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Monday, March 26, 2007

Water under the bridge in Northern Ireland...

Very interesting to watch the next step taken in Northern Ireland today, although it was obviously more symbol than substance.

What was just as interesting to watch was the attempt by local (US) commentators attempting to explain what was happening. In Boston region, where the Irish connections are obviously strong, the story was perhaps more prominent than elsewhere in the US -- even drawing a segment on WGBH's Great Boston show which usually does only local current events. The guests were former Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn who babbled something about how all this was the result of international (and especially US) public opinion, while a more informed Padraig O'Malley of UMass Boston gave the summary of events that necessarily skirted over much of the complex details. Emily Rooney, typically a well informed host, seemed a bit annoyed that the parties pictured at the Belfast table (Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams) were not shaking hands or embracing.

Viewing it at a distance, I suspect that much of Belfast and Northern Ireland went on with its daily routine with barely a notice. Even in 2003-2005 when I lived in Belfast, life was (and I gather still is) conducted as if the Troubles were over, and all this effort to formalize it among the top echelons of the major (but extreme) parties is little more than ceremonial. This is not to say that there aren't important matters for the new home rule government to solve, but it would be wrong to think that they rise to more than the mundane issues of any local government. Consider, for example, the headlines on today's BBC Northern Ireland website: The lead story is about the historic agreement; the follow was Water bills 'on hold' after deal....

The attitude of NI locals and politicos is best understood by watching Noel Thompson's Hearts and Minds -- a BBC-NI weekly that really is quite fun to watch as well as informative. The commentary (and accompanying art work) of Malachi O'Doherty is especially interesting ("So should it all fall apart, weep for your water rates, but don't fret about the peace. The passion is spent...").

What the arrangement will bring to an end is the myth that NI has been ruled directly from London; the fact is that the NI Civil Service is homegrown and home led, with the only notable non-NI presence being the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Affairs. If this transition to the new Executive occurs without a hitch over the next couple of months (don't count on it), those Civil Servants will report to Northern Ireland Assembly chiefs Ian Paisley (first minister) and Martin McGuinness (deputy first minister) instead of Secretary Hain.

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