Appeasing the extremists for a sham partnership
Democrats have reason to be grateful to the obduracy of the Rev Ian Paisley, writes Dennis Kennedy.
So this is where a decade of the "Peace Process" has brought us - two prime ministers bending every sinew, and every knee, to install a religious demagogue and political bully as first minister of Northern Ireland alongside a shady political frontman for a terrorist organisation as deputy, or, more probably, their nominees.
The fact that these two have the electoral support of majorities in both communities is due in large measure to the same two prime ministers. They have repeatedly appeased the representatives of terrorism, loading them with status and respectability, and making it easy for nationalists to vote for Sinn Féin, while at the same time sacrificing gullible moderate unionists who put too much trust in their promises.
The supreme irony is that the people of Northern Ireland are saved, at the last minute, from this ultimate indignity by Ian Paisley's refusal to go into government with Sinn Féin, or, in the words of Tony Blair, to give a place in government to people inextricably linked to terrorism, until the IRA has given public proof of decommissioning. The firebrand demagogue is the champion of democracy and non-violence.
Not everyone will believe the leopard is now spotless; it may be that he never intended going into government with Sinn Féin, and was calculating on Sinn Féin being even less willing to govern with the DUP. If so, Gerry Adams has obliged with his ludicrous fit of camera-shyness.
Still, the DUP is now fully signed up to sharing power with nationalists, to cross-Border bodies, to much of the machinery of the Belfast Agreement. One small step into camera-shot from the IRA and the DUP would, presumably, find itself in government with Sinn Féin and operating what is essentially the Belfast Agreement with minor modifications.
Did Sinn Féin miscalculate, assuming the DUP would never buy the comprehensive agreement, and then had to grasp the flimsy straw of the photographs? Who knows?
But anyone concerned for democracy in Northern Ireland, and for a real settlement, must, for the moment, be grateful to Paisley, and perhaps also to Adams, for sparing the province yet another lurch down a cul-de-sac of sham partnership and phoney peace.
The past few weeks have seen the two governments at their pathetic worst. Who can forget the pictures of the stammering Taoiseach explaining to the Dáil that he could not keep his promise to Garda McCabe's widow, or to the nation, because the IRA would not let him?
Or the TV pictures of him standing with Martin McGuinness clearly pulling the strings and telling us photographs were out?
And then apologising to Paisley and saying photos were in again? And then Paul Murphy saying photos were in, but they might have to try something else?
What can be said of two prime ministers acting as PRs for the IRA - printing and circulating at public expense a statement from a terrorist organisation they had both vowed to defeat? And what a statement; it promises to put "all its arms beyond use" but far from announcing its own disbandment, the IRA makes it clear it will remain in business, issuing instructions to its "volunteers", and moving into a "new mode".
The most promising sentence in the statement was that "the full and speedy implementation of the comprehensive agreement" would remove the causes of the conflict.
All previous republican statements identified partition, or the British presence, as the root cause of the conflict, while this seemed to indicate a real shift to republican acceptance that from now on there could be no justification for the use of force, no matter how long partition continued.
But such hopes were immediately muddied by the fuller statement issued, not by Ahern and Blair, but by P. O'Neill, and printed in An Phoblacht. In this there is a subtle change of wording; here the comprehensive agreement could "create a political context with the potential to remove the causes of the conflict", which might simply mean that the agreement would have the potential to lead to Irish unity.
Few in Northern Ireland share the cock-eyed optimism of Blair, Ahern and Murphy. Instead they see more months, perhaps years, wasted in flogging the dead horse of the "peace process" and throwing money at nonsense bodies and projects while infrastructure and public services creak and falter, education boards go bust, libraries cannot afford to buy books, schools are seriously underfunded and travellers can only envy the South its ever-improving motorways, and curse the belated attempts to upgrade the inadequate link north of the Border.
And all the while, the Celtic Tiger purrs along nicely, and we are told by Gordon Brown that we live in the strongest major economy in western Europe.
The fundamentals underlying the Belfast Agreement were and remain sound - consent, power-sharing, North-South dimension, and absolute commitment to peaceful means - but in implementing the agreement the two governments have paid no more than lip service to the last of these, and elements of the institutional arrangements have proved unworkable. They should start again, making it clear that any party which remains linked to a paramilitary group cannot have a place in government, no matter how many people vote for it.
No doubt they will respond, pathetically, that that's impossible, that republicans would not wear it.
But who ultimately should prevail - the elected governments and the democratic majority, or the die-hards linked to terrorism?