Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Victims' commission row exposes nature of carve-up

The row over victims’ commission legislation which has broken out in the Northern Ireland Assembly lends particular pertinence to novelist Glenn Patterson’s sardonic piece, on Comment is Free today, accusing the twin nationalisms axis of “a consensus of crowing”. DUP / SF have of course achieved remarkably little since forming a government, despite their indulgence in constant self-congratulation. And in the unravelling of a deal which the carve-up were attempting to impose, we gain a startling insight into the high-handed fashion by which business is conducted by these two parties.

In January it was announced that rather than appoint one victims’ commissioner (which would have cost the public purse approximately £250,000 annually) a victims’ commission comprising 4 commissioners would instead be appointed (at the cost of approximately £750,000 per annum). The ludicrous pretence used to justify this decision being that the First and Deputy First Ministers had been so overwhelmed by the quality of candidates available for the post that they had felt compelled to offer posts to the four eventual appointees. It was rather like something the original Chuckle Brothers might have presided over on Saturday morning TV -‘You’re all so good we simply can’t separate you and we’re going to give you each a prize’.

Those of us of a more cynical bent were criticised by the twin nationalisms axis for daring to suggest that this profligate decision was not designed to deliver a better service for victims and was less attributable to the reasons stated by the OFDFM, than to the two parties’ failure to agree on a single commissioner. The most risibly distrustful commentators even hinted that this failure resulted in a deal between Paisley and McGuinness, which would be instigated and funded at the public’s expense, and would produce a commission likely to reflect widely differing definitions of what constitutes a victim. The implication of such a ludicrous allegation would be, of course, that if Ian Paisley had agreed to this deal or compromise, that he was knowingly acquiescing in the appointment of a commission with at least one member who would recognise perpetrators of terror who were killed in the course of their activities as victims equal in status to those killed or murdered by the IRA.

Appointing four commissioners has necessitated a change in legislation and an amendment proposed by Alliance to appoint one of the commission leader of the team has provoked outrage from Sinn Féin. Their apoplexy does not stem from support for the amendment proffered by the UUP and SDLP, who view it as a distinctly sensible provision that will enable the new commission to work efficiently and who would like to impose some definition on roles which have been left unaccountably ambiguous. Rather they are scandalised at members of the DUP expressing support for the amendment. They are breaking the conditions of an agreement struck by Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin fulminates! Who would have thunk it?

In the death throes of Ian Paisley’s tenure as First Minister, it is understandable that his party are less inclined to abide by the terms of an agreement struck by their leader, particularly as its implications become clear. The episode does however expose both the imperious style of their outgoing party leader and the authoritarian nature of the axis they have set up with Sinn Fein. Had not the DUP begun to think twice about the deal which had been struck, a piece of damaging horse trading would have been imposed on the people of Northern Ireland, despite the dissent of all the smaller parties. This still might happen.

And it is this aspect of the DUP / SF relationship which Patterson has diagnosed so accurately. They do not care about anyone else’s mandate and perhaps even more pertinently they did not care about anyone else’s mandate when they were the smaller parties either. Patterson’s rueful observation is that the peace process which emerged pandered to this disrespect for others’ opinions. The author quotes from Jonathan Powell’s new book ‘Great Hatred, Little Room’. Powell comments,

"Seamus Mallon's complaint is that we talked to Sinn Féin because they had the guns. My answer to that is: yes, and your point is?"


As the novelist observes,

“His point, Jonathan, is that at the time Sinn Féin did not have the majority of even the nationalist vote.”

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