Scepticism over powersharing

There must remain a scepticism that the powersharing deal involving the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin will actually happen next March. And the essential reason is that for too many on the unionist side, accepting Sinn Fein – the political manifestation of the IRA which murdered so many in their community – is for now a step too far

Of course there are other factors at work. A deep-seated sectarianism being one of them. But above all there is the human abhorrence of cohabitation with the murderers of one's relatives and neighbours. Time will resolve that, as time resolved the antagonisms of the Irish civil war, which incidentally was more murderous than the 30-year Northern conflict. Perhaps as many as 4,000 died in the Irish civil war from 28 June 1922 to 24 May 1923, compared with 3,636 in the Northern conflict from 1966 to 1999.

If Sinn Féin signed up to policing now and a decision had to be taken in the next week on power-sharing, perhaps the DUP would agree. But the final step is not to take place for four months and that gives time for attitudes to harden again, for unexpected developments – another bank robbery or another murder, a too-vivid reminder of past atrocities. And to make matters even more difficult, an Assembly election campaign, which itself will harden attitudes, especially on the unionist side, and drive people into corners from which it will be difficult to emerge.

Paradoxically, Sinn Féin is entirely to blame and not at all to blame. Entirely to blame for it was its associates – actually in many instances they themselves – who engaged in that campaign of murder and atrocity for so long. It was they who hardened the already dense divisions, who helped the divide to be so unbridgeable. In another way Sinn Féin is not to blame at all for, since the leadership set its face against violence in the mid 1990s, it has striven to create the conditions of peace.

Acceptance of the Northern state and of partition has been a difficult transition for Sinn Fein. Acceptance of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and of powersharing with a party, the DUP, which is perceived as having been rabidly sectarian, is also difficult. But the indications are that Gerry Adams, who, brilliantly, has brought a largely intact republican movement to this stage, can bring it that bit further.

It has been the British in the main who have made this final transition all the more difficult by side deals with hardline unionism and failures to implement reforms, notably the full recommendations of the Patten Commission on policing.

Anyway, it hardly matters who is to blame, what matters now is how to progress from here, or rather from March 2007. Then either the powersharing institutions will be back in place with Ian Paisley as First Minister and Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister, or the deal will have fallen through again. If it pans out OK, then there is hope the deal might survive. But for it to do so it will have to be accompanied by gestures and programmes of reconciliation and accompanied by good luck, especially in the first few difficult years.

If it doesn't pan out OK, then there must be focus on policing, winning Sinn Fein's acceptance on that, for policing is where it is all at. If there is a cross community acceptance of the police force, then, in a sense, other divisions don't matter, for there is acceptance of the state. The problem of Northern Ireland since 1922 has been that a sizeable minority have not accepted the police force, had not accepted the state.

Of course it would help greatly if the DUP entered into direct talks now with Sinn Féin. Not just to progress the reinstitution of the powersharing institutions but to create the political atmosphere supportive of a consensus in March.

If in direct discussions with Sinn Féin the DUP were able to say it had confidence in the sincerity of Sinn Fein's commitment to peace and the new institutions, it would make acceptance of a deal by the unionist community as a whole much easier, come March.