Dr John Coulter with a piece that initially featured in Tribune Magazine on 21 October 2013.As Halloween looms, so does the spectre of the notorious “Plan B” which haunted the St Andrews talks in 2006. Those led to the establishment of a stable power-sharing Executive at Stormont, and the launch of the “Chuckle Brothers” political routine of fundamentalist Christian firebrand Ian Paisley (senior) as First Minister, and Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein MP and former IRA commander, as Deputy First Minister.
While McGuinness has survived the jibes from dissident republican elements opposed to the peace process, Paisley eventually succumbed to the anti-power sharing faction within his own party.
The pro-Paisley faction has always maintained that it had to cut a deal with Sinn Fein in 2006, otherwise the British and Irish governments would impose Plan B on the Northern Ireland parties. This was joint authority – whereby the Dail and Westminster would rule Ulster as equal partners.
In 1985, Unionists had totally misread the then Anglo-Irish Agreement signed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Dublin premier Garret FitzGerald. The “Dublin Diktat”, as it became known among Unionists, gave the Republic of Ireland its first real say in the running of Northern Ireland since partition in the 1920s.
Instead of returning the political serve by demanding a say in the running of the Irish Republic, Unionists preferred to organise marches, rallies and civil disobedience – the “Ulster Says No” campaign.
Unlike the 1974 Ulster Workers’ Council’s campaign of resistance, “Ulster Says No” failed to achieve anything. Unionism’s political position grew steadily weaker.
In 2006, Paisley supporters spun the yarn that they had to do a deal with Sinn Fein to avoid the imposition of joint authority. Sinn Fein claimed it had to cut a deal with the DUP as a step towards to a united Ireland, in much the same way that Sinn Fein’s forefathers accepted the treaty in the 1920s to get a partial republic.
Now, with major elections due next year, serious rioting over the summer and the return of paramilitary attacks, the power-sharing Executive is once more facing a grave crisis.
Such is the seriousness of the impasse that leading American negotiator Richard Haass has been drafted in to find a solution before Christmas. But there is little optimism that he can deliver what it is needed to re-start the spluttering peace process. Haass needs to play for time and aim to put in place a holding operation until the next Assembly elections in 2016.
Paisley senior has gone. The star of his DUP successor, Peter Robinson, is on the wane. McGuinness is getting older and will soon be regarded as the old man of republicanism. Sinn Fein party president, Louth TD Gerry Adams, has been badly damaged by his brother Liam’s conviction for sex abuse. Basically, the old guard is on its last legs.
A new young generation of DUP politician, such as Stormont Finance Minister Simon Hamilton, skilful in the art of clever political compromise, is emerging.
In the Sinn Fein camp, gone is the maxim of a rifle in one hand and a ballot paper in the other. Now it is a case of ballot papers and honours degrees. A new generation of MLA is developing at Stormont who never served an apprenticeship in the Provisional IRA.
In 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement launched the current peace process, Sinn Fein and the DUP were viewed as being on the opposing extremes of the political spectrum. Now both parties occupy the centre ground in Northern Ireland. Both believe in dialogue rather than paramilitary confrontation. And the likes of Third Force and Ulster Resistance have largely been confined to contentious commemoration parades.
The Republic of Ireland’s once-thriving Celtic Tiger economy is history. The DUP is facing a major electoral threat from loyalist working-class parties and has had to shift to the right to combat the challenge.
So Haas has his work cut out. Joint authority as a threat is a non-starter now. Haass needs a new Plan B. A simple one might be: set a series of largely meaningless quangos until the “young turks” come of age.