Ahern proposal on MPs ill-advised


What is the Taoiseach playing at? On Thursday Mr Ahern shocked the main Opposition parties and unsettled his partners in Government by proposing that MPs from Northern Ireland should be invited to address the Dáil on matters concerning the North and the Belfast Agreement.

While parliament would not sit in plenary session, the proposed forum would almost certainly be televised and involve "an all-party committee of the whole House".

This is all about public perception. Having abandoned the "armed struggle", Sinn Féin and the IRA now want to show that progress is being made in securing a united Ireland by political means. And what better way to do it than having its MPs and TDs televised together in the Dáil chamber? The effect of such propaganda on the unionist community and on inter-communal relations in Northern Ireland would be uniformly negative.

A commitment to provide access to the Oireachtas for Sinn Féin MPs was extracted from the Taoiseach during arms decommissioning negotiations last year. Mr Ahern later spoke of a forum that would not grant rights or privileges to Northern MPs or cut across the architecture and operation of the Belfast Agreement. Mr Adams took a different view. Last August, he claimed the MPs of his party would have a right to speak in the Dáil and should be able to do so on all issues concerning this island.

The question of providing access for Northern Ireland politicians has been under review for years. In 2002, an All-Party Committee on the Constitution found the Dáil could consider granting a right of audience to MPs on specific Northern issues, on a cross-community basis. But it worried about the impact this might have on unionist support for the Belfast Agreement and it favoured, instead, the development of a North-South parliamentary forum or the system under which Northern representatives are appointed to the Seanad by the Taoiseach.

The overwhelming democratic imperative is that the institutions of this State should represent and serve the people of the State. And while few would argue against providing Northern politicians with access to Dáil committees on relevant issues, the kind of high-profile, single-community representation involved here is unacceptable. The DUP and the UUP have made the depth of their opposition known. Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the Progressive Democrats believe the Taoiseach has gone too far. And the British Conservative Party rejects it as "a 32-county Dáil in shadow form".

Because of the fierceness of the opposition, the proposal is unlikely to survive in its current outline. That will hardly surprise the Taoiseach. Last August, it received a similar, negative reaction. It may be that Mr Ahern was "going through the motions", publicly delivering on a political commitment that had little chance of success. If that was the case, trust between Mr Ahern and Mr Adams will be damaged. But then, the rot started long ago with the Northern Bank robbery.