BELCOO, NORTHERN IRELAND — On the short bridge between Blacklion and Belcoo stand two clues that the crossing links not only a pair of towns, but two countries. The road-sign speed limits for Blacklion in the Republic of Ireland are in kilometers per hour. In Belcoo, in Northern Ireland, miles are used. Over the last two decades — particularly since the 1998 peace deal which ended three decades of civil war in Northern Ireland — Belcoo, population 540, and Blacklion, population 194, have are effectively operated as one town. “There are no barriers, it’s how people want it,” said Eugene McCann, who runs a well-stocked grocery store and post office in Belcoo, his hometown.
DUBLIN — Northern Ireland MP Iris Robinson’s affair with Kirk McCambley, now 21, prompted her to announce last month that she would be stepping down from politics as she seeks treatment for depression. Robinson, 60, is the wife of Peter Robinson, first minister in Northern Ireland’s regional government and the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest pro-British political party in Northern Ireland. The couple are to be investigated by Northern Ireland’s committee on standards and privileges after Iris Robinson admitted she secured £50,000 ($81,400) from two developers to help McCambley set up a restaurant business in Belfast. The fallout from the scandal has led to Peter Robinson temporarily stepping down as First Minister, but remaining as DUP leader.
When Irish Taoiseach (or Prime Minister) Brian Cowen joins political leaders from Northern Ireland in Washington for next week’s St Patrick’s Day jamboree, President Barack Obama will hopefully show them more courtesy than he did UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown last week. He should, because rather than bore the new president with wonkish jabbering about the merits of the G20, the Irish will give Obama a spin on the time machine, a Tardis ride to an older Ireland assumed to be but an artifact. Given the context, that all might come off as somewhat glib. An old anecdote tells of a British pilot, making his landing announcement on a flight from London to Belfast, sometime in the early 1970s. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are commencing our descent into Belfast. Please set your watches back 300 years” – in reference to Northern Ireland’s seemingly anachronistic sectarian disputes.
DUBLIN — The resignation of Ian Paisley Jr. has prompted speculation that his octogenarian father, Northern Ireland First Minister Ian Paisley Sr., will step down as well. With his father at his side, the younger Mr. Paisley quit his post as junior minister last week over links to a real estate developer from whom he bought a house. Known to locals as “Young Paisley,” he has not been cited for any crime nor has there been anything more than an implication of something inappropriate afoot. Still, the scandal was enough to force him out of the cabinet, although he will continue to serve in the national legislature.
DUBLIN — Now almost 82, the long-time Ulster Protestant firebrand frontman Ian Paisley looks set to depart his formerly strife-torn region’s political scene. His son, Ian Paisley Jr, formally resigned his Belfast ministerial post late last week, after a drip-fed series of revelations showed the younger Paisley as too close to a property developer for the liking of rival politicians. With his father at his side, Paisley Jr said he was proud to have served in the power-sharing executive. “I leave with high hopes, good spirit, deep humility and with gratefulness in my heart,” he said. Ian Paisley paid tribute to his son’s contribution to government. “I would just like to say, as the first minister, a word of thanks […] to my son Ian for the hard work he did while he was in office.”
“Tiocfaidh ár lá!” is a well-known Irish rallying cry in Sinn Féin neighborhoods in Northern Ireland. Translated into English as “Our Day Will Come,” this piece of political eschatology points to the day when Northern Ireland will form part of a unified all-Ireland state joined to the Republic of Ireland, which takes up most of the island. But after a dismal performance in the 24 May parliamentary election in the Republic, Sinn Féin’s meager four seats in the new Irish Parliament (out of 166 up-for-grabs) means that the day envisioned remains somewhat distant. While Sinn Féin’s role in Northern Ireland is relatively well-known, and its ambitions to merge the mini-province with its larger neighbor to the south are long-held, less clear to outside observers is its presence in the Republic of Ireland and the centrality of its Dublin strategy for achieving its aims in Belfast. Sinn Féin had hoped to gain 10 to 12 seats in the Republic – potentially enough to make itself a viable coalition partner for the larger parties. Becoming even a minor coalition partner in a sovereign state – which has been Europe’s most dynamic economy for almost a decade – has been a long-standing ambition for the party.
DUBLIN — A report released last week gave a remarkably positive assessment of the Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) self-emasculation, 14 months after it declared an end to its three-decade war against Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK. The report, released by the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), an Irish-British intergovernmental watchdog set up to monitor Ireland’s paramilitary groups, stated: “It [the IRA] is now firmly set on a political strategy, eschewing terrorism and other forms of crime. In this process there has been a loss of paramilitary capability.” However, various vested interests on the part of all protagonists may combine to scupper a potential deal this week, as the British and Irish governments and Northern Ireland’s main political parties discuss reviving the devolved government set up after the 1998 peace agreement.
DUBLIN — A year after the Irish Republican Army (IRA) announced the end to its almost-40 year armed campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland, political progress remains piecemeal in the long-divided region. The IRA’s ongoing reticence to disarm was a key constraining factor in Northern Ireland’s slow-moving peace-building process. But now despite the organizations’ disarmament, ongoing wrangles have prevented the revival of the regional political institutions, which give Northern Ireland significant devolved authority from London. These institutions remain core aspects of the 1998 ‘Good Friday’ peace agreement. The British and Irish governments have stated their intention to put some of the institutions into ‘cold storage’ if a 24 November deadline for restarting devolution is not met by the political parties.
DUBLIN — A second employee of Sinn Féin, the Northern Ireland political party linked to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), has emerged as a long-time British agent, the second such revelation in recent weeks. Richard Lavelle from Fermanagh, near the border with the Irish Republic, admitted on Thursday that he was an agent for the Special Branch of the UK security services, which worked to counter the activities of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The statement follows the 9 December revelation that Denis Donaldson, a senior Sinn Féin official and former IRA man who served a prison sentence for an attempt to bomb a distillery and government buildings, had been a British agent for over 20 years. Lavelle is said not to be a current Sinn Féin party member, but had, by the party’s own admission, worked on electoral campaigning. Donaldson ironically had been one of three Sinn Féin workers suspected of intelligence gathering on behalf of the IRA at the Belfast headquarters of Northern Ireland’s devolved government. He also claimed that the spy ring was a fiction created by British intelligence.