Can Paul Murphy Make a Difference?


The newly-appointed northern Secretary of State Paul Murphy was only in his job a day when some wag on a web bulletin board proposed an opinion poll. He put the question: “How long before a unionist calls for Paul Murphy’s resignation?” and asked you to tick your answer from several options:

“Drumcree 2003; January at the next scheduled UUP-inspired crisis; Within the next two months; Within the next two weeks”; before adding, “Shit! Someone already has!”

Unfortunately, such cynicism is well-placed and Murphy has a Herculean task not only if he is to bridge the gap between unionists and nationalists, but also in demonstrating to sceptical republicans that the British government (with the requisite pressure from Dublin) will fully implement the Belfast Agreement.

SDLP leader Mark Durcan’s revelation this weekend that Tony Blair asked him would the SDLP support an exclusion motion against Sinn Fein shows what we always knew - that the British always initially work to the unionist agenda. Durcan turned down Blair’s request: it would have been political suicide for the SDLP to have agreed to the motion.

Paul Murphy, who has Irish antecedents, is a 54-year-old single Welshman who has been described by the BBC’s Wales’ correspondent as “a Papal Knight who holidays with his priest” - a little nugget which might provide Ian Paisley with some ammunition at the right moment. He served in Ireland as political development minister under Mo Mowlam and has the advantage of being familiar with the party leaders, as well as his brief, though now he has full executive powers but only four junior ministers to run the ten departments formerly shared out to the four main parties.

He was overlooked for the position of secretary of state when Mo Mowlam left in 1999 and one wonders how healthier the peace process would have been had his hands been on the reins of power instead of the unctuous and disastrous Peter Mandelson?

Mark Durcan in his parting shot to Dr John Reid accused Reid of doing more talking than listening, whereas Murphy is renowned for his patience, manners and gentility. So what can he do in the current situation? Well, he says he is here to listen and would like to end direct rule and restore devolution as soon as possible. Although David Trimble’s preferred option - before the return of direct rule - was that Tony Blair exclude Sinn Fein from the Executive and allow the institutions to continue to operate, he must have known that that was never a runner.

Anyone who heard or saw the Ulster Unionists at their recent party conference would have detected a smug gung-ho attitude and a great sense of relief that they would no longer be facing the DUP in bruising Assembly elections whilst in a power-sharing executive with Sinn Fein. They can also claim that it was they - and not the DUP - who eventually confronted the duplicitous republicans with the facts of life.

The Ulster Unionists have declared that they will never again share power with Sinn Fein until the IRA has disbanded and they look to Tony Blair’s speech in Belfast as an endorsement of their stance.

In his address to republicans in Monaghan last week - before the IRA announcement that it was suspending contact with the De Chastelain decommissioning body - Gerry Adams was accentuating the positive and pointing out that implicit in the success of the peace process and the political process is that all armed groups will have no role to play. In answer to Tony Blair’s demand that the IRA disband he said that such ultimatums were as unrealistic as his (Adams’) hopes “for an end to British rule in Ireland yesterday.”

But he also said: “Do I envisage a future without the IRA? The answer is … yes. And who can influence the IRA most? The British government, the unionists, the Irish government and Sinn Fein, as well, of course.

Then, on Wednesday night, Martin McGuinness in a BBC documentary said: “My war is over. My job as a political leader is to prevent war… My political project until the day I retire is to build a better future for all of our people. That is my project. It is a political project - not a military one.”

The problem remains, however, that whilst such pronouncements signal to republican activists and supporters, and to much of the world, that the Republican Movement is irreversibly committed to peaceful and political activity, unionists fail to grasp their significance and are encouraged in their intransigence. In the absence of a bold, imaginative unionist leader, such republican overtures are dismissed or misread as signs of weakness - with both those reactions enraging and unsettling the republican base, which, indeed, might partly be the intention of unionists.

Republicans are also galled at the hypocrisy and double standards of the Ulster Unionists and the DUP. Those parties refuse to sit in the Executive with Sinn Fein until the IRA disbands yet they have just been to South Africa with representatives of the UFF and the UVF to discuss ‘a single unionist vision’. This year alone the UFF has killed several Catholics and some of its own former members in a feud, and two UVF members were jailed for gun-running just last month.

The unionists were always waiting on an opportunity to raise the bar on the conditions under which Sinn Fein could participate in the Executive. The televised raid on Sinn Fein’s offices in Stormont, the arrests and charging of republicans on document offences provided them with that opportunity to demand the disbandment of the IRA and to dismiss as no longer relevant, or good enough, that the IRA declares the war over. The IRA has reacted in turn by breaking off contact with De Chastalain and will be seeking something in return for the resumption of contact. In that respect, its withdrawal would appear to represent a negotiating tactic rather than a threat.

Into this situation lands Paul Murphy with responsibility for carrying out a review. Regardless of how fine a Welsh fellow he might be, he can not help but be partisan as part of the British establishment. He represents concerned politicians who have taken risks and devoted much of their time to Irish affairs but also in the ranks of that establishment are influential securocrats whose one aim is to inflict on the IRA in peace a defeat they couldn’t win in war.

If the British government allows the political process to become mired on the single issue of the IRA, then Paul Murphy is going nowhere except back to Wales to listen to classical music and cook, which is how, he says, he relaxes.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison