David McKittrick: Even Ian Paisley has stopped saying 'Never'

Tuesday 07 February 2006 01:00
Comments

Peter Hain, screwdrivers and spanners at the ready, is the latest in a series of Northern Ireland secretaries to attempt to put the pieces together. He has several things going for him. First, there is no din of war in the background to disturb the political work. Second, everybody has learnt a lot over the long years: it has been a tortuous but valuable education.

And third there are only two really crucial components now, that is the Rev Ian Paisley and the republican movement, encompassing Sinn Fein and the IRA. Furthermore, although no one imagines there will be a quick deal between them, many expect that they will eventually do the business. The question is when.

The major factor preventing a short-term deal is the unclear state of play within the IRA, which last year decommissioned tons of weaponry and announced it was ceasing its activities. But last week's official report, which was supposed to give the IRA a clean bill of health, instead said the organisation was still into large-scale criminality and other wrongdoing. It also said there was unconfirmed intelligence that IRA members had held on to some weaponry. This caused some dismay, though the author of a second official report made it clear he did not believe a word of this.

The net result was not a satisfying all-clear for the IRA but confusion. London and Dublin argue that, whatever misty-grey areas remain, huge progress has been made and a serviceable basis established for the fresh talks. Ian Paisley is involved in the new talks, but he has made it clear that he will not be signing up to any deal with republicans until all remaining pockets of mist have been dispelled and the IRA has finally gone out of business.

The Government is urging him to move as quickly as possible and attempting to apply leverage by talking of closer links with Dublin, reduced political monies and a tightening of public expenditure. His party scoffs at these: they are indeed pressure points, but they are far outweighed by the unchallenged Paisleyite pre-eminence within Unionism. Having decimated David Trimble's party, he stands unchallenged as the voice of the Ulster Protestant.

He holds in fact what might be called a Unionist veto, if not over the terms of an eventual settlement then at least over its timing. Why, Paisley people ask, should they move now? Republicans have come a long way, they concede - so why not wait until they have gone all the way, and become completely political?

The strength of this Paisley position is that it reflects the opinion of the ordinary Prod in the street. The Government may fret over the continuation of a political vacuum, but the vast majority of grass-roots Unionists are losing no sleep whatever over the absence of devolution.

A new deal would inevitably put Sinn Fein leaders such as Martin McGuinness back into ministerial office. Mr Paisley's people would actually have a job on their hands persuading their supporters this would be a good thing. So his party is in a remarkably comfortable position. It has the option of going into government, say next year, but it also has the option of playing it even longer and letting everyone else sweat it out. In recent years it used to be said that Mr Paisley's health was poor - and for a while he certainly looked terrible. But, although almost 80, he has staged a near-miraculous recovery.

A long game does not suit London, Dublin or indeed Sinn Fein, all of which are anxious to make early progress. Yet the chances are that the combined efforts of all of them will not be enough to budge Mr Paisley from his stance, that he will move only when the time and circumstances are exactly right. That means waiting months for more official reports until finally it is unequivocally stated that the IRA has gone away and that republicans have completed their long journey from terrorism.

Still the present Paisley stance is progress of a kind, certainly when measured against a long career of almost unremitting negativity. He made his name by saying no, once famously declaiming: "Never, never, never." His new line is: not yet.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in