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Equality of identity is the key

(Denis Bradley, Irish News)

Last week a Fine Gael politician called for new thinking in the politics of this island.

He included a role for the Queen in the new Ireland that he sketched out. Ian Paisley jnr and Danny Kennedy were soon on the airways asking nationalists what part of 'thanks but no thanks' do we not understand.

Well, the answer to that insulting question is what arrogance or stupidity makes you think that you can behave like a spoiled child in a dangerous world.

Thanks but no thanks, coming from both sides of the political divide, is what led to 30 years of death and violence.

Unionist politics has been accused of great deficiencies throughout its history.

It has been accused of narrowness, bigotry, negativity and fearfulness.

Some or all of those are possibly true and indeed are often acknowledged by unionists themselves.

A more correct critique, however, has been its failure to understand the need to deliver safety to its own people.

Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that the options it chose to secure that safety were inadequate, inept, even downright wrong.

Safety is not an inspiring word. It is not the stuff of poetry or song.

It does not stir the imagination or excite the passions.

Remove it, however, and its very absence reveals its importance.

No-one can guarantee or be guaranteed absolute safety. No institution or human power can do that. But one of the central tasks of politics is to deliver as much safety as possible to its constituents.

Western politics, and more particularly the Americans and the British, are beginning to learn that security and safety are not synonymous and are often poles apart.

On an island where diverse and opposing political views were prominent, unionism chooses numbers, borders and armies, of various ilks, as their method of achieving safety. Poor choices.

The numbers are still there but not as dominantly as in the past. The seven new super councils will make the land mass of the north look very green.

The border is also still there but it is now identified by where the petrol stations begin. The British army has gone back to barracks or off to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The UDR/RIR has been given the Queen's shilling and dispersed.

The illegal armies are in a state of change or disbandment. The UDA and UVF are angry and as distant from the DUP than they are from their historical opponents.

Despite this distance and this anger, there is still the threat, sometimes implied, sometimes spoken, that too great a speed or too great a desire to impose Joint Authority or Joint Stewardship between the two governments would result in a backlash from loyalist paramilitaries.

If that kind of threat were emanating from any nationalist quarter there would be justifiable anger within unionism and questions as to the suitability of that party for government. I think loyalist paramilitaries have been used and abused too often to fall into that trap again.

The November deadline will put pressure on the political parties but it also puts pressure on both governments.

They are experienced and astute enough to weigh up and opt for the position that provides the most safety to the greatest number of people.

That will not just include those of us who live in the north or indeed on this island. It will also take into account those who live in the British Isles.

Despite the apoplexy of unionists, the disapproval of the SDLP and the nervousness of the Irish government, Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's right-hand man, spent at least a year securing that safety from the republican side.

Having secured it, the British are not going to dump it too fast.

The Irish government is the more nervous of the two.

In its richness of safety and wealth, it will wish to tread softly, softly, offending as few as possible.

It will try everything in its power to get the Good Friday Agreement restored. It will launch a charm offensive in September. But when the crunch comes, it is too well versed in the undertow of Anglo/Irish history to allow the see-saw of unionist/nationalist representation and ownership to become unbalanced.

The Irish government will not bring the energy or enthusiasm that many of us here would wish for, but when it comes to the negotiations, it will be capable of deciding with the British that equality of identity is the safest place for everyone involved.

September 2, 2006

This article appeared first in the September 1, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

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