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It's time for some serious direct negotiations

(, Irish News)

Sinn Féin and the DUP have left the door ajar for a possible deal. Neither party rejects the agreement outright.

Suspicions remain and could block progress but it seems reasonable for the DUP to insist that their future partners in government support the police.

No political structure could survive long without support for policing. However, Sinn Féin's demand that the police be fully accountable and that MI5's role is clarified is also reasonable.

The history of the intelligence people in Northern Ireland is not a happy one and Paisley himself has an interest in this, given he recently reiterated that hostile British Intelligence attentions were once focused specifically on him.

Each side operates in the context of a virulent age-old dispute and each has the hand of historical suspicion on their shoulders. There is a dearth of trust and it is easy to cast aspersions.

After all, was it not mainly DUP reactionary politics and Provisional IRA violence that brought us so much agony and heartbreak? I would be the first to criticise them for their role in the Northern Ireland troubles – but we must not kill the goose that could yet lay a golden egg.

Most of us have been moulded by division at the heart of this society and so our reactions are fairly predictable. We could so easily scupper this chance and all the gains of recent years.

Yet many unionists appear content with garnering their forces to damn Paisley and the DUP for supporting a deal that is hardly distinguishable from the Belfast agreement.

This is why the DUP and Sinn Féin prefer an election rather than a referendum to test support. Parties beyond the Sinn Féin/DUP axis are in principle even more supportive of a deal so how are supporters of St Andrews to vote if they reject both Sinn Féin and DUP politics? Could a vote for the SDLP or the UUP be mischievously interpreted as anti-agreement or is a vote for Bob McCartney the only means of expressing opposition?

Some unionists get excited at the prospect of uniting disparate groups in opposition to a man and a party that destroyed possibilities of a more unionist- friendly deal by remaining outside negotiations in 1998.

But as Reg Empey admits in a new UUP leaflet: "We need to make Northern Ireland work for all of us so that a new generation of young people don't have to go through the nightmare that many of us did." This implies Ulster Unionists are critical friends of the agreement, which seems reasonable.

The leaflet also makes invidious comparisons between statements previously made by the DUP about never sharing power with Sinn Féin and their present stance.

However, while Paisley deserves criticism for his reactionary politics over decades, criticism alone will not bring a better society closer.

It is surely right that the DUP seek assurances on accountability of ministers. The idea that ministers might be free to follow their own agendas is unacceptable.

This is not a big deal for Sinn Féin because any lack of accountability could expose them to possible maverick decisions by unionist ministers.

As for the Irish language Act, there are clear dangers here to be avoided. Any element of compulsion would be counter-productive for many people who are not dyed-in-the-wool nationalists.

But the big prize remains a power-sharing assembly hopefully operating in the longer term, in the interests of all.

Genuine fears remain that a deal might allow Sinn Féin and the DUP to carve up everything between them and to follow their own selfish agendas.

Some critics postulate endless possible alternatives but surely having come this far, most alternatives are now pie in the sky. If this deal is squandered all future options – apart from joint authority – would be seriously diminished, perhaps for a very long time.

Sinn Féin is right to point up the arrogance and stupidity of the DUP's refusal to speak with Sinn Féin "sinners". The way to resolve differences is surely to talk. The DUP leader professes to be a follower of Jesus but Jesus never set preconditions before talking to anyone.

Paisley's refusal reminds one of childhood friends who sent those they disagreed with to Coventry. It was childish and insulting behaviour that appealed to base instincts. Paisley will have to find courage to change and end this nonsense by getting down to serious direct negotiations.

November 14, 2006

This article appeared first in the November 13, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

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