Paul Murphy: 'The IRA needs to persuade people that the war is really over'

The Monday Interview: Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
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The Independent Online

While the Government grapples with the issues of Hutton, the BBC and Iraq, one Cabinet minister will be embroiled this week in tackling the less spectacular but equally difficult question of Northern Ireland.

Paul Murphy, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, will convene fresh political talks at Stormont tomorrow in an effort to revive the stalled peace process. He says he is in "reasonably" good spirits, a mood which probably reflects that of most of the population.

Nobody expects instant progress or an early revival of the Belfast Assembly in this new round, but nor does anybody envisage a return to full-scale violence. Life goes on, with violence at low levels.

Against this background, the new review of the Good Friday Agreement is not regarded, as other talks have been, as a matter of life or death. The question remains whether the peace process might eventually unravel in an extended vacuum.

There has been no visible political progress since the Assembly elections in November. Indeed, there has been much shock at how the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein emerged as the two main parties. No one can imagine the two suddenly shaking hands and announcing a new deal. Many believe it will come in time, but it will probably take years rather than months.

Mr Murphy pointed out that the talks process has appeared dead in the water before, only to stage an unexpected revival. "In late 1997, most of us had given up on the talks," he said. "Yet when we came to Easter 1998 we actually pulled it off with the Good Friday Agreement. I'm in reasonably good spirits, and while I wouldn't underestimate the difficulties I've certainly not given up.

"Put it this way; I think it's going to be more difficult than it's been before, for obvious reasons, but I'm not pessimistic. For one thing, the major parties are in favour of devolution and that's not a bad starting point. They all prefer to see locally elected ministers and that should be a spur to them."

The review itself will be conducted on a less than frantic timetable. After tomorrow's formal opening, business will be conducted on Mondays and Tuesdays, with an interruption for St Patrick's Day in March. It will probably be concluded in three months.

Last November's election changed things dramatically, with the Mr Paisley displacing David Trimble and the Ulster Unionists to become the dominant force within Unionism. Most believe real progress will only happen with Mr Paisley's blessing, since he has 33 Assembly seats and Mr Trimble has only 24.

Mr Murphy's explanation for the shift within Unionism included the observation that voting patterns did not change hugely. He said of Unionist voters: "I suppose from their point of view they didn't see the progress that they wanted to see - what we all wanted really - in decommissioning."

Has the landscape been transformed? "It has certainly changed but I don't think it has changed to such an extent that we can't talk together about where we might go. The DUP has got a much bigger mandate and it's an anti-Agreement party, though I think they genuinely want to see devolution restored. They've experienced devolution and they want it back. The mathematics are changed and there's nothing we can do about that."

But why did the arithmetic change so much, leaving the pro-Agreement Trimbleites trailing so far behind the anti-Agreement Paisleyites? "I'm not underestimating the fact that the DUP have improved their position," Mr Murphy said. "But at the same time the UUP hasn't gone under. They didn't lose but neither did they gain an awful lot.

"David Trimble obviously must be disappointed but I think he's still absolutely committed to making the Agreement work. Obviously, it's a different landscape but he's still a very considerable figure. He's still a big player, even though the mathematics of it has meant he hasn't got the same number of seats as Ian Paisley."

Over the years, Mr Trimble and Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams eventually developed a useful working relationship. But there is little chance of any Paisley-Adams personal chemistry emerging from the review, since the DUP has vowed it will not talk to Sinn Fein.

How do Mr Murphy and the often spiky Mr Paisley do business? "I get on with him very well," Mr Murphy said, which was not much of a surprise, since the affable Welshman seems to get on with everyone.

"He's always very courteous and willing to engage in discussions, and I must say that in the meetings we've had since the election there has been an engagement to try to ensure these talks work."

But have these numbers given Mr Paisley a veto? There is the slightest suggestion of a ministerial shrug. "I suppose nationalists would say they have a veto too. My point is that they've all got vetoes; they can out-veto each other for ever if they want to.

"Yes, the landscape has changed, but we're in a newer sort of world where the DUP has experienced government and will be taking part in talks probably in quite a different frame. I've gone round in recent weeks talking to councillors and others and I do see a shift in people wanting to work together.

"Now I'm not saying there's going to be direct contact between the DUP and Sinn Fein, but there are working arrangements in local authorities up and down Northern Ireland, and in the committee system of the Assembly. They may not have engaged, but they made the system work."

