Cracks beneath the chandeliers

Lancaster House was once one of the most spectacular stately homes in London and is now the place the Government takes visiting minister when it wants to dazzle them with imperial splendour.

Located right next to the Prince of Wales’s Clarence House crash-pad, it emanates an opulence so ostentatious even Liberace would have wondered if there was a little too much gold leaf on the ceilings.

It was here that the Prime Minister took Barack Obama for a very civilised press conference, and this week it was the setting for the latest meeting of the British-Irish Council.

When Wales hosted this event in 2009, Cardiff’s Swalec Stadium was the setting and Northern Ireland First Minister took delight in outing his Sinn Fein deputy Martin McGuinness as a cricket fan.

Two years ago, there was something astonishing about a former IRA hard-man and a DUP politician who had a reputation for militancy sharing not just a platform but a chuckle.

The council was a peace process creation. Ulster unionists who had anxieties about cross-border bodies linking Belfast and Dublin could look at the BIC and see the Republic of Ireland pulled into a UK-dominated group.

The expensive, sometimes ethically dubious and often downright surreal efforts at pacifying Ulster occupied thousands of hours of Government time but succeeded in winding down one of the longest running conflicts in the industrialised world.

In the years since BIC was established in 1999, leaders on both islands have done a remarkable job of taking the gun out of Irish politics. At least, until Tuesday night.

A photographer was shot and wounded during a second night of rioting in East Belfast. Last July there were fierce riots in the north of the city, and the province is still haunted by the killing in April of Catholic policeman Ronan Kerr.

The IRA are no longer plotting to bomb office blocks in Canary Wharf and the architects of the peace process can take pride that erstwhile icons of sectarian division now sit together beneath the glittering chandeliers.

But the time has come to ask what these men are delivering on their side of the bargain.

Northern Ireland took a delegation of 10 to the meeting compared to two from Wales, two from the Republic and three from Scotland. Is this gravy-train diplomacy still a force for peace, or are tribal chieftains prospering while the seeds for future conflict take root?

Before they are again invited to the setting for presidential garden parties it is imperative that these men who once did so much to stoke violent hatred act to quell the lethal passions in their own backyard.

A Thursday column

Blog Archive