Friday, 8 August 2008

IRA Army Council no longer exists?

One would have thought that P O’Neill could have issued one more statement before exiting the stage. Perhaps the British and Irish governments feared that if the famous pseudonym for the IRA Army Council sent one last fax (or does he use email these days?), it could be construed as an ‘operational capability’ by some in the unionist community? But how does one substantiate that a secret, illegal organisation has ceased to be?

Hence the announcement that the British and Irish governments have asked the International Monitoring Commission to produce a special report clarifying the status and role of the IRA's army council.

One assumes the IMC will report back that, having looked high and low, they can find no trace of any secret, illegal organisation operating under the name ‘IRA Army Council’. After all, if the IMC were to say the Army Council still exists, but only meets for afternoon tea every second Thursday in the month, then some in the unionist community would say that that was enough to delay the devolution of policing and justice indefinitely.

For many unionist politicians it seems that the apparent absence of any paramilitary activity for many years and the decommissioning of its weapons is insufficient. For an organisation whose actions with the bomb and bullet very definitely spoke louder than words, the opposite situation was never going to be enough for many.

Some, such as DUP MP, Jeffrey Donaldson suggest that the disbandment of the Army Council is only one of a number of issues that need to be settled before policing and justice is devolved. The truth is that many, if not most unionist politicians, are still wary about the idea. Even the agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin that neither party will nominate anyone for the position of Minister for Justice, has not removed concerns entirely.

Ulster Unionist Leader Sir Reg Empey has pointed out that the Executive’s failure to properly use the powers in current process is hardly a ringing endorsement or a strong argument in favour of devolving more, possibly controversial, powers.

Loyalist weapons remain

Some commentators have pointed out that many unionist politicians have said very little indeed about the fact that loyalist paramilitary organisations remain armed. Unionist politicians may argue that they have always condemned loyalist paramilitaries. However, some might feel they have disproportionately focused on the existence or otherwise of an unarmed, inactive organisation – the IRA - much more than armed loyalist groups. This perception, combined with the messages from the UK government that they will apparently not order the police to seize weapons and that they are extending the amnesty period for handing in weapons, hardly amounts to real pressure on the loyalist groups to move.

Sinn Féin resignation blow

Sinn Féin will be very disappointed at the resignation of their well known former Mayor of Dungannon, Barry Monteith, who has served on Dungannon council for the last seven years. He announced that he was splitting from the party because he could “no longer reconcile with its strategy”, claiming that it was not geared towards Irish unification.

While he appears to be parting on relatively amicable terms, the real concern for Sinn Féin is that for every councillor they lose how many dozens or hundreds of voters are equally disillusioned?

Maze stadium decision ‘within weeks’

The newly installed Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Gregory Campbell, has said that he will make a public decision on the proposal for a stadium at the site of the former Maze prison as soon as the Assembly returns in September. The speculation is that he will rule out the Maze proposal on financial grounds.

One wonders how this will affect the wider political scene. The leaderships of the DUP and Sinn Féin appear to be organising another series of well-choreographed developments. The first of these will likely be the announcement by the IMC that the Army Council has ceased to be. The second might be a date for the devolution of policing and justice? What will happen if Gregory Campbell were to bin the Maze Stadium and the proposed Conflict Transformation Centre so being pushed by Sinn Féin?

Gregory Campbell is known to be on the sceptical wing of the DUP i.e. those who are unsure about the whole idea of power-sharing with Sinn Féin. So much will depend whether the DUP are acting as an united team.

RTÉ in Northern Ireland

Under The Broadcasting (Amendment) Act 2007, the Republic’s state broadcasting network, RTÉ is required to replace their obsolete analogue terrestrial platform with a new DTT (digital terrestrial television) platform with the same coverage as the current analogue network and which can accommodate the RTÉ channels, TG4 and TV3.

Some in Northern Ireland are stoking fears that RTÉ’s switchover from analogue to DTT will see northern viewers deprived of RTÉ. The Irish News' editorial this week wrongly implies that the new service will be via subscription. However, it is highly likely that the new service will be available to viewers in most of NI. That said, the Republic is using the latest digital television technology – MPEG 4 and it is possible that rather than having two aerials, as many people do at present, it may be necessary to have two digital boxes.

Given that RTÉ rarely reaches 5 per cent of audience share in NI (compared to 15 per cent plus share that UK TV stations achieve in the Republic), it is possible that many people will opt not buy an additional box. RTÉ and TG4 are already available in Northern Ireland via satellite.

FF/SDLP Working Group

BBC NI political correspondent Martina Purdy is reporting that the SDLP Working Group that is looking at the party’s links with the main parties in the Republic is due to meet this week. Could it be that the SDLP’s interest has been re-ignited by the Ulster Unionist attempts to seek a broader platform by merging with the Conservatives?