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25 March 2004 Edition

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Metaphorical mammals stalk political discourse

BY LAURA FRIEL

"We are witnessing the final days, weeks, months of the Paisley leadership," Sinn Féin's Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness told Washington's Council for Foreign Relations last week. "The new DUP leadership is young and intelligent. It is not lost on them that Sinn Féin was within 15,000 votes of becoming the biggest party in the North."

McGuinness had travelled to Washington to join other Irish political leaders attending the traditional St Patrick's Day celebration at the White House. Having accepted the usual bowl of shamrock, US President George Bush called for a permanent end to all political violence in the North and said the US was seeking a lasting peace in Ireland.

"I commend Prime Minister Ahern and Prime Minister Blair and all those who are working so hard to implement the Good Friday Agreement," said Bush.

Ahern said that when the Good Friday Agreement had been signed six years ago he believed that it had the potential to transform relations on the island of Ireland. Given the progress to date, Ahern said he was even more convinced of this and the priority was to overcome the remaining challenges.

Of course, one of the main challenges will be to overcome the anti-Agreement agenda of the Democratic Unionist Party. And if Deputy DUP leader Peter Robinson's visit to Washington is anything to go by, that task will be challenging to say the least.

Speaking at Washington's National Press Club, Robinson detailed mechanisms designed to exclude the largest northern nationalist party from sharing power with the DUP. Of course, Sinn Féin's exclusion would ensure a return to unionist domination in the Six Counties.

Robinson said the DUP would not share power with Sinn Féin until the "durability" of any IRA decision to decommission and end its operation is verified. After ten years, even the DUP can't question the "durability" of the IRA cessation, particularly in the face of ongoing unionist paramilitary violence.

According to Robinson, "verification" of Sinn Féin's "fitness" for participation in government would have to be established by a whole range of organisations and individuals, from the Decommissioning Commission, the Monitoring Commission, PSNI Chief Constable, British Army and "our own people on the ground".

And in direct contravention of the Agreement, the DUP insists that verification by the Decommissioning Commissioner in itself is insufficient. General de Chastelain must provide "evidence", says the DUP.

"We would also be getting stuff back from our own people on the ground because they would know the activity of the IRA is at in their areas," said Robinson.

"The summer might be a good period to wait and see how they behave over the so-called marching season," said the DUP deputy.

But of course, the DUP doesn't want any achievable 'verification'. It is clear from the set of obstacles Robinson cites that anti-Agreement unionism is simply clinging to any excuse to thwart the power sharing vision of the Good Friday Agreement.

And setting aside the offensive tone of Robinson's remarks, violence associated with the Orange marching season is exclusively unionist. The Orange Order's anti-Catholic ethos and anti-Agreement agenda is inextricably linked to upsurges of sectarian violence during the summer.

Sectarian/racist attacks on Irish Catholic schoolchildren at Holy Cross began when a parent objected to inflammatory unionist paramilitary flags being erected outside the school gates in the run up to the Orange marching season. Years of sectarian violence followed the Orange Order's determination to march through the nationalist Garvaghy Road Estate in Portadown.

In 2002, anti-Agreement unionism attempted to provoke the IRA into breaking its cessation by attacking vulnerable nationalist areas. The Short Strand, a nationalist enclave in East Belfast, became the focus of a sustained siege by unionist paramilitaries, while unionist politicians like David Trimble colluded in the lie that violence had been triggered by attacks on a handful of homes of Protestant pensioners.

Throughout the duration of the siege, the PSNI refused adequate protection to the people of the Short Strand, forcing the British Government to deploy troops into the area. The British Army responded in time honoured fashion by identifying the Catholics under attack as their enemy and placed residents under virtual curfew.

The PSNI Chief Hugh Orde has already admitted that he is expecting a summer of violence this year. Robinson's comments suggest the DUP have already signalled that if they fail to secure the exclusion of Sinn Féin by political means, it will be handed over to unionist paramilitaries to create the conditions on the streets.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin's decision to speak directly to the American people last week appeared to generate disquiet in the US State Department. Sinn Féin placed an advertisement in the New York Times outlining the party's reasons for not joining the Police Board in the North of Ireland until outstanding issues have been addressed.

Speaking to the British media, US Special Envoy Mitchell Reiss accused Sinn Féin of telling "massive untruths" about the PSNI and said the New York advertisement was "at best enormously misleading and at worst untruthful". Reiss urged Sinn Féin to reconsider its position and join the Police Board.

Martin McGuinness expressed surprise at the envoy's outburst and said he found Reiss's comments "strange" given the fact that the envoy had failed to raise any of his criticisms with Sinn Féin during a meeting on Tuesday 16 March.

McGuinness said those calling on Sinn Féin to endorse the PSNI also "supported the now discredited RUC".

"British securocrats still control policing here. Those that controlled and directed unionist death squads in the 1980s and '90s are now in the most senior positions of the PSNI," he said.

In the 1930s British author George Orwell wrote a short story describing his disillusion with the operation of British imperialism. The tale was called "shooting the elephant" and the author described his role as a military policeman in Burma. In the story, the elephant becomes a metaphor for the meaningless brutality of British occupation.

Curiously, an elephant as metaphor has recently emerged within the Dublin media. Writing in the Irish Times, Gerry Moriarty ignored the DUP's anti-Agreement agenda and identified the current difficulties as "the elephant in the room".

"This is the large grey animal that hitherto the governments have been prepared to ignore as they pass around the tea and sandwiches," wrote Moriarty. Just in case the reader doesn't get it, "it's a metaphor for the IRA," he pointed out. According to Moriarty, the "elephant" can no longer be ignored and shooting the elephant, metaphorically of course, is the answer to the current unionist-created impasse. "All other problems would fall into place," Moriarty assured.

Of course, the priority of anti-Agreement unionism is not the elimination of the IRA so much as using the existence of the IRA as a mechanism for excluding Sinn Féin, the largest nationalist party, from power sharing in the north. And, to the detriment of his own analysis, Moriarty acknowledged this.

"If republicans are seen to be solely at fault for the stalemate, Dublin could start providing cover for the SDLP to enter into a voluntary coalition with the DUP, UUP and Alliance," he wrote.

And it's easy to guess why the Irish Times and elements within the Dublin establishment might wish to marginalise republicans and exclude Sinn Féin from the political process, North and South.

A poll carried out on behalf of a Dublin Sunday newspaper confirmed that Sinn Féin's political support in the south is not only holding but is experiencing a "rising trend which could quickly overtake the Labour Party". Add to this the finding that almost half the southern electorate reject the current rejection of Sinn Féin as potential coalition partners and the sudden preoccupation with metaphorical elephants has emerged.

Meanwhile, the only metaphorical mammal preoccupying David Trimble is the emergence of a stalking horse in yet another challenge to his leadership of the UUP. A minor political figure within the UUP, David Hoey, is set to challenge Trimble's leadership at a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council this Saturday. Under party rules, Trimble is obliged to seek annual re-election as party leader.

Hoey has already said that if he wins the leadership challenge he would immediately step aside to make way for the election of a new leadership team. "The onus is on members of the UUC to make up their minds. Do they want a change of management to revitalise the party or do they want the status quo," said Hoey.

Reg Empey, the most likely leader in waiting, has already signalled that he will not stand against Trimble, while making his hopes for future leadership plain. Empey declared himself "interested" in the leadership of the UUP if Trimble "voluntarily decides to move on".

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