This week I watched a few of the speeches that heralded a new era in N. Irish politics, and I have to admit, it was an unsettling vision for an ex-Belfast man like myself. One-time fire breathing Protestant rabble rouser Ian Paisley was up on the podium, shoulder to shoulder with Martin McGuinness, one-time provisional IRA commander in Derry. At one point the two of them broke out laughing like two old buddies. You would have thought it was a school reunion.
The two former enemies are now team players. Big Ian, as he’s known in N.Irish circles, was sworn in as Northern Ireland’s first minister, with wee Marty as his deputy. Try painting that future scenario for the boyos back in the Bogside during Sunday Bloody Sunday days, and they’d look at you as though you were insane.
The weird part about this about-face in N.Irish politics, is that it isn’t even the moderate parties doing the making up. At one time it seemed more likely that a workable arrangement would involve the middle-of-the-road Protestant Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the moderate Catholic, Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). But contrary to expectations, it’s Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein that are finding the new ground.
So what helped to induce Paisley to back down and shake hands with sworn enemies?
A combination of factors. He long nursed suspicions about the goodwill of Sinn Fein, even though their political wing, the IRA, renounced violence back in 2005. So over the past few years it’s been a gradual process of conversion for him. A number of changes in the Sinn Fein position helped to convince him that N. Ireland was indeed heading into a new era.
A key development involved the police. After a long stand-off with the police, in part due to their historical feud with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Sinn Fein made a crucially important gesture by giving recognition to the new N.Irish police service.
Pressure put on the peace process by London also helped to force Paisley’s hand. There was a fear on the part of Paisley’s DUP that the Brits would go over the heads of the warring parties in N.Ireland and enter into some type of joint sovereignty arrangement with Dublin. In Paisley’s mind it was probably a case of ‘better the devil you know’. After all, a deal with Sinn Fein allows the DUP to have a grip on the reins of power, doubtless preferable to their way of thinking than any arrangement allowing Dublin back door access to N.Irish affairs.
The ceremony in Belfast that showcased the new unity was in part a tribute to the diligence of Tony Blair who showed tenacity in staying on track, even when the future was looking bleak. Given the difficulties he has faced in Iraq, this accomplishment in N.Ireland has got to be a high point for him at this stage of his career. Blair was present at the ceremony and gave a well received speech. The Taoiseach, Bernie Ahern, also gave a speech.
It should be mentioned that a number of N. American politicians and diplomats played a role in this new deal for N Ireland. Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy are two well known figures who lent support to the effort, and of course George Mitchell in his role as US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland. Canadian General and diplomat, John de Chastelain, was head of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, that had responsibility of overseeing the decommissioning of weapons held by various paramilitary factions in N.Ireland.
At one time the U2 song Sunday Bloody Sunday was a type of anthem for those who railed against injustice. The song became a rallying cry of protest after 26 civil rights marchers were shot by members of the 1st Battalion of the British Parachute Regiment. An event that took place in Derry on January 30, 1972.
With this new direction in N. Ireland, maybe it’s time to propose a different U2 song. How about Even Better Than the Real Thing from their 1991 album Achtung Baby! It might seem an odd choice. The lyrics of this tune are pretty ironical. It’s hard not to be ironical about peace and unity deal being forged by two men and two parties that were all about conflict and hard core ideology. It looks great on the media, but how real it is in practice will be proven over time.
It’s still early days … but the prospects for N. Ireland are looking brighter than we’ve seen them in a very long time.
Chris Buckler reports on the divisions in Northern Ireland ahead of the 2017 general election.
Newsnight is the BBC’s flagship news and current affairs TV programme – with analysis, debate, exclusives, and robust interviews.