The election was also a landmark on the nationalist side, leaving Sinn Fein well ahead of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the more moderate nationalists. The bottom line is that devolution is conceivable only on the say-so of both the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Mr Murphy declined to subscribe to the widespread pessimism about the SDLP's future in the face of Sinn Fein's rapid growth. "I don't think the SDLP was mortally wounded; far from it," he said. "Clearly there was an increased vote for Sinn Fein but that doesn't mean the SDLP is out of the picture. It's not."

So why did Sinn Fein do so well, going from 18 Assembly seats to 24? "There are a number of reasons. It's clear Sinn Fein conducted a very professional and successful election. The actual business of electioneering was done very professionally by them."

And what of the IRA, which before the election performed a third act of arms decommissioning that had little impact on Unionist opinion? What does the minister want them to do? "I want them to give sufficient confidence to people that we are moving towards a peaceful, non-violent and democratic Northern Ireland. Now, we have made progress, of course we have.

"The ceasefire still holds, the statements from the IRA and Gerry Adams were useful, and the decommissioning was certainly bigger than before. But it clearly wasn't enough to instil confidence, particularly but not exclusively among Unionists, and so clearly more needs to be done.

"That must apply to activity which is still going on. They need to persuade people that the war is over. It's a question of building up confidence that we're on the right road."

Is there a sign of the level of violence rising? "We've seen an increase in so-called punishment beatings from both sides over the past few weeks, which is disturbing and which we have to address.

"Other than that, thankfully no. We had a very good marching season and I hope that's repeated. In terms of rioting on the streets, we're holding our own and the security situation is pretty good compared to what it used to be."

It is obviously one point of encouragement that the review should be made against such an unusually favourable security backdrop, but nobody envies Mr Murphy his task of making progress. The question arises of what will follow if the review does not work. His reply: "By then, either we've made progress or we haven't made enough progress and we'll have to look at other ways. But the point is that we're not simply sitting back and doing nothing."

Known as an emollient and patient man, Mr Murphy may need to draw deeply on his store of both qualities in the next three months.

Troubled times for the Stormont Assembly

14 OCTOBER 2002: Northern Ireland Assembly suspended as a result of alleged IRA intelligence activity at Stormont.

27 FEBRUARY 2003: The British and Irish prime ministers meet at Downing Street to assess the prospects of restoring a devolved government to Northern Ireland.

5 MARCH: Elections to the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly, scheduled for 1 May 2003, postponed until 29 May 2003.

1 MAY: The Government announces suspension of 29 May elections after discussions between the British and Irish governments.

21 OCTOBER: The IRA disposes of the largest arsenal so far in the decommissioning of its weapons.

24 NOVEMBER: Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly announced for Wednesday 26 November 2003.

26 NOVEMBER: The DUP, led by the Rev Ian Paisley, polls 26 per cent of the vote, winning 30 of the 108 seats. Sinn Fein have 24 per cent, replacing the SDLP as the largest nationalist party. The Ulster Unionists have 23 per cent and the Social Democratic and Labour Party 17 per cent.

19 DECEMBER: The Ulster Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson resigns from the party, along with David Burnside MP and Martin Smyth MP.

5 JANUARY 2004: The former Ulster Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson says he is joining the Democratic Unionist Party, along with two newly elected members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Arlene Foster and Norah Beare.

22 JANUARY: Paul Murphy meets the Irish Foreign Minister, Brian Cowen, to discuss the forthcoming review of the Good Friday Agreement.

3 FEBRUARY: The review is due to begin and will involve the parties elected to the suspended Northern Ireland Assembly in November.

The CV

BORN: 25 November 1948, in Usk, Gwent

EDUCATION: St Francis RC School, Abersychan,

West Monmouth School, Pontypool,

Oriel College, Oxford

CAREER:

1970-71: Lecturer in history and government, Ebbw Vale college of further education

1987: MP for Torfaen

1988-94: Shadow spokesman on Welsh Affairs

1994-95: Shadow spokesman on Northern Ireland

1995: Shadow spokesman on foreign affairs

1995-97: Shadow spokesman on defence

1997: Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office with specific responsibility for political development

1999: Privy Councillor.

28 July, 1999: Secretary of State for Wales

24 OCTOBER 2002: Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

INTERESTS: Listening to classical music and cooking

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