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A voluntary coalition not the answer

(Brian Feeney, Irish News)

There isn't going to be a 'voluntary coalition'. It's a political no-no. Why? Not just because Alasdair McDonnell, the SDLP's very own home-grown version of John Prescott, advocates it, a sure sign it couldn't work. No, partly because it would be political hara kiri for the SDLP now facing the prospect of retaining only Eddie McGrady's South Down seat at the next election, but more importantly because it would violate the very core of the policy Dublin and London governments have been pursuing for more than a decade.

Abandoning the policy of including Sinn Féin in administration in the north would mean Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair concluding that they had been following Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness up the garden path since 1997. What an admission that would be 12 weeks before a British general election. Besides, they have no alternative, for the simple reason that they do not know what else to do.

A voluntary coalition would consolidate Sinn Féin's dominance in the nationalist community which is why Mark Durkan publicly snubbed his deputy leader.

It would open the SDLP to accusations of being Uncle Toms, 'the acceptable face of nationalism', doing the Brits' dirty work, being unionism's lapdogs, and those are only some of the milder charges.

It couldn't work any more than the first voluntary coalition proposed by Bill Craig's proto-fascist organisation, Vanguard, could have worked in 1975 in defiance of majority unionist opinion then. Vanguard was wiped out at the next election just as the SDLP would be. The truth is unionists could have had a voluntary coalition with the SDLP at any time in the 25 years between the collapse of the power-sharing executive brought about by the UWC strike – enthusiastically supported by David Trimble and Ian Paisley – and the Good Friday Agreement. They rejected the idea because they don't want to share power in the north.

The only reason unionists would contemplate it now is because as the dominant partner they would call the shots, but mainly it would save them from Sinn Féin.

A voluntary coalition might 'save' unionists in the short term but would guarantee a mightily strengthened SF in the next election. It would do nothing to solve the long-term crisis facing the concepts behind the GFA.

The fact is, as you read here a few weeks ago, there is not going to be a power-sharing executive. The GFA institutions are not going to be resurrected. Goddit?

Yes, of course Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair will start talking to Gerry Adams again the week after next, but Adams has sustained critical damage. Just watch the arrangements around the White House St Patrick's day bash this year. Talk about arm's length, cold shoulder. Just wait.

The trouble for Dublin and London is that the evidence from treating SF leaders like political pariahs shows it has no effect other than to enhance their support. They tried to demonise SF for years. Where did it get them? All the noises from both governments indicate that despite intense annoyance about the course of events in December they will return to the grindstone after SF has spent the minimum period in purdah.

That doesn't mean returning to square one though. If you read our proconsul's statement to the House of Commons on January 11 or listened to him and Dermot Ahern on Monday night you can expect major changes in approach. If SF were complaining last autumn that the DUP 'set the bar too high', then they're going to need a pole to vault over the bar Dublin and London have hoisted.

Our proconsul made it clear that until the IRA is out of business SF cannot 'assume responsibilities again in a devolved administration'. Furthermore there will be no devolution of justice or policing 'while criminal activities and the capacity to plan and undertake such activities continues'.

That's not what the GFA permitted. Incredibly, its unwritten terms allowed SF ministers to hold office while the IRA continued to carry out shootings, robberies, racketeering and all manner of illicit fundraising for the republican cause. Both governments turned a blind eye to these activities in the forlorn hope that they would gradually stop. They didn't.

A moral quagmire, as Seamus Mallon said.

We've now reached the alarming point where the majority of the nationalist electorate seems content for these circumstances to continue, reject what both governments are saying and will vote for SF, probably in greater numbers than before.

In other words they are oblivious to the danger of endorsing their own political isolation.

A voluntary coalition doesn't look at the problem.

It's a toy for politicians.

January 20, 2005

This article appeared first in the January 19, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News