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All change in world of all-Ireland politics

(Brian Feeney, Irish News)

People say nothing ever changes here, but they're wrong. Movement is so slow, glacial even, that usually people don't notice. Take the events, or lack of them, of the past three weeks.

What events, you might ask?

Didn't Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair promise great things and didn't their beautifully maintained local representative set March 8 as another deadline? And what happened? Nothing. No proposals, no big speech from Blair, no joint press conference at Downing Street. The fact that nothing happened is the whole point. It was one-nil for Sinn Féin and the SDLP. They managed to get the Irish government to pull the plug on the stupid unworkable plans the NIO had persuaded the British government to adopt.

Now there's change for you. Twenty years ago unionists were going nuts about the Anglo-Irish Agreement. They were refusing to speak to British ministers. Peter Robinson led an incursion of thugs across the border, was captured, convicted and fined 15,000 punts. Unionists resigned their seats at Westminster, fought by-elections and lost a seat to Seamus Mallon. Meanwhile, Irish civil servants were, this time 20 years ago, getting their knees under their desks at Maryfield as the DUP and UUP, with the help of their friends in the UDA and UVF, organised mass protests. March 6 1986 was designated a 'day of action'. It turned out to be a complete failure.

Now do you spot the change? A fortnight ago the Irish government told the British their plans for a shadow assembly were outside the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, were totally opposed by nationalists here and would not work. In other words, the Irish government, acting on behalf of SF and the SDLP, vetoed proposals for the internal administration of the north's affairs and no-one, certainly no unionist, said 'Boo'. They didn't even notice, so completely normal has it become for the Irish government to be intimately involved in the north's internal affairs. Yet 20 years ago the reaction would have been mayhem.

Another change over the years of cooperation between Britain and the Republic has been the development of close relations between officials. Twenty years ago a few locally recruited officials resigned or were transferred because they wouldn't work the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Civil servants at the NIO used to meet to plan what not to tell Irish civil servants at Maryfield. Now, a generation later, if the two governments agree on anything, it is that they will not permit anything or anyone in the north to divide them. They even managed to stick together publicly while John Bruton and John Major were doing their best to wreck the IRA ceasefire in 1995.

There's another remarkable change which has occurred recently, again with hardly anyone noticing. Unionists now increasingly see the Irish government as their best defence against Sinn Féin. Bertie Ahern has successfully convinced unionists that the Republic does not want to invade and annex the north. Michael McDowell regularly supplies the DUP with ammunition against Sinn Féin. Who would have thought a few years ago that DUP politicians would be quoting an Irish minister of justice with approval?

While the British government tries to coerce the DUP into sharing power with SF the DUP quote speeches by Irish ministers, including the taoiseach, to the effect that they would not have SF in a coalition government in 2007 because of continuing association with robberies and racketeering. As a result, the Paisleyites see no problem in routinely trooping to the capital to discuss north-south matters with the government, something unthinkable even three years ago. All of which is very worrying because you'll notice another change. Gone are the days of what unionists called the 'pan-nationalist front'. Gone are the days when an Irish government automatically supported the views of the party in the north which the majority of nationalists voted for. Now, with the Irish government in open competition for votes in its own backyard with the party the majority of northern nationalists support, it's no longer always in the Irish government's interest to give unquestioning support to SF's northern position. Preferable to play off SF, SDLP and the DUP. Welcome to all-Ireland politics.

March 16, 2006
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This article appeared first in the March 15, 2006 edition of the Irish News.


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



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