Ulster dialogue? It's a slanging match

The women's coalition is speaking up for consensus amid Unionist rancour, says David McKittrick

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Three members of the Northern Ireland women's coalition are standing in the election on a platform of consensual accommodation, apparently undeterred by their traumatic introduction to party politics in the Northern Ireland Forum for Political Dialogue.

The women tell with amused near-disbelief of their experience in the forum, an institution which has fallen spectacularly short of the official aspiration that it might promote dialogue and understanding.

It has cost the Government more than pounds 5m in less than a year; it is supposed to bring the politicians closer together; both Labour and Tories have promised to prolong its life; yet it has become a byword for acrimonious division.

It has become the scene of rancour. In a recent debate on BSE, members had some difficulty in making out the words of the women's coalition representative, Monica McWilliams. As she spoke, the Rev Ian Paisley's son, Ian Jr, kept up a commentary: "Mooo," he intoned. "Mooo, mooo, mooo. Moooooo." It was a fairly typical day in the forum.

In that instance the traditionally bovine Paisley sense of humour was in evidence, but on many other occasions the forum has lived up to its reputation for straight unpleasantness and discord. "Sit down, you are an idiot," Paisley Jr called to Unionist MP Ken Maginnis. "Shut up, you," he shouted at another member.

"Idiot" is a popular Democratic Unionist Party word. Iris Robinson, wife of the DUP MP Peter, said of the women's coalition: "They are doing their best to destroy anything that smacks of Unionism or Protestantism. Thank God only 7,000 idiots voted for these women."

The tone, in other words, has been not one of courteous discourse but of confrontational insult. The Hansard-style record of proceedings is studded with unparliamentary remarks: "Excuse me, Mr Chairman," one Unionist interjected. "You were not on the gin and tonic last night, by any chance?"

Sometimes the tone can go beyond uncouthness and verge on menace. "There is, if people are not careful, going to be violence in Northern Ireland," Democratic Unionist Jack McKee warned during a debate on loyalist marches. "The blood of the Ulster people will run red in the streets if our traditions are interfered with. I want to say: they ain't seen nothing yet."

Like many Unionist members, Mr McKee is strong on asserting loyalist marching rights. Thus in a debate on roads and transport his concern was not confined to the provision of thoroughfares: "I want to say one thing before starting properly," he declared. "It is all right building these roads, but are we going to be allowed to march up and down them? That is one issue that will have to be tackled."

The institution opened its doors in June of last year as part of the talks process. It sends delegates on to the main talks, but itself meets in public one day a week. Technically it has 110 members, but Sinn Fein never took its seats and the other nationalist party, the SDLP, resigned and withdrew within weeks, saying it was clear the forum was set to be a scene of acrimony rather than dialogue.

That left the institution as an essentially nationalist-free zone, with 57 Unionists, headed by David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party and Ian Paisley's DUP, dominating 15 other members of five small parties. The departure of the nationalists did little to improve the tenor of debate, a visitor reporting: "The forum was supposed to promote reconciliation. It fairly heaves with hatred."

Even with the nationalists gone there has been no sense of dialogue between the Unionist blocs and the smaller parties. The leader of the middle-of- the-road Alliance party, Lord Alderdice, said: "It is an absolute tragedy that, having got the SDLP in the forum, the Unionists took the very first possible opportunities to drive them out, and have demonstrated no appetite for dialogue and reconciliation."

According to Mrs McWilliams: "It is a very nasty place to be at times. There have been days when I put my hand on my head with despair. The level of sectarian commentary is as raw as anything you'd hear in a street fight. Everything is completely segregated. In the early days, if we walked into the ladies' toilets any Unionist women walked out. The only improvement is to the extent that they now remain in the toilet."

Another prominent figure added: "It was a purposely wasted opportunity. It was wasted in the way the paramilitaries talk about wasting people. Right from the start it was appalling - poisonous, vitriolic, a waste of time."

Four of the minor parties have withdrawn from the forum's parades committee, the women's coalition protesting that the committee, which includes the deputy grand master of the Orange Order, would not meet Catholic residents' groups. The women are now contesting three Westminster seats, including that of Mr Paisley, but are unlikely to cause him much trouble.

As an exercise in democracy the forum has not come cheap. Leasing and fitting out the third floor of a large city-centre office block cost pounds 3.5m, while a further pounds 2m has been spent on running costs. Delegates are paid pounds 100 for each day they attend, plus travelling and subsistence expenses.

The Northern Ireland Office is unable to say how much money has reached the pockets of the individual members, but since Unionists make up 80 per cent of the attending members they have obviously received the bulk of the money. It is clear that for the larger Unionist parties the forum is something of a goldmine.

The institution was a Unionist conception, coming into being largely as a result of pressure on John Major from David Trimble. Some in government hoped it would serve a useful function, but few now cling to that belief. It has just been made known, however, that the Government has bowed to Mr Trimble's pressure to extend its life for at least another year.

That pressure was heavy, Mr Trimble even threatening to pull the plug on the entire talks process if the forum were closed. He announced publicly: "As we've said - no forum, no talks." The Government is clearly anxious to avoid alienating Mr Trimble and his Westminster voting strength. Labour has followed suit and promised that the forum will not be shut down.

But even on the strict merits of the issue, the choice was a difficult one. The forum shows no sign of promoting dialogue, and at one level few non-Unionists would shed any tears at its demise. On a deeper level, however, it can take years to set up such institutions, and the idea of scrapping such an establishment gives pause even to many of its critics.

But the forum's performance, coupled with the lack of headway in the main talks, has been a deeply disillusioning experience for many of those who had hoped round-table talks offered the main avenue for political progress.

One senior political figure said privately: "This has had a big impact on me. It has been incredibly frustrating. I have concluded that if voting patterns remain the same in the Westminster election, then there is absolutely no chance at all of any kind of negotiated settlement in Northern Ireland - absolutely none." Thus far in the election campaign, there is little to suggest that the future conduct of politics will be much different from the past.

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