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

Will the St Andrews' Agreement bring lasting peace to the North

(by Suzanne Breen, Sunday Tribune)

Do the St Andrews' talks make a lasting peace deal in the North more likely? Absolutely and faster than most people hoped. Ian Paisley is on course to be nominated First Minister within six weeks with Martin McGuinness, the man DUP supporters once called the 'butcher of the Bogside', as his deputy. They're unlikely to pose for a joint picture on Stormont's steps but it will still be a truly historic occasion.

It was on Friday 13th, of all days, that Northern Ireland's fortunes improved. The first day of the talks was grim, the second even worse. As usual with the North, progress wasn't until the 11th hour. "The negotiations took place in the Robert Louis Stevenson room. We were wondering if it would be Shipwreck or Treasure Island, said Ian Paisley jnr.

What happens now? Could it all still not fall apart?

The parties have until November 10 to endorse or reject the St Andrews' Agreement. The SDLP fears Paisley might try to unpick the agreement; DUP sources insist he's genuine. A deal isn't in the bag yet, but it's looking good.

Sinn Féin will move first. The leadership will shortly tell the ard comhairle to organise a special ard fheis where it will propose endorsing the PSNI. After the ard comhairle move, Paisley and McGuinness will be nominated for office on November 24.

The special ard fheis will be held soon afterwards. Paisley and McGuinness will be ministers-designate with no power, salary, or trappings of office. Sinn Féin had wanted the Executive functioning fully before an ard fheis. Martin McGuinness insisted on this as late as last Thursday. In the end, Sinn Féin compromised.

The ard fheis will be emotional. There has been greater grassroots' resistance on policing than on any other issue, including decommissioning. But the leadership haven't lost a vote since its 1986 victory on abstentionism from the Dail.

If the IMC gives the Provos a clean bill of health in its January report, and the DUP and Sinn Féin are still on board, "electoral endorsement" of the agreement will be sought, probably on either March 1 or 8.

There is disagreement on whether this should be an election or referendum. The governments reportedly favour a referendum, which the DUP is against. If plebiscites are held on both sides of the Border, this brings an all-Ireland aspect to the agreement.

Whereas an election would be solely for Northern Ireland and the DUP believes it could finally wipe out the Ulster Unionists. An election could mean Sinn Féin gains at the SDLP's expense. Yet sources say the Shinners aren't "too hot" on going to the polls in March, preferring to focus energies on the approaching Southern election.

It's inconceivable the DUP and Sinn would suffer election defeat or that a referendum proposal they favoured would be rejected. After the North speaks, the way is clear for the remaining Executive ministers to be nominated on March 14 with the whole shebang going live 12 days later.

So who won and who lost at St Andrews?

Everybody's a winner, say the governments. In reality, Sinn Féin made most concessions. The DUP looked genuinely pleased as negotiations closed; despite Sinn Féin's positive words, the body language was wrong. As well as endorsing the PSNI, the party potentially must support MI5 and the British courts, which sits uneasily with republicanism.

Sinn Féin has apparently dropped its demand that the DUP agree a timetable for the devolution of policing and justice powers to Stormont before an Executive is formed. Neither has an amnesty been secured for on-the-run IRA members. Although in practice, police might turn a blind eye if they return home.

The DUP won a u-turn on the end of academic selection for 11-year-olds, Martin McGuinness's proudest achievement as Education Minister.

The DUP says it has ensured North-South bodies are now fully accountable to the Stormont Executive – the SDLP says they always were. The DUP boasts it has increased ministerial accountability; nationalists fear grid-locked government.

"If there was a global flu pandemic and emergency advice was to close the airports, the relevant minister couldn't do so until after an executive meeting which could be days away. It's that ludicrous," says an SDLP source.

The DUP's big compromise is entering government with its sworn enemy. Despite the ceasefire and decommissioning, the 25 year IRA campaign means many ordinary Protestants find this hard to swallow, as Paisley is well aware. It's no coincidence victims' suffering featured prominently in his St Andrews' speech.

So will Paisley face problems with unionist grassroots?

His advantage is they trust him. David Trimble was viewed as a man easily swayed by the flattery of prime ministers and presidents. Paisley is seen as putting his people before power. There's no credible rival party: the UUP is on its last legs. UK Unionist leader, Bob McCartney, opposes the agreement "as it stands" and accuses the DUP of abandoning election pledges. While clever and articulate, he lacks the strong base from which to successfully tackle Paisley.

The call of Willie Frazer, director of IRA victims' group FAIR, could be important. Frazer brought his caravan to St Andrews to keep an eye on the talks: "A lot of people aren't happy with the agreement but, at the minute, I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt. The Doc has given me his word on things."

Will the republican base buy the deal?

Selling the Belfast Agreement was easier because Paisley opposed it. In the North's sectarian world, what the DUP hates is automatically welcomed by nationalists, and vice-versa. But most militants have departed Provo ranks. The movement Adams must sell this deal to is very different to the one which existed in 1998, let alone 1994.

Ex-IRA prisoner Anthony McIntyre, who opposes the agreement, says: "If the DUP is getting into bed with Sinn Féin, it's to screw them." McIntyre predicts the leadership will sell the agreement as a republican road map: "They'll soon be telling us that Ian Paisley and Hugh Orde will lead us to a united Ireland."

McIntyre's views are shared by some other IRA veterans, but such people are a minority of the Catholic community. Most nationalists don't adhere to republican orthodoxy, and they will be prepared to endorse this agreement.

October 16, 2006
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  • This is a corrected version of an article that appeared on the Tribune's web site and the Newshound yesterday (Oct 15).
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