No progress in northern Ireland talks


By Catherine Brown

The on-again off-again talks among the British and Irish governments and select political parties from northern Ireland move into their summer break without progress.

Politicians have hailed the talks as the most historic event in Ireland since 1921. The participation of all Unionist parties in talks with the Irish government is a first in 70 years. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Union Party, had vowed not to negotiate with Dublin before a new government was in place in Stormont.

Reassurances by the British government over its attitude to devolution and promises that the agreement was all or nothing persuaded Paisley to participate. There was some backlash, however, as three DUP councillors resigned from the party over the issue.

What isn't new or historic about the talks is the exclusion of Sinn Fein, the republican party. Even after the somewhat distorted results of the April British general elections, Sinn Fein is still the fourth largest party in northern Ireland.

The parties from the six counties represented in the talks are described in the British media as "the four main constitutional parties" as the justification for excluding Sinn Fein — which is also prevented from expressing its views on radio or television.

The Social Democratic Labour Party alone is meant to represent nationalist views in the talks.

Hilda MacThomas, writing in An Phoblacht/Republican News, describes the objectives of the British government in the talks as pushing the SDLP and the unionists to agree to some form of devolved administration for the north, which would allow British rule to continue "with an economy of British lives and political energy".

The SDLP is aware of the difficulty in delivering any "nationalist consensus" because of the strong community support for Sinn Fein. The SDLP narrowly defeated Sinn Fein in the April elections in West Belfast only with the votes of 3000 loyalists. In the aftermath of the elections SDLP leader John Hume and Seamus Mallon, his deputy, stressed that the republican viewpoint should be included at some stage.

But the SDLP didn't mean now. It is trying to establish authority as the nationalist voice. The British government is determined to marginalise and silence Sinn Fein.

The talks were suspended for the annual Orange Parade in Belfast, on July 12, in which loyalists commemorate William III's victory at the Battle of the Boyne. In what has become known as "the marching season", the Order of Orangemen in traditional uniforms, with their bands playing, retrace the steps each year of the victorious English army. This takes them through the nationalist areas of West Belfast; for years there have been demands to re-route these provocative loyalist demonstrations.

A loyalist march on July 8 was particularly provocative. The march took the loyalists past the door of Sean Graham's betting shop — earlier the scene of an attack by the so-called Ulster Freedom Fighters that resulted in the deaths of five people. The Ulster Defence Association often uses the UFF for such attacks.

On approaching the shop, the bandsmen very loudly played "The Sash", a tune associated with loyalist triumphalism. The marchers burst into chants of "Five-Nil" and "Sean Graham and UDA". Others simply yelled abuse at the nationalist bystanders and gleefully waved five fingers in the air.

A local Methodist minister denounced the march as "tantamount to dancing on the graves of those killed." Even the Northern Ireland secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, was forced to say that the conduct of the marchers "would have disgraced a tribe of cannibals, let alone Protestants marching under the flag of the United Kingdom".

Local Unionist MP Martin Smyth defended the march, adding "any who do not wish to see them need not watch.

The July 12 march was greeted by a silent protest outside Graham's betting shop and a banner draped over the shop, "Re-route Sectarian Marches".

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