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Electorate to become more polarised

(Brian Feeney, Irish News)

Everybody's back from Washington and after dozens of speeches, acres of newsprint and scores of interviews the political scene remains exactly as it was. The only difference is that the elections, both Westminster and local government, are closer, only six weeks from tomorrow.

If recent opinion polls are anything to go by, the elections will confirm the status quo established in November 2003, that is, a completely polarised society where the two communities are drifting even further apart. If anything, the elections will show a hardening of attitudes with the UUP likely to lose East Antrim and Trimble's own seat in Upper Bann under threat. On the nationalist side Sinn Féin will gobble up Newry/Armagh and the SDLP leader faces a do or die struggle in Foyle.

Even so, the Irish and British governments will feel they have to 'do something' to break the deadlock. The real danger is that, faced with two political monoliths after May's elections they will opt for a minimal approach to implementing the Good Friday Agreement. The odds are they will give up trying to resurrect last December's collapsed deal and try to tinker with the assembly. There are already rumours that officials in the British administration here are thinking of giving assembly members powers of scrutiny of some of the proconsul's ministerial minions on the odd day they spend here each week.

Pointless of course, but the British seem desperate to keep the assembly intact although it was not supposed to operate without the balance of the agreement's all-Ireland bodies. Now, strangely all the polls show nationalists want the assembly up and running, but only if there's an executive, whereas unionists are very lukewarm about an assembly designed for them and don't want an executive established when SF dominate the nationalist side.

In order to cobble anything together there will have to be negotiations. How can there be if no-one is talking to SF? If SF aren't included in negotiations leading to an assembly with reduced powers, how can it be anything other than an Orange hall unless the SDLP operate it, which they won't because it would mean oblivion at the next election.

The scenario looks exactly like the Prior assembly of 1982 boycotted by both SF and the SDLP. It was wound up after four years with Paisley being bodily carted out by a large number of puffing policemen. The then proconsul, Jim Prior, called his plan rolling devolution. It just never rolled. Talk about back to the future.

If one lesson was learnt from all the fits and starts here under the Conservatives it is that beginning with the minimum, beguiling though that may be, never leads to anything more. Beginning with the minimum requires a series of steps. The snag is there's never agreement on the next step. It's a departure from the whole concept which led to the Good Friday Agreement and looked like reaching a conclusion last December, namely a one-time, all-embracing deal.

There's only one item holding it all up and that's the IRA standing down. They won't do it in the run-up to an election and the marching season, but people forget the decision has been taken in principle. So far it has proved impossible to implement partly because republicans have made clear standing down will only be 'in the context of the full implementation of the agreement'.

One point is obvious and that is trying to set up a Prior-type assembly with no real powers but simply to keep assembly members in employment is going in the opposite direction from implementing the agreement. It does nothing to solve the policing problem, it eliminates the all-Ireland content of the agreement and it demonstrates the political weakness of the parties here. There's nothing at all in it to attract republicans to make the big jump, indeed the reverse.

The worst short term consequence is that it discredits politics itself. The middle-class on both sides have already virtually stopped voting as the figures from 2003 and last year's euro election show. Attaching a life support system to a moribund assembly will simply convince them they were right in the first place to ignore a talking shop.

The British retain real power.

March 24, 2005

This article appeared first in the March 23, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

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