The impasse in Northern Ireland


AT A TIME when living standards are under threat and economies across the world face into recession, it is a dreadful indictment of the political grandstanding of both the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin that the Northern Ireland Executive has failed to meet for four months.

The issues that have given rise to this impasse are surmountable, if there is a political willingness to compromise, while failure to provide the necessary leadership may threaten those community advances that have been secured with such difficulty.

Jobs are being lost at an increasing rate in Northern Ireland. And failure by the Executive to function as intended has sent an extremely negative signal to those investors who have expressed an interest in establishing businesses there. Perhaps more importantly, public confidence in the political process and in the powersharing structures established with the assistance of the Irish and British governments and the United States is beginning to erode. And men of violence wait in the wings.

Former Northern Ireland police ombudsman Nuala O'Loan has repeatedly expressed concern about the situation. International research findings showed, she said, that unless effective political structures were put in place and operated, the average length of a peace agreement was five years and the average length of non-violence was 15 years. Those scary statistics should help to concentrate minds and encourage political leaders to focus on the big picture rather than on petty party considerations. For so long as the Executive fails to meet, they are effectively abandoning the high ground to those destructive elements within both communities that would reignite violence and return people to sterile and destructive sectarianism.

The time for political hand-holding in Northern Ireland should be long gone. Both the DUP and Sinn Féin actively campaigned for devolution. But, now that they have it, they persist in old habits and look to the British and Irish governments and to the US to take sides and to resolve their difficulties. It is time they shouldered the responsibilities of office and engaged in necessary compromise that is the art of government. The political name-calling and posturing that has soured relations between Peter Robinson and Gerry Adams in recent months has no place in a well-run administration. It may mollify and divert traditionalists, but it is not what the majority of people want or voted for.

A clear peace has yet to be consolidated. And while the Provisional IRA has ended its war, disarmed and acknowledged the policing and justice systems, dissident republicans and loyalist paramilitaries remain active and dangerous. In such circumstances, four months of Executive paralysis represents a political failure by Mr Robinson, Mr Adams and Martin McGuinness that premature elections would be unlikely to resolve. The issues of devolved policing and justice, the Irish language, education standards and use of the Maze prison site would remain. The only way of surmounting these difficulties is through negotiation and compromise. The sooner creative discussion replaces political posturing the better.