Government can no longer run away from asking hard questions


The Government has problems on two issues - the peace process and social partnership - because its policy of constructive ambiguity has reached its limits. On both matters the Government was insufficiently precise in the terms it negotiated, did not ask all the hard questions in a timely way, and has fallen into the trap of thinking it can reinterpret agreements unilaterally when in difficulty.

The inability to ask hard questions in time is chronic in this Government. It had the same problem in the Ray Burke, John Ellis and Denis Foley cases.

The hard questions were not asked by the Government in the negotiation of the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. As a result, Ministers have left the State without an agreed means of adjusting pay and spending commitments to the contingencies of an interest rate rise, an oil price rise or a US stock market decline. Any worthwhile partnership deal negotiated on the crest of a boom should have had precise contingency arrangements built in.

The only contingency clause in the entire deal is one which says the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness is "dependent upon achieving an annual GNP rate of about 5.6 per cent over the period of the agreement and a goal of maintaining significant budgetary surpluses each year". If this condition is not met, it "may be necessary to make more gradual progress" on the spending commitments in the programme.

That is the only let-out clause in the programme, which contains 132 pages of spending commitments.

The Government should state

(a) What will happen if growth in a particular year falls to, say, 4.6 per cent? Will that be considered to be "about 5.6 per cent" or not?

(b) How and why was the figure of 5.6 per cent chosen?

(c) What is meant by significant budget surpluses? Does the surplus have to be 1 per cent of GNP or 2 per cent or would a surplus of 0.1 per cent of GNP qualify?

These questions should be answered in the programme. Failure to provide such answers is a failure of negotiation on the Government's part.

This week, when it appeared that teachers might vote against the pay provisions of the agreement, the Government threatened that the commitments in the programme to appoint 1,500 extra teachers might be withdrawn. But there is nothing in the programme which links the commitments on education spending with teachers' pay, nor the commitments on health spending with nurses' or doctors' pay.

Just as the Government seems to think it can rewrite the Good Friday agreement on decommissioning, it also seems to think it can rewrite the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness on teachers' appointments.

If the Government wanted to make individual parts of the programme conditional on other parts, it should have had that written in during the negotiation. Children in classrooms cannot be made to suffer because the Government's pay policy has lost the confidence of teachers.

Inability to ask the right questions in time is at the heart of the Government's difficulties in the peace process. The Government persuaded other parties to form an executive on the understanding that decommissioning would follow. It did not follow. It now emerges that the Government never asked Sinn Fein the direct question - "do you believe the IRA will decommission and if so when?" Prior to the establishment of the Executive, the Government had persuaded others that it had such an understanding and that the republicans had "crossed a Rubicon", in the Taoiseach's own words.

When there was no decommissioning and the Executive was suspended, the Government

(a) refused to accept any responsibility for it

(b) on the record, expressed understanding of the decision

(c) off the record, expressed violent anger at it.

I think the Taoiseach should say what he would have done on February 11th, given that the IRA had

(a) only met de Chastelain twice during the six-week period of the Executive,

(b) had allowed de Chastelain to present his January 30th report without any offer on their part, and

(c) on the last day before unionists were to resign, made an unknown, unpublished, unaccountable and now withdrawn offer.

Would the Taoiseach really have preferred it if suspension had not taken place and David Trimble had been allowed to resign? Does the Taoiseach not know that if Trimble had resigned the votes do not exist on the unionist side in the Assembly to reinstate him, whereas a suspended Executive can be restored without a vote?

I believe a Government that wishes to be taken seriously should be able to count heads in the Assembly and draw politically realistic conclusions.

The Taoiseach is now hinting that the requirement of decommissioning is to be dropped in favour of an option of "standing down" the IRA. It may seem simpleminded to ask, but how on earth can anybody know if a secret army has been stood down? Are we just to take the word of some anonymous IRA spokesman?

Before a "solution" is floated publicly, governments should check if it will travel. We are told the IRA guns are silent, but one person at least was shot through the legs by the IRA as a "punishment" this week. I assume the phrase "the guns are silent" does not just mean that the IRA now has a policy of putting silencers on the barrel before they pull the trigger.

If the IRA is stood down, who will be in charge of its weapons? This is the question the Government needs to ask republicans before it flies this kite any higher. If the IRA says its war is over pressure is much reduced, but its weapons can fall, or be put, into the wrong hands.

If decommissioning is dropped, that is a breach of the Good Friday Agreement, which was voted upon as a package by the Irish people. Individual parts of this package are not individually disposable without endangering the entire structure. Putting weapons beyond use is an acceptable formula, but there would have to be independent verification.

Constructive ambiguity can "move the situation forward", to use the phrase so often heard in the peace process. But it never delivers robust and durable agreement. Willingness to ask the hard questions is what is required in Government now.

John Bruton is leader of Fine Gael