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

On the streets, nobody cares about bringing back Stormont

(by Suzanne Breen, Sunday Tribune)

Up to 1,000 people packed into Belfast's Europa hotel last week for a Cheltenham festival preview night. If there was a preview night for the return of Stormont, the organisers would be lucky to get 100 – and they'd probably be bussed in by Sinn Féin.

It's not PC to say so but most Northerners, nationalist and unionist, couldn't care less about restoring devolution. Wednesday's talks with the political parties were cancelled, yet another deadline failed, and a blueprint on the way forward is to be prepared by London and Dublin. So what? Belfast doesn't care.

We constantly hear democracy is being denied to Northern Ireland which longs for its politicians to get their act together and re-establish Stormont. It's a tiresome mantra, and it's untrue.

Whenever Radio Ulster's current affairs' programme, Talkback, mentions the negotiations, the lines are jammed with callers saying the whole Stormont set-up is a waste of money, and it's time the Brits pulled the plug.

The two governments will publish their proposals before the summer. Only politicians and journalists will be interested.

Bertie and Blair are keen for a deal. It would boost Fianna Fail's election prospects, and Blair is likely to hand over to Gordon Brown next year. Exiting the stage against a backdrop of lasting peace in Belfast, if not in Baghdad, would be perfect.

Privately, both governments admit they haven't a clue how to pull it off. There was a huge miscalculation when the DUP triumphed in last year's Westminster elections. It was presumed the party's head would be turned by power.

But the DUP, unlike the Ulster Unionists, isn't a party to be seduced by access to Prime Ministers and Presidents. The Rev Ian Paisley is a 21st century rarity – a politician above temptation. Conviction is all. Even the best and brightest of Blair's backroom boys didn't stand a chance.

The DUP remains adamant there must be a shadow assembly, with a lengthy confidence-building period, before Sinn Féin enters government.

It saw David Trimble jump, time and time again, only to be undermined by some IRA illegal act. It will make that leap but not before several positive IMC reports. "The DUP isn't frightened of change but it's frightened of being complicit in change," claims one nationalist talks' insider.

Sinn Féin and the SDLP reject the stepping-stone approach, forseeing years of DUP foot-dragging. They want an Executive now. Mark Durkan's hardline position has surprised many unionists.

Nobody doubts the SDLP's desire to see devolution restored. But is Sinn Féin just going through the motions? Continuing direct rule means it talks directly to the British government and needn't go downmarket dealing with unionist 'neanderthals'. A settlement would curtail those high-profile Downing Street trips.

But that theory isn't completely convincing. The Shinners' over-riding aim is political power down South. They know that seeing their ministers run the North would work wonders across the Border, steadying the nerves of potential middle-class voters concerned about Sinn Féin's fitness for government.

In the North, the only argument for Stormont that strikes a chord in republican areas is that if unionists are opposed to devolution, it must be a good thing.

And nationalists justifiably point out that while IRA activity still dominates the political agenda, the UDA's attempted murder of a taxi-driver last weekend passed almost unnoticed.

But while republican grassroots will take to the streets to stop Orange parades or commemorate the hunger-strikers, marching to 'Bring Back Stormont' doesn't inspire.

Three years of devolution made little substantial difference to everyday life in the Bogside or Ballymurphy. There wasn't a noticeable improvement or deterioration in hospitals, schools or wages.

The absence of a groundswell of opinion demanding a deal makes the two governments' attempts to secure one harder. London's strategy is to offer sweeteners.

The DUP has just secured a £250 million redundancy package for the Royal Irish Regiment. A multi-million package for deprived Protestant areas is on the way.

The disastrous on-the-run legislation, and proposals to fund controversial Community Restorative Justice (CRJ) schemes in nationalist areas were to be Sinn Féin's sweeteners. "The British should stop indulging spoilt children and send in Supernanny to sort everything out," says one exasperated SDLP insider.

But the mood on the streets is indifferent. Interest in restoring devolution is a minority sport. Most of us are concentrating on more important matters: is Moscow Flyer too old to win a third Champion Chase this week at Prestbury Park?

March 15, 2006

This article appeared in the March 12, 2006 edition of the Sunday Tribune.