24 September 2015 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The vast majority of people in our circulation area will be watching the progress of the current crisis talks in the North of our country with keen interest and an anxious sense of hope that they will produce a positive outcome.

We have a considerable stake in the preservation of political stability in Northern Ireland.

Having suffered significantly from both the direct and indirect effects of the years of murderous internecine conflict, our county has enjoyed its own dividend from the processes of peace as they have worked themselves out in recent times.

We have re-established sundered community and economic connections with our near Northern neighbours. We have both benefited from and contributed to initiatives designed to promote cross-cultural understanding and rapport. And, perhaps most importantly, we have started to map out a better future for ourselves on the presumed foundations of a more tolerant and mutually respectful relationship between the different traditions that make up the rich and distinctive cultural blend that defines the character of our island.

All that we currently enjoy from peace and all that we have invested in its hope for future yield now seems suddenly in the balance as we watch the political edifice of Stormont totter.

And that sense of insecurity is itself salutary: it shows that peace, and the trust that preserves it, is a fragile flower that needs constant tending, and that presumptions that it will perennially bloom without constant husbandry can be fatal to its survival.

The two elements at the heart of the current political crisis in the North have been constant shadows over the peaceful pathway that the politicians have been pursuing since the modern Assembly structures have taken shape.

The shadows of the gunmen were banished to a distance by the light of peace, but they have never been totally effaced.

But there is no modern society where violence, be it criminally or politically motivated or, frequently, a chimera of both those justifications, does not emerge periodically from the darkness to shake the presumptions of peace and security on which people found the activities of their daily lives.

The general challenge this has posed to democratic societies has been to balance appropriateness of security response with the need to preserve important freedoms and civil liberties – to defeat the monster, perhaps, without turning into a form of that monster in the process.

The particular challenge facing the fragile structures of fully participative democracy in Northern Ireland, in identifying, quantifying and dealing with whatever level of virulent paramilitarism still haunts the shadows, has its own very particular high stakes – but freedom and civil liberty are still very much in the balance.

The commission created by Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers to factually assess the “structure, role and purpose” of ongoing paramilitary activity could therefore bear crucially on the outcome of the current negotiations.

If it confines itself to the sources relied upon by PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton for his remarks on the ongoing existence of the IRA, and does little more that re-echo that contention, it will not becalm unionist opinion, sway Sinn Féin from its mistrust of the motivations behind the nature and timing of this declaration, or appreciably assist the talks process.

If, however, the commission produces a fuller, more rounded and accurately comprehensive assessment of the level of threat posed by persistent paramilitaries of all hues, and casts a light on their motivations, it can greatly assist not only a positive outcome to the discussions but future progress with regard to security issues.

The mid-October deadline for the commission’s report is not an encouragement towards expectation of the latter outcome, and there is a troublesome sense of the current talks proceeding regardless of the report rather than being shaped by its eventual arrival.

It would surely be better for an interim assessment of the paramilitary threat to be delivered to the North parties and the North and South Ministers. This might better facilitate a working agreement, based on its indications, on future security measures – and thus provide a basis for the resumption of political normality.

Once Stormont is back up and running, the full assessment could be considered and acted upon in a much better environment for sound decision-making than the difficult atmosphere of mutual suspicion in which the various participants have entered the current crisis talks.

The second shadow glowering over the political future of the North also cuts to the heart of the proper functioning of this part of the island as a discrete political entity.

The deadlock that has arisen between the nationalist and unionist parties over the unpleasant welfare cuts that formed the sting in the tail of the Stormont House Agreement casts unsettling light on the limits to the economic autonomy of the North’s political structures.

Acceptance of the British Government’s welfare reforms was a condition which the North parties initially indicated they would tolerably bear in order to benefit from a package of measures that gave Stormont €2 billion in extra spending, substantive proposals to deal with the legacies of conflict and, of particular importance for future economic growth, an investment-luring cut in corporation tax.

Contemplating the impact of social welfare cuts on the more vulnerable and disadvantaged sections of the North’s population subsequently promoted SF and the SDLP to recant their commitment to the deal – creating an impasse that could lead to welfare responsibility being removed from the hands of the North politicians and vested in Westminster.

Such debilitation of responsibility would severely weaken the credibility of the Stormont structures, and has historical connotations that do not bode well for either political or social progress.

The British Government’s hardball attitude to this element of the current North crisis might be appropriate were fiscal considerations alone at the heart of the matter – given the tension over persistent paramilitarism, however, it is not a helpful disposition. Some further mitigating concessions would be a helpful guarantor of good faith in the capability of the North’s elected men and women to govern their own affairs.

Co Monaghan has much ongoing gain to further enjoy out of a successful outcome to the current negotiations, and much to lose in material and human terms if the tottering Stormont edifice tumbles.

We will continue to observe the progress of the talks closely, in the hope that they will be retrospectively seen as a necessary sidestep in the peace journey, when persistent issues of recidivistic violence and economic autonomy began to be confronted and dealt with, rather than a calamitous and derailing detour back into the darkness of the past.

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