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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Still living in interesting times

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)


My lawyer friend sounded exasperated. "I hardly do any criminal work any more. There's nothing but drugs these days," he said, lamenting the passing of the supergrass and terrorist cases on which he had made his name. It looks like they are over for good now, as Northern Ireland settles down to enjoy peace and quiet.

"It's like the end of history," we mused, recalling that the old Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times" was no curse to lawyers or journalists. We thrive in interesting times.

Garbhan Downey, a former journalist turned satirist, tries to paint a picture of what might emerge in a few years as things bed down. In his latest novel, Running Mates, Downey describes how a handsome journalist has an affair with a curvaceous High Court judge and the two of them end up running against each other for president of Ireland. Londonderry's first female chief of police is carrying a torch for a local IRA leader who is mellowing under the effects of the ceasefire but has a psycho brother. The leader of the Ulster Unionist party, who is consulting a priest about his psychological problems, and a Fianna Fail taoiseach who is prepared to put a northerner in the Aras in order to defuse a right-wing conspiracy in the Dail, also put in appearances.

It's fun, but looks a bit far-fetched until you pick up a newspaper. There you can read that Bertie Ahern and Ian Paisley are planning to visit the site of the Battle of the Boyne to inspect new visitor amenities being built by the Irish government. On the next page, the political wing of the UVF is just back from a visit to Dublin, where they asked Ahern, apparently successfully, not to push too hard for a united Ireland. They expressed confidence in Sinn Féin being part of Northern Ireland's government and only hoped it would last.

Will we ever forget the pictures of Ian Paisley quietly sipping water as he sat beside Gerry Adams, who was wearing an Easter lily rather than the sackcloth and ashes Paisley had demanded? No doubt it is one of the images that Ahern will recall when he addresses the House of Commons at the invitation of Tony Blair.

It has been said since Gladstone that the Irish question is the graveyard of British political reputation. For Blair, however, it is a legacy issue, a victory he hopes will counteract the mistakes of Iraq and the sleaze of the cash-for-honours inquiry. With any luck, the prime minister's name will be carved on the peace memorial that the Irish government is to build on the border.

It is a world beyond satire where previously irreconcilable interests mesh together and feed off each other. The brave new Northern Ireland seems to have been contrived to please everyone, to build up brownie points in every conceivable quarter.

For instance Mitchel McLaughlin, the Sinn Féin chair of the new assembly's finance committee, says that at Sinn Féin's first meeting with the DUP, Paisley pointed out that May 8, the date he was proposing for devolution, might not be badly timed for the Irish general election. It was one of the clinching arguments, according to McLaughlin.

It used to be said that bombs were timed for the evening news and the date of devolution does looks suspiciously as if it was timed to fit in with the Irish elections. It should give Sinn Féin and Fianna Fail, the nationalist power brokers, a little bounce at the expense of the other parties.

Thursday's Scottish elections may also have entered the equation. The new northern assembly needs subsidy and lots of it. The DUP and Sinn Féin have identified considerable common ground on social and economic issues, but they are built on a foundation of voodoo economics. The parties want to cut corporation taxes and scrap water rates while increasing spending across the board and not selling off too many public assets. It's not so much tax and spend as don't tax and spend, spend, spend.

These plans will have to be painfully redrafted unless there is a large cash injection soon. It could be either in the form of a grant or, more likely, a low-interest loan that isn't tied to raising local revenue through local taxation. The most likely source is the British exchequer, a point that hasn't escaped the attention of Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish Nationalist party, who will push for equal treatment for Scotland.

Had devolution been achieved in January, the original deadline, and had Northern Ireland got the money Sinn Féin and the DUP wanted then, the SNP would have been given an issue to use against Labour. Paisley's May 8 deadline puts decision time safely beyond this week's Scottish election and removes Salmond's leverage.

It is another little favour for Blair and Gordon Brown. It brings devolution on Blair's watch, but gives Brown the chance to cement it at minimal political cost.

Others will benefit too. George Mitchell, who helped broker the Good Friday agreement, ended his book on the peace process with the hope that he could one day bring his son Andrew to visit the assembly, where "there will be no talk of war because the war will be over". Next week, Mitchell will have that chance. Indeed, Stormont will be stuffed with American dignitaries. Bill and Hillary Clinton are invited, as is Richard Haass and other members of the Bush administration.

They will be warmly welcomed, but, like all tourists, there is an expectation that they will pay their way. There have already been several hints from Martin McGuinness that he expects to see America pitching in with Britain, Ireland, Europe and everyone else to help subsidise our brave new world with its 10 ministries and jobs for everyone.

The end of history may not be so dull, after all. So far it's been characterised by rising property prices, political consensus and tight media management, but corruption, skulduggery and intrigue are just over the horizon. Even in peacetime, we may find something to write and litigate about. There will be new crimes for the new times.


April 29, 2007

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on April 29, 2007.