From Socialist Voice, January 2007

Paisley: a prisoner of history

The political stalemate in the peace process has continued into the new year. Paisley appears unable to move politically. The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has stated that during meetings held between his government and the DUP agreement was reached on the timetable and modus operandi for re-establishing a functioning Northern Assembly and Executive before the March elections, with the devolution of control over policing and justice by May 2008, while the DUP would agree to share government with Sinn Féin.
     Paisley has subsequently denied that he made any agreement and now wants Blair to produce the proof of such an agreement, as difficulties and divisions mount within his party.
     Sinn Féin has agreed to hold a special ard-fheis to discuss giving support to policing and the PSNI and for full control over policing and the justice system to be devolved to the new Executive in 2008.
     The demand by the DUP for Sinn Féin to pledge support for policing and the legal system was only a ruse, in the hope that republicans would split or walk away.
     Clearly within the DUP there are deep divisions about the way forward. Paisley and the upper echelons want to do a deal and secure Executive seats, while elements such as William McCrea and Jim Allister are completely opposed to any co-operation with Sinn Féin and continue to raise political demands that Sinn Féin must meet so as to create the “right” conditions for sharing government.
     There are no limits to the obstacles that McCrea and others will attempt to raise to block change. Each time Sinn Féin says yes to the various demands raised both by Ulster Unionists and the DUP, elements within both parties dream up new ways to say no. It is a case of raising demands that you hope your enemy won’t accept, so you can walk away with the appearance of being the one who is reasonable.
     It is strange and indeed ironic that unionists are so opposed to devolved government with full powers when they had just such an assembly, with similar powers, which they abused for more than fifty years when they operated a virtual one-party statelet. Paisley has built his political party and his career on saying “no.” Now that he has assumed the leading voice of unionism he is unable to enforce his “no” on developments.
     Unionism, as we have stated many times, is caught up in conditions that have changed. The debate over policing is not really about policing but about unionism having nothing left to offer. Unionism must realise that even if the Assembly and Executive, and the elections in March, are frozen, cross-border economic and political co-operation will continue and can only grow.
     Since the beginning of the peace process, unionists—both the DUP and UUP—have raised one obstacle after another—not because they believed they could win but in the hope that republicans would not step forward; their agenda could be delivered by provoking a “no” from republicans. Each time they got a “yes” they scrambled for a new “no” to bring forward.
     In the past, in response to the demands of the civil rights movement, unionists responded in the only way they knew, and that was by the use of violence, using the state to block advance. Today they no longer control the levers of government. Their main backers, the British, have other allies in Ireland they wish to work with.
     Who will gain most if the impasse over policing can be overcome? There would be a police force that is not controlled exclusively by unionism, policing controlled at the local level, with no involvement in its running by the British. A devolved Assembly and local Executive with maximum economic and political powers will be a significant platform on which to build and from which to push for greater political and economic reintegration on this island.
     There is the potential in developing a political strategy that can make what was the call for a British “declaration of intent” a reality. It is highly unlikely that we will see or hear the British declaring disengagement and the Union Jack being lowered over Stormont. What is essential is that it is secured in real, practical terms, that it is there in substance.
     While there is still the potential for forward political momentum, all democratic forces need to find unity of action, both inside and outside the present political structures and any future Assembly and Executive.
     The experience of the struggle of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement shows that when we have unity and co-operation among all anti-unionist forces, gains are made and advances secured. Military or political adventurism has shown in the past that it plays into the hands of those opposed to Irish democracy and working-class unity.
     Saying “no” is no longer an option for unionists, as the balance of political momentum is not in their favour. Equally, the pressure must be maintained on the British to push ahead with economic and political cross-border co-operation and integration. The potential is there to make Paisley yesterday’s man.

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