THE PSNI raid on Sinn Fein's Stormont offices has dealt what will probably turn out to be a fatal blow to the Assembly. Faced with a walkout by unionists and immediate collapse, it left the government with suspension as the only option.
They hope that suspension could allow for future negotiations and an eventual agreement to restore the Assembly in some form. As things stand, this seems a forlorn hope. The Stormont raid came only a couple of weeks after the crunch Unionist Council meeting which set a 18 January deadline for UUP withdrawal from the Executive unless the IRA effectively disbanded. This meeting to all intents and purposes crowned Donaldson the real leader of the UUP.
The image of PSNI officers raiding Sinn Fein offices, even if they only made a cursory search of one desk, and the allegations, real or exaggerated, of an IRA spying ring will have hardened attitudes in the UUP and among Protestants even further. It is hard to see any UUP leader being able even to lead his party into direct talks with Sinn Fein so long as the links with the IRA remain.
Even if there are new negotiations, the fact that an election is due in May leaves little chance that they will succeed. No party, especially no unionist party, could afford to make the concessions that might bring agreement so long as they have the shadow of possible electoral meltdown hanging over them.
A mutual blame game has now opened up with each side placing the responsibility for the collapse on the other. Protestants blame Sinn Fein. The majority of Catholics, while viewing what Sinn Fein has done as stupid and irresponsible, will put the blame on unionism and the State.
The alleged spying operation by the IRA is not the real reason for the Assembly's demise. The decision by the UUP, taken in ignorance of these allegations, would have brought it to an end in January anyway.
Indeed this decision is the real reason for the raid. The State had evidence against Sinn Fein for some time but they acted now for political, not security reasons. Understanding that there is no longer any prospect of rescuing Trimble or securing further concessions from the UUP the government are trying to shift the blame for the inevitable collapse onto Sinn Fein.
The aim is to isolate the Sinn Fein leadership by creating a broad consensus that IRA disbandment, not decommissioning, is now the bottom line for progress. This, they hope, could either force Sinn Fein to ditch the IRA or else open a split in nationalism that would allow some nationalists to stay on board without whoever remained linked to the IRA.
There is very little chance of any of this happening. As the dust settles, most Catholics will continue to place the main blame on unionism. In any case, even if the IRA were to announce that it had disbanded, the most likely reaction of Donaldson and co would be to say "we don't believe you".
Recent events have provided a trigger but there are more fundamental reasons for the Assembly's downfall. The Agreement brought together the sectarian politicians in a political arrangement that institutionalised sectarianism. They were prepared to sit down together in the Executive, but their role outside Stormont was to continually whip up sectarianism, stoking conflict on issues like flags and parades.
The result is a community more divided than ever, with attitudes hardening on both sides. The fact that a majority of Protestants now oppose the Agreement is the real difficulty that dooms the Executive in its current form. What we are now seeing is politics coming into line with the greater polarisation. The failure is not just of one side; it is the failure of right wing and sectarian politics.
A dangerous situation is now opening up. There could be a prolonged period of impasse punctuated with attempts at talks, all this against a background of ongoing sectarian violence. The IRA is not likely to return to its old war. But the ongoing territorial war seen every night along the interfaces could intensify and all the paramilitaries could, to one degree or another, get drawn in.
We need a real peace process, one that unites rather than divides the working class and that is built from the bottom up by trade unionists and community activists. This cannot be achieved hand in hand with sectarian parties or paramilitaries but through a struggle to end their disastrous hold over working class communities.
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