Leadership would not be out of place

 

NOBODY SAID it would be easy. But the petulant, almost childish, behaviour of some senior politicians within the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin concerning the precise designation of places and territory shows how hard it can be. At a time of increasingly difficult economic circumstances and growing job losses, such conduct damages public confidence in the ability of the Executive to work constructively for the common good and is a grave indictment of the politicians concerned.

Disagreement over place names is nothing new. It has been a ready source of contention between unionists and nationalists for many years. But for members of a fragile Executive to engage in this form of political coat-trailing at a time when far more important issues have to be addressed represents a backwards step. To dismiss it as a form of political grandstanding underestimates the damage it can do. The same holds true for threats of disruption and the setting of ultimatums. Megaphone politics simply does not work. It exacerbates, rather than minimises, differences. And it offers a medium within which dissident factions and paramilitary organisations can grow and develop.

In recent weeks, there has been an upsurge in activity by dissident republicans. Members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland have come under attack and there have been a number of outbreaks of street violence. At the same time, loyalist paramilitary organisations have continued to engage in drug-dealing, extortion and other criminal activities. It is a dangerous situation. And it may worsen if politicians fail to provide the kind of confident and grounded leadership that is required. The Independent Monitoring Commission has repeatedly warned of the threat of violence posed by these organisations, even as it charted a gradual dismantling of the command structures of the Provisional IRA. Yesterday, it provided the British and Irish governments with an up-to-date assessment of that process. Its report on the Provisional IRA is due to be published tomorrow.

Serious issues, which impinge directly on the transfer of policing and justice powers from Westminster, remain to be resolved by the DUP and Sinn Féin. But the difficulties can be overcome, given patience and goodwill. Already, some of the mechanisms that may unlock the policing impasse have been agreed between the parties. They must, however, be given time and space to produce the desired results.

Plenty of creative ideas are available: what is needed is a willingness by Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson to engage in political compromise. Talks, later this week, may get the situation back on track. The Executive has not met since mid-June because of Sinn Féin opposition. And the DUP has warned of "serious consequences" if such obstruction continues. The powersharing Executive, brought into existence with such difficulty by the two governments last year, remains a vulnerable and frail experiment. It needs the full-blooded commitment of all political parties to thrive. And it must do so if Northern Ireland is to put its bloody past behind it.