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27 March 2007

Crossing the Rubicon?

Dr Pete Shirlow, of Queen's University Belfast's School of Law, gives his analysis of the moment whe

By Dr Pete Shirlow

History was made when Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams agreed to share power. Below we have exclusive analysis from academic Peter Shirlow. And click here to see journalist John O’Farrell’s unique take on events in Northern Ireland.

The image of Paisley and Adams sitting awkwardly but together has been heralded as a significant shift in the politics of Northern Ireland. These two men who are the most visible representation of a turbulent past are the now dominant political survivors whose intertwining has been heralded as the most dramatic of political shifts.

Both, lest we forget, staunchly opposed sustained attempts in the mid 1970s to build a power-sharing executive. Back then Adams would have required the dissolution of Northern Ireland and Paisley the ‘smashing of Sinn Fein’. Today Adams sits in a Northern Ireland Assembly and Paisley has had to accept that without Sinn Fein he could never be, in effect, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.

These men have not crossed the Rubicon but have merely met somewhere in the middle. They remain committed to ideas and beliefs that are driven by invariant understandings of nationhood and political identity. Their intertwining has been grafted onto their desire to control the levers of political power.

There was no significant mention yesterday of the thousands who died, those who were disappeared, those who were maimed or of those who remain with the mental and psychological scars. This was not the politics of conflict transformation but the result of a political agreement that upholds the veracity of power-sharing. Emphasis within this arrangement is on the power aspect more than on the much needed sharing.

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The British Government aided this partnership through delivering a significant financial package and dropping the demands for significant water charging. The British and Irish governments have also intertwined Sinn Fein and the DUP by placing them firmly on the front page of virtually all of their deliberations.

For both the Irish and British states there was no need to concern themselves with the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP because they would both share power with Sinn Fein without encouragement. In constantly pushing Sinn Fein and the DUP as those who must work together the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP lost face and eventual votes as they increasingly became the second political string. Although we should be reminded that 81.3% and 83.8% of the electorate did not give first preference votes for either the DUP or Sinn Fein respectively.

Yesterday was important but the full crossing of the Rubicon remains necessary in order to develop an alternative political dispensation. There is a need to fully understand and resolve the violence of the past, to move beyond the arrogance of legitimacy and to challenge the undeniable burdens of extensive residential and social segregation.

There is also the issue of constitutional stability or possible future instability. If politics remain as presently defined there will at some point be a majority who require Irish unification and a stubborn and resolute community that do not. Without meaningful political change and full democratic accountability the events of yesterday will shift from being a defining moment in Irish history and become more like an exercise in papering over future constitutional cracks.