Leading Article: The virtue of compromise

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The Independent Online
POKING about in the entrails of Thursday's elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, struggling with the complexities of an unfamiliar voting system to try to work out who won and who lost, we should not lose sight of the bigger picture. The historical significance of the vote is that it returns the administration of Northern Ireland to Northern Ireland. Even if some voters do not like the direction their ship of state is taking, they can aspire to be captains of their fate again.

We would have wished that the opponents of the Good Friday agreement, led with such irritating swagger by Ian Paisley, had not done as well as they have. But the prospects for this assembly are, regardless of the precise allocation of seats to parties, much better than for its predecessor. Fully 26 years after Stormont rule ended, this assembly offers the possibility of a sharing of power between the divided peoples of that part of the divided island of Ireland (even though the polls reveal the depth of the divide among people on the Unionist side).

On Friday, Mr Paisley declared that the voters "wrote the obituary notice of Trimbleism". Mr Paisley's report of Mr Trimble's death is exaggerated. The performance of Mr Trimble and those in his party remaining loyal to him was disappointing, but the vote was surely the beginning of his leadership of the assembly. Trimbleism, or the doctrine of pragmatic Unionism, has survived, although the delicate balance of power among Unionists will demand even more of the skill and courage that he has exhibited in the past months.

Compromise is a novel and great virtue in Northern Ireland. After all, it made last week's elections possible. In the peace process of which the elections were a part, all the citizens of Northern Ireland were asked to make compromises, and we should admire all those who responded. Indeed, compromise was also asked of all the citizens of the Irish republic and of the rest of the United Kingdom. The Irish gave up their territorial claim to the North, while the rest of the UK has had to accommodate the affront to justice of the early release of terrorist prisoners.

The prospect of James McArdle, convicted last week of conspiracy over the Docklands bomb which ended the IRA ceasefire in 1996, being freed after two years is odious. Ken Maginnis, security spokesman for the Ulster Unionists, bravely said: "There is a bigger picture than James McArdle." Intellectually, we can understand it; historically, we know it must be done; but we do not have to like it.

The most influential group of people outside Northern Ireland who failed to rise to this challenge, who failed to see the bigger picture, was the Conservative Party. By abandoning the policy of all-party unity on Northern Ireland just before Thursday's voting, William Hague and Andrew Mackay behaved irresponsibly. Nobody likes letting terrorists out early, but by hawking their consciences in public, trying to tie the release of prisoners to the impractical condition of handing in weapons, they offered succour to the anti-agreement Unionists. It is impossible to assess the impact that had on the election results, but it clearly did not help.

The results do mean that, for the next stage in the peace process, the ball is firmly in Sinn Fein's court. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have not yet done enough to renounce violence and to distance themselves from the IRA. The agreement requires them to sign up to a series of unambiguous commitments to exclusively peaceful and democratic means for achieving their aims before they can take part in the government of Northern Ireland. The relationship between Sinn Fein and an IRA which by implication reserves the right to return to the armed struggle will remain a difficulty, but on this personal renunciation there can be no compromise.

Without these undertakings, Mr Trimble will be acutely vulnerable to the Paisleyites. With them, Northern Ireland politics will set foot on the path to conventional politics. With an assembly, Northern Ireland will be better placed to negotiate cross-border co-operation with Dublin on its own terms, and you have to be a very hard-line Unionist to believe that there are no matters on which dialogue can be mutually beneficial. What Northern Irish politics needs is more arguments about gas pipelines, inward investment and selective schools, and fewer about who can march where their fathers marched.