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Bertie in credit after classic piece of politics

(Brian Feeney, Irish News)

It was all over so quickly you could hardly see it going past. On October 26 the taoiseach proposed allowing northern MPs to participate in the Dail in a 'committee of the whole House'. By October 28 almost every other party in the Dail, with of course the exception of Sinn Féin, rejected the proposal out of hand.

Predictably enough unionists were up in arms about it.

They're always eager to veto any involvement of northern nationalists in a wider Irish context. In fact they'd love to keep nationalists in a cage and deny their existence just as they did for decades. Indeed until the 1980s you'd have been hard pushed to find any formal or official evidence of the existence of a nationalist community in the north. As a matter of fact it isn't much different today. So no surprises there.

It was the alacrity with which Fine Gael, Labour and the tiny PD party hit Bertie Ahern's proposal out of court which shocked nationalists into silence.

There were Mark Durkan and Caoimhghin O Caolain using exactly the same words on Thursday, "a step forward", to welcome the taoiseach's proposal while at exactly the same time those other parties were doing a Paisley and shouting 'Nevaar'.

What exactly did Bertie Ahern propose? He suggested that all 166 TDs could sit in committee and discuss matters "regarding Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement" and that northern MPs could join in.

It's clear now that it won't happen in that form. It's true that Fianna Fail and SF together could have carried the proposal in the Dail but there's no chance of Bertie pressing on against the virulent opposition of his little PD tail.

All of which raises another question. Why did Bertie propose it in the first place?

Yes, you can say he's responding to a long-standing demand from Sinn Féin and also to proposals for reforming Dail representation that have been in the offing for years. True, but Bertie knows better than to rush in with a proposal he must have known would be rejected.

So why did he do it?

Politics folks, politics.

Now no one can say Fianna Fail did nothing to make the Dail a truly national chamber. He can always turn to SF and tell them he did try to make speaking rights for northerners a reality but that wasn't his main reason.

In the run up to the next election in the Republic, probably in 2007, the taoiseach can wrap the green flag round him and point to those parties which frustrated plans to include northerners in any shape or form in the Dail.

Fine Gael and Labour walked straight into it exposing themselves as partitionist to their core.

Mind you, Labour did tell the truth. The thought of northern Sinn Féin in the Dail induces involuntary bowel movements in Labour TDs. Quite openly Labour TDs said the demand for speaking rights is all about 'the optics of having Gerry and the boys debating in the Dail on TV'. Mark Durkan and his two boys don't count. They have no seats in the south and don't contest elections there. If it was just the prospect of the SDLP it would be a different matter. They're no threat to any southern party and naturally were never mentioned in any of the objections made by the partitionist parties. They stay in the south and the SDLP stays in the north, so that's OK.

All in all it was a beautiful move by Bertie. He didn't have to do a thing. He can say he tried to carry out his obligations but was stymied by his partitionist electoral opponents. He'll come back with new proposals. There will be speaking rights of some description but no one can criticise Bertie for not trying for the maximum.

Next time he might even approach it properly by consulting the other parties privately first to sound out the maximum they can live with.

He'll only do that if he wants it to work. Quite obviously he didn't want last week's proposal to work any more than the parties which summarily rejected it. But Bertie walks away with the credit. A classic stroke.

November 3, 2005

This article appeared first in the November 2, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

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