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Sunday 17 September 2006

Masterly inactivity is the key to movement

DERMOT AHERN, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, is not one of my favourite people. But, being the nice person that I am, I had a flicker of sympathy for him when I heard him on Friday's Morning Ireland being forced to pretend interest and optimism about the latest deadline in the Northern Ireland negotiations.

Never at the best of times particularly interested in the place, he's supposed to engage in endless discussions and say pious things when his professional mind is on the intentions of the new Tanaiste, the implications of the latest public Kenny-Rabbitte love-in, and anything to do with next year's election. No wonder that he sounds alternately bored and irascible.

Peter Hain, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a seething perma-tanned mass of ambition, strives to keep his temper when he's interviewed on the same subject. Apart from a vague antipathy to unionists, he has not the faintest interest in the place. It was a blow to him to get the job and it was a bigger blow to be kept there when he was hoping for promotion in the last reshuffle.

For a long time, Hain's ambition has been to succeed John Prescott as Deputy Leader when Tony Blair is pushed out the door of Number 10. Hampered by geography, for the poor fellow - correction, sanctimonious apparatchik - is also Secretary of State for Wales, for a long time he has been sacrificing quality time with his family to trek around Britain courting the union vote. The Labour Party is now tearing itself apart and he needs to be in Westminster plotting vigorously. Instead, like Ahern, he's supposed to be thinking of little night and day except how to persuade the DUP and Sinn Fein to do a deal on November 24.

It must be hell. As Cabinet rivals launch initiatives that relate to the lives of many of those who will be voting on the Deputy Leadership, Hain is stuck with an issue that is these days of profound uninterest to your average party member.

Actually, in truth, almost everyone involved in or observing the present round of negotiations in Northern Ireland is in a state close to catatonic boredom. I admit it: at present I'm one of them. I care a lot about Northern Ireland, I have followed its politics obsessively for more than 20 years, I am devoted to many of its people, but how many groundhog days can a person endure?

These days, as I conscientiously read the daily Northern Irish press coverage, sometimes I can't even laugh when I read republican complaints that, by failing promptly to rescue an Irish-speaking cat from a tree, the PSNI have shown that they are brutes and bigots opposed to feline rights. The trouble is I'm having to drag my mind away from Darfur and Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan and British Muslim suicide bombers and Irish Muslim extremists and, in general, the threat to the world posed by ruthless Islamists and how sound Pope Benedict is on the subject.

(Incidentally, the best blog I've seen on this was: "Jeez these Muslims are a sensitive bunch. They go ape over a few cartoons earlier this year, torching everything in sight, and now they are upset about the Pope quoting from a 14th-century book. Those lads would want to relax and have a few beers or they'll be in an early grave from high BP. Torch, Kinsale.")

Even Gerry Adams, who likes to give the impression that he really, really wants a deal, disappeared off to posture in Gaza and top-up his bank account speechifying in Las Vegas. As the American special envoy, Mitchell Reiss, remarked, rather than travelling overseas advocating dialogue, there might be something to be said for Adams actually concentrating on reaching a peace agreement at home.

But, in truth, Sinn Fein expect no deal in November. How can they? As long as they can get away with blaming deadlock on the Brits or the DUP, they won't have to move sufficiently on policing or criminality or IRA dismantlement to allow Paisley room for manoeuvre. Rather than having the distraction of getting involved at this time in government in Northern Ireland, the Sinn Fein leadership would much rather be able to concentrate all their forces on the Irish general election. That's why they deliberately wind up unionists at every opportunity.

Not that the DUP is very excited either.

The wagging fingers of Ahern and Hain threatening them with the end of the assembly, nasty rate rises and other punishments at home, as well as more cross-border initiatives, bother them not in the least.

If you don't sign up in November, shout Ahern and Hain, there might be no movement until after a British general election in three years' time. Most of the DUP shrug.

Like Sinn Fein, they know they benefit from standing up to those they call bullies, and that the more they delay, the more carrots they will be offered by government and the more dominant they will become in the larger constituency.

The DUP and Sinn Fein have much in common. While the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance are desperate to have power-sharing, the leadership of the two big parties want - at a time of their choosing - to split power, not share it. In this they are aided by Peter Hain's plans for seven super-councils that will be a sectarian carve-up. 

Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair, of course, do care about a settlement being reached as quickly as possible. Ahern needs it for electoral and Blair for legacy purposes, so you can bet they're flogging Ahern (Dermot) and Hain to achieve a deal at any cost.

They met in some desperation on Friday, with little result.

It's time the Northern Irish parties made their own nanny-free deals. Maybe it's time Ahern and Blair recognised the need for a period of masterly inactivity.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards