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Saturday, 19 October, 2002, 17:46 GMT 18:46 UK
Bold moves to political stalemate
BBC NI political editor Mark Devenport

The buzzword at this year's Labour Party conference was "bold". Labour, Tony Blair repeatedly told his supporters, was at its best when it was bold, whether dealing with health, education or the economy.

This week the government tried to be bold about making the best of a very bad job in the peace process. Whether the decisive approach will deliver remains to be seen.

On the stroke of midnight on Monday the government boldly went where it has gone three times before - suspending, as everyone expected, the Stormont executive.

On Tuesday Dr John Reid indicated to the Commons that his new ministerial team would be bold when it came to considering hard decisions such as whether to impose water charges in Northern Ireland and choosing which regional hospitals remain open.

Prime Minister Tony Blair
Tony Blair: Boldly demanded change of track for republicans

Then on Thursday Tony Blair made a bold bid to change the inch by inch way in which the Northern Ireland process has gradually progressed.

The prime minister appeared to have had enough of what he referred to as "four and a half years of frustration, hassle and messy compromise".

Now he wants to move on to the fast track, telling republicans that if they consign the IRA to the dustbin of history then he will respond with the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement plus unspecified measures to ensure that intransigent unionists don't disrupt the process again.

Against the backdrop of a BBC Hearts and Minds opinion poll suggesting plummeting unionist confidence in the Good Friday Agreement and little enthusiasm for power sharing with nationalists, let alone republicans, the spin doctors say there's no option but to cut the Gordian knot.

Timing

However is the atmosphere right for a bold step forward?

Even as the prime minister made his bold speech, rejecting the old long game of grudging trade offs, both unionists and republicans were pouring over his words analysing what was in it for them.

Unionists came out on top, rejoicing in the focus on IRA disbandment (although the prime minister didn't use the word).

Republicans had less to be happy about, although they will pocket Mr Blair's acknowledgement that in the past nationalists in Northern Ireland were treated as second class citizens.

IRA has proved itself excellent at playing the waiting game
IRA has proved itself excellent at playing the waiting game

They are capable, as they have shown before, of bold initiatives. However they will only play any big cards in their hand when they are sure of a favourable response.

The IRA stayed true to this maxim on Saturday, when it spelled out as David Trimble made a party conference call for its disbandment, that it would not "accept the imposition of unrealisable demands".

Before moving again the IRA will no doubt examine not only the government's bona fides, but also those of unionists.

Is David Trimble a busted flush or have the events of recent weeks strengthened his position?

Will any concessions made this side of an Assembly election only prompt further demands from a new unionist leadership after the poll has taken place? And will that election go ahead in May or be put off indefinitely?

Republicans are experts at peace process poker, but it's hard to play your hand in a darkened room.

The bottom line is that instead of being the immediate precursor to what the prime minister referred to, in a new theological sounding bit of jargon, as a series of acts of completion on all sides, this week may be the start of another protracted period of negotiation.

The government sounded bold this week, but in suspending the power sharing executive it gave neither unionists nor republicans exactly what they wanted.

In other words, reluctant as the prime minister might be to admit it, the fourth suspension of Stormont was itself another act of maybe necessary but undeniably messy compromise by his bold government.

Find out more about the latest moves in the Northern Ireland peace process

Devolution crisis

Analysis

Background

SPECIAL REPORT: IRA

TALKING POINT

AUDIO VIDEO
See also:

19 Oct 02 | N Ireland
19 Oct 02 | N Ireland
19 Oct 02 | N Ireland
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