As I write the big hand is struggling towards (high) noon, when we’re to be told what our masters in Westminster have decided to pass our way. The Stormont parties – for once united – have asked for a loan of £2 billion over ten years. That’s right, a loan. And we’re all holding our breath to see if David and George will stump up the requested sum, presumably with a low interest rate. The word is that they’ll not offer 2 but they will offer £1.5 billion, which is probably what the parties here would settle for.
Ironically for a people who see themselves as hard-headed businessmen and women, unionist politicians get really excited not by money but non-money matters. For example? Flags, parades and the past. The concern over flags – Union flags of course – are exclusively unionist. I’ve neither heard nor read any call from republicans for more frequent or prominent flying of the tricolour. Will unionist politicians accept the compromise that Belfast City Council voted for, where the Union flag flies on some eighteen occasions each year? I doubt it. I doubt it very much. So if that’s a condition of passing over the cash, forget it.
And parades? Again, an exclusively unionist preoccupation. Will the people at Twaddell Avenue agree to fold their caravan and go home and have their Christmas dinner? I doubt it. I doubt it very much. But if they get the Parades Commission abolished and replaced by something pretty similar, they might sign up.
The past? That involves all parties and none. The period of the conflict brought suffering and injustice to everyone. What to do? Well, everyone could open up about what they did. But they won’t. Starting with the British government, there is no way all former combatants will come clean on such matters as their part in the killing of Pat Finucane or other foul deeds. Neither, to be even-handed, will all republican and loyalist former paramilitaries. Whatever way we deal with the past, we can’t make it depend on everyone speaking the full truth about what they did. There’ll always be some who’ll refuse to be open and honest – starting, as I say, with the British government.
The British know that dealing with the past is a problem which will not be resolved in the short-term or even mid-term. Given that, it’s unlikely they’ll tie agreement on the past to the £1.5 billion (over ten years) that’s being spoken about.
My prediction? With the health warning that I’m just as bad at predicting as everyone else, I’d say the past will be kicked down the road, parades will be given the illusion of resolution by appointing another body to replace the Parades Commission, and unionists will be given some compensating concession for the emotional hardship they must suffer by having their Union flag fly on a mere 18 days a year at City Hall.
I’m fairly confident in my prediction that there will be an agreement. All parties, particularly Sinn Féin and the DUP, have too much invested in Stormont to throw it all away just because Cameron is doing the Scrooge thing. Besides, highlighting what a damned Scrooge the British prime minister is may help unionists admit to themselves that, for all their loyalty, the British government doesn’t give a damn about them. If the present crisis brought that awareness permanently home to unionism, it’d all have been worth it. They are our fellow countrymen and women, so a more realistic perception of Mother Britain would or should be welcomed by one and all.
A fat loan at low interest rates from a government that said there was no more, plus unionist politicians who’ve learnt the lesson of how little Mother loves them: that’s not bad as a pre-Christmas present. Not bad at all. Maith sibh, gach duine!