History in the Making (Again)
And so the deal has been done... But what a palaver it has all been and few have emerged with much credit from the morass.
I'll lay my cards on the table... I wanted the devolution of police and justice powers simply because without it the whole shakey political side of the peace process might have ground to a complete halt. But I'm not naive enough to believe that this will bring huge improvements to policing and criminal justice here overnight... far from it... the political incompetence that the folks on the hill have demonstrated over the past few weeks suggests that they shouldn't be put in charge of a murder mystery dinner party, never mind a bribe/budget of £800 million (why does every significant political move here need to be oiled by collosal amounts of cash? Maybe Harold Wilson was right... maybe we are a nation of spongers). Their performance on other issues including education, job creation, planning, water rates etc wouldn't fill you with confidence either. And let's not fool ourselves, Sinn Fein's desire to see devolution of P&J is not to do with confidence in the assembly to manage it's own affairs, but a straightforward attempt to wrest this arm of the British state away from Westminster control in the hope of future all-Ireland structures of policing etc.
Their need to achieve this in the run up to elections and against the background of increased dissident activity has produced episodes of public pique, if not downright petulance by the normally peerless PR machine that is Sinn Fein, particularly the Deputy FM... there wasn't much chuckling by the last remaining chuckle brother in recent months.
And do you blame him, having to work with a partner party that seemingly threw roadblock after roadblock, (not least was the demand that the Parades Commission be reformed/abolished) in the way of the pathway agreed at St. Andrews back in 2006, and only seemed to be galvanised into action after the PR disaster that was the Iris Robinson affair?
At the same time the UUP and SDLP were in a very public huff because they weren't going to get a sniff of the new ministry, despite the provisions of the d'Hondt electoral system enshrined in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and had been shut out of most of the discussions. Mind you, in the past both the DUP and Sinn Fein have played the "outsider" card to great effect when at different times, for different reasons, both of them had been excluded (or excluded themselves) from various negotiations while the SDLP and UUP were inside the room... How everything changes and yet somehow remains the same.
While the SDLP seem to have, reluctantly backed the final deal, the UUP remained recalcitrant to the end, showing themselves to be much more Unionist than the DUP, and giving the DUP a dose of the medicine that they had constantly administered to David Trimble when he was first minister. Not even the intervention of George Bush, Hillary Clinton or the leader of the UUP's new electoral partners, the Tories David Cameron, could break the log jam, rendering the much vaunted Ulster Conservatives and Unionists New Force more of a New Farce. The Secretary of State, Shaun Woodward's intervention at the weekend was probably ill-judged and smacked of blackmail or bullying, but perhaps he was, as accused by the Conservatives, playing a longer party political game by forcing the Conservatives' allies into the role of nay-sayers. In the midst of the whole sorry affair the Conservatives actually seem to have returned to their traditional role of patrician incompetents, first getting engaged to the UUP then being outed as being in a brief menage a trois with the DUP in an ill-concieved attempt to create some kind of Pan-Unionist Front, thus making it difficult for them to be percieved as neutral arbiters should they gain control in Westminster in May... Whether they will have any UUP partners taking their whip in the mother of parliaments remains to be seen, particuarly since their only sitting MP, Sylvia Hermon, has refused to do so.
But meanwhile, back at the negotiations, taking their lead from the DUP the UUP seem to have thrown in their own deal-breaker - education. Sinn Fein has suggested that the UUP are actually asking for the re-establishment of the 11plus, which is probably unfair (although the knee jerk support of both Unionist parties for academic selection at 11 is appalling given that it demonstrably fails the children of poorer UUP and DUP voters - but I wonder if this is simply another case of "if Sinn Fein is for it we must be against it"?), but linking education directly to the issue of policing and justice is political insanity. Yes I believe that the whole education system and the transfer disaster has to be rescued from wrack and Ruane, and I know that Sir Reg was only suggesting that success in this field would be a litmus test of the effectiveness of the Executive, but the media and the wider public don't make that sort of nuanced analysis. The only suggested tie-in to the agreement that had less to do with policing and justice is when some people started advocating that a solution to the Presbyterian Mutual Society would be a good confidence building measure! Thankfully no-one ran with that one.
At least the DUP's parading hobby horse had a tangential connection as it's the poor police that usually have to pick up the pieces when parading decisions go pear-shaped. That's also true of the roadblock thrown up by Justice Minister presumptive, David Ford of the Alliance Party, when he asked for a clear statement on what a Shared Future really means for Northern Ireland before he would agree to his name going forward... He seemingly recieved adequate assurances from OFMDFM but then news broke that he had described the Bloody Sunday inquiry as pointless... That's the way to win over the nationalist/republican constituency! Not pointless perhaps, but at £200 million certainly wastefully expensive... and a function of the Blair government's shortsightedness in setting the whole thing up as a quasi-judicial enquiry, which ended up as a feeding frenzy for expensive lawyers... I do hope that the families of those killed on Bloody Sunday will get what they desire out of it, although that remains to be seen... Truth should never be reduced to a matter of money, but there is little doubt that the whole affair could have cost a lot less. Let's hope the £800 million being poured into P&J isn't equally wasteful.
But getting back to David Ford, at least he apologised, not something that politicians are renowned for. Mind you, if he hadn't there was no way that he was getting his nice new job, so perhaps eating a piece of humble pie was worth it.
Anyway... what is the point in all of this (a question that could be asked of Stormont, not simply of this post)? I started writing this before the vote came in out of sheer frustration... If I hadn't written or said something I fear my head may have exploded, and my fortunate wife was not present for me to rant at. So this is part therapy (as many of my blogs are... there really should be a disclaimer at the start of my incoherent rants).
But it is also out of a real desire to see Stormont work... One of the sad truths is that many of our politicians have not had a lot of experience of real politics. Because of decades of unrest and direct rule, few have had experience of real power, and the defining factor for many of them (and the wider electorate) was existence of a line on the map of Ireland, and, because of the enhanced role of the civil service and regional quangos here, many councils had comparatively little power to affect the lives of their electorate. So the past 10 years has been a very steep learning curve for most of them. That, combined with an experimental form of coalition government unseen anywhere else in the world, founded on political "agreements" that were so vague in places in order to allow polar-opposite political parties to claim victory in selling them to their electorate, and a major world recession which has thrown many more established governments, means that it is little short of miraculous that there is any sort of progress at all.
Some people have described this vote as "historic." But we seem to do something "historic" here every 15 minutes, so let's not get blown away with the hype. But let's get behind our politicians and encourage them to take this opportunity and make the most of it, by getting on with the wider business of government.
And for those of us who are Christians, let's not forget to pray for them... whatever political party they belong to, or whoever we voted for. Actually another thing that annoyed me in this whole debacle was the relative silence of all the churches. I don't know whether they released any statements... but they didn't get as far as me if they did, and (as you may guess from the above) I'm a fairly avid watcher of the winds of political change. They didn't need to start telling the parties which way to vote, but they could have helped their own "constituents" understand what they could be praying/lobbying for. Or are we only interested in talking to or about politicians when it has got something directly in it for us and ours, be it the PMS or non-lottery funded handouts?
OK... that's enough for now... I need sleep... Maybe tomorrow we can all begin again and put the poor performance of recent weeks/months/years behind us...