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Unexpected threat in unionist political jungle

(James Kelly, Irish News)

Want to know what's going on? No need to consult the fortuneteller's crystal ball. It's all fixed for some time in January. The movers and shakers in London, Dublin and Washington have the whole Ulster jigsaw puzzle laid out with the pieces ready to be put in place. The question is are they supreme optimists or is this the 'big deal' on at long last. As Prime Minister Asquith used to remark "we must wait and see".

It has been a long trail awinding since the Good Friday Agreement so we ask ourselves could this be the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end? Intriguing? In the last few days there have been lots of straws in the wind.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern threw a lifeline to the befuddled unionist politicians assuring them that nobody down there wants to railroad them into the 26.

Then came the International Monitoring Commission's report to the British and Irish governments saying that the IRA's announcement of destruction of its arsenal was "encouraging" but withholding a final verdict on its activities until a date in January.

This was accepted on all sides except by the still muddled no-men of unionism grasping at every last excuse to delay the inevitable. Even the long time critic of the IRA, the Republic's justice minister Michael McDowell, accepted the IMC report as encouraging.

In the House of Commons came another pointer to the way ahead when Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that Sinn Féin would have £120,000 of assembly allowances restored, which he declared was a "sensible step towards restoring the devolved institutions".

There will be "difficult things done along the way on all sides", he hinted.

Did this include twisting the arm of Paisley and co, who amid DUP cries of "shame" claimed that Sinn Féin was being "rewarded for doing nothing".

But it seems they are not the only people to be rewarded according to top secret leak announced by the BBC.

Whether the scoop came from someone high up in the know or Number 10 will remain a mystery but the mischief has been done. The Beeb claims that it has learned the surprise tit-bit that in the Queen's New Year honour's list Mrs Eileen Paisley, wife of big Ian, is to become a baroness and two other DUP politicians, including the Belfast lord mayor, are also to be raised to the peerage.

In one fell swoop Lady Paisley not only takes precedence over her husband but cheekily enjoys the same privileges as that other baroness and ex-prime minster Margaret Thatcher!

To balance matters the story goes that the sacked unionist leader David Trimble too is to be kicked upstairs to the Lords.

Times have changed since the days when premature disclosure of names to be honoured risked the possibility of them being cancelled to mark the displeasure of the monarch at the leak.

So embarrassment all round, with murmurs in the DUP ranks of "does this mean the exercise of the soft shoe shuffle" to bring the DUP awkward squad into line for the big deal? One of the "difficult things along the way" as whispered by Mr Blair perhaps.

There are others, judging by the sudden whinge from loyalist quarters about "pockets of neglect" by their politicians pursuing futile grievances about Orange marches and flag waving when they should have been concentrating on housing and the economic well being of their "neglected" constituents.

In the aftermath of the Shankill Orange riots against the police and British army the male-dominated Ulster Unionist and DUP politicians are threatened by a sudden up surge of 'girl power'.

A new organisation, Women Raising Unionist Concerns, has delivered an ultimatum to Secretary of State Peter Hain and all of the north's political parties threatening to bring Belfast to a standstill by blocking roads over a wide area at three o'clock on November 4, unless they get a face-to-face meeting to discuss their grievances.

Jean Barnes, chairwoman of the Women Raising Unionist Concerns group said "Ulster's men have had their chance and now it is time for them to get out of the way".

The threat by this militant group is taken seriously for they already brought the centre of Belfast to a standstill last month after the riots caused mayhem in Protestant districts with streets of wrecked cars and damaged property.

The worldwide coverage of this Orange own goal brought widespread criticism of the failure of the leadership of Ian Paisley and Sir Reg Empey (UUP).

Politicians will watch anxiously at this unexpected threat to their long male domination of the scene in the Ulster political jungle. The rise of women power or a one-day wonder?

October 24, 2005

This article appeared first in the October 22, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

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