Magazine article The Spectator

A Presbyterian Celebration as a Tricoteuse Goes into Government

Magazine article The Spectator

A Presbyterian Celebration as a Tricoteuse Goes into Government

Article excerpt


Momentous events often inspire momentous moods, but that has not happened in Ulster. Instead, there is wide-- spread wariness and uncertainty. David Trimble and some of his closest supporters did toast their success on Saturday, but the atmosphere was subdued. 'No question of triumphalism,' said one observer. 'More like a group of Presbyterians fully aware of the imminence of the Sabbath.'

It is hardly surprising that the celebrations were less than ecstatic. Mr Trimble had won a victory, but only over fellow Unionists, and only because many of those who did support him had spent anxious hours agonising about conscience and loyalty before making a reluctant decision in their leader's favour. Nor has their reluctance been charmed away by subsequent developments. Unionists who supported the deal knew intellectually that it would mean Sinn Fein in government, but the actual appointments still came as a shock.

The health minister is to be Bairbre de Brun, who is entitled to a measure of sympathy in that she has been denied the chance to pursue her true vocation, and would indeed have been unable to do so at any time since the fall of Robespierre. She has the soul of a tricoteuse. As health minister she will, no doubt, visit hospitals where the casualties of IRA violence are still being treated. She will meet surgeons and nurses who tried to save the IRA's victims. It is asking a lot of such men and women to be civil to such a minister. It will be interesting to see whether they can detect a sense of shame.

Worse still, Martin McGuinness is to be minister of education. He left school at 15, but assures us that over the past 30 years he has had 'a first-class political education'. It all depends what is meant by politics. In the early Seventies, the RUC were keen to question McGuinness, who was suspected of involvement in several murders, including one in which a retired army officer was tortured for several hours. Few if any Unionists believe that those suspicions were unjustified. What sort of a role model is this for Ulster's children? Sinn Fein is also committed to crude educational egalitarianism, a fatuous irrelevance in a Province whose schools already provide the best state education in the UK. But it is not yet clear how much power these ministers will have. In theory, they will take over responsibilities from the relevant junior ministers in the Northern Ireland Office. But their activities will be monitored by committees of the new Northern Ireland Assembly, which will have powers to initiate legislation. To put it mildly, the Sinn Fein ministers are likely to encounter a great deal of suspicion both from the other parties in the assembly and. from their civil servants. This may restrict their ability to do harm.

Or, indeed, to do anything. When he was permanent secretary at the NIO, John Chilcot used to say that there had been a choice between effective administration and the peace process - and that his ministers had opted for the peace process. The Northern Ireland Assembly and executive were designed to induce inveterate antagonists to co-operate. Even if the results of that cooperation were uninspiring in bureaucratic terms, it would.have a therapeutic function: government by encounter group. But many Unionists have little stomach for such encounters. It is possible to believe that David Trimble was absolutely right and still be dismayed by the practical consequences of Saturday's victory. Such are the current ambivalences of the Unionist mood.

But at least there is one balm in Gilead. …

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