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Reasons not to be cheerful

The Irish Democrat’s northern correspondent, Bobbie Heatley, spells out why nationalists and republicans are unhappy with the pace and quality of the Good Friday reform process

WE ARE approaching the fifth year of the Good Friday agreement (GFA) and rejectionist ‘Ulster’ unionism is still making efforts to get rid of it.

Whether or not it succeeds in the months ahead in bringing down the devolved institutions, specifically the Irish cross-border bodies, through a Unionist refusal to participate in them, one thing is certain -- its proposed reform programme will still have to be implemented by the British government.

Clearly, too little satisfactory progress has been made over the past five years in implementing absolutely necessary reforms and the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), headed by an array of transitory proconsuls, must bear the brunt of any criticism in relation to this failure.

This state of affairs has been facilitated by the Dublin authorities who, like their London counterparts, prefer gradualism -- for a combination of selfish economic and political reasons, overlapping those of Downing Street.

The problem with this strategy is that it has allowed rejectionism to fester and its loyalist paramilitary terrorist wing to grow to such an extent that it could soon become a real threat to the peace process.

Fortunately the IRA has not allowed itself to be provoked into retaliating. As perceptive observers point out, the loyalist campaign of violence has been in full swing for three years without the IRA having broken its ceasefire.

What has been needed was not a policy of pandering to unionist extremism, under the pretext of saving Trimble and his reluctant pro-GFA aficionados, but a clear and unambiguous signal from the British government as to where it was going in relation to northern Ireland.

It ought to have been pushing ahead with an authentic reform programme as spelt out in the GFA. And so what is the gripe?

Human rights:

In the past few weeks two prominent members of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission have resigned. Christine Bell, a professor in public international law at the University of Ulster feared that the commission’s “inadequate” powers could compromise its independence and effectiveness. For her part, Inez McCormick, a leading trade unionist, stated openly that she thought the body a faliure, accusing it of lacking direction in its “strategies, policies and practices”.

Bell stressed her belief that a commission as envisioned by the GFA could “make a profound contribution to building peace”.

Obviously, the British government has not delivered such a body. The womens’ stance was backed by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), which stated its own concern over the current Bill of Rights process.

Since their resignations in early September, the remaining members of the NIHRC have made it clear that they share McCormick and Bell’s frustration.

Policing:

Five years into the GFA this is still a huge bone of contention for nationalists and republicans. This is largely the legacy of Mandelson’s bowdlerised version of the Patten report reforms in the legislation endorsed by the Westminster parliament.

An ‘Oversight’ commissioner from America was appointed (along with an Ombudsman) as part of this ‘reform’. In the past few weeks he has reported on his latest findings. He noted insufficient progress on several key matters, top of which was “delays in producing a plan for the full merger of Special Branch -- according to Patten, a law unto itself -- into the CID”.

Other foot-dragging has involved “the current absence of District Policing Partnerships (DPPs) to hold police to account and a failure to recruit civilians”.

A new police board has been recently established and there are on-going efforts to form DPPs. Both initiatives have been pushed ahead despite not meeting the Patten report’s criteria for ‘representativeness’.

The SDLP, which has accepted the present position and jumped, prematurely, into what could remain inadequate structures is now claiming to have received a recent assurance from the British prime-minister that the defects of Mandelson’s legislation will be rectified in the next parliamentary session -- bringing it “closer to what the Patten report had envisaged”.

Meanwhile, the new chief constable, Hugh Orde, has already indicated that he intends to long-finger other key policing reforms such as preserving Special Branch in its existing form while retaining the full-time police reserve on the payroll for the foreseeable future.

The criminal justice system is another outstanding matter where, among other things, a breach of the equality of treatment principle in relation to unionism and nationalism/republicanism has taken place.

Equality

Indeed, the equality agenda in general has had coaches and horses driven through it while, by way of contrast, the latter have been bending over backwards to be respectful of unionist sensibilities and attempting to show the way forward to the healing of community wounds.

The Sinn Féin Mayor of Belfast displays both the union flag and the Irish tricolour in his City Hall office, resulting in prominent unionists expressing outrage at this ‘provocation’.

With regard to the reform programme generally, there is a gripe that the authorities are merely attempting to wipe peoples’ eyes by using community inclusion to give them the impression that they are being accorded ‘power’.

One example is the Civic Forum where even its appointees are waking up to the fact that they are being used as window-dressing. Attendance at its meetings has been falling off drastically.

As things stand at the moment, the same charge of window-dressing could be levelled, reasonably, against the police board reform -- with, or without, the production of amending legislation, which will not alter substantially its powers.

Ian Paisley jnr took the trouble recently to correct a journalist who had been waxing lyrical about its capabilities, much in the way that the SDLP does. Paisley jnr helpfully explained that its powers were limited to retrospective accountability over the chief constable. Everything else remains the prerogative of the chief constable and, above him, the secretary of state.

Collusion:

Finally, there is the very vexed topic of the state forces’ and agencies’ collusion in numerous killings. Very unsatisfactory progress, if any, has been delivered here.

Even loyalists have been affected. The case of Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) sectarian mass-killer Billy Wright is of interest because of the complaint which his father has been making about the nature of the inquiry into his son’s assassination while in prison.

David Wright has already succeeded in having five members of the NIO excluded from the investigation since he obviously regarded their presence as unhelpful to the perception of its independence. Nevertheless, he remains alarmed to find that three members of staff from the Lord Chancellor’s office are still involved.

Similar unease exists among many people in relation to the real independence of the police board, on which sit a large bloc of NIO appointees. The individuals in question are probably well-enough motivated, but the suspicion remains that they were not selected because of their track record of criticising the establishment.

The Wright case is only one of many, others of which include the murder of Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson.

The Finucane case has been investigated under the suzerainty of the newly appointed chief constable, Hugh Orde, whose report is said to be completed but which is currently being held back.

It has taken over ten years to materialise, although this has not been the fault of Orde who was brought in at the later stage of the various investigations after previous exercises to get at the truth of collusion met with internal obstruction.

Meanwhile lawyers for Mr Finucane’s widow, Geraldine, have asked for “sensitive documents” now available to the inquiry to be disclosed to her for the purpose of making submissions to Judge Cory (a retired Canadian judge who has just been appointed to inquire into a whole raft of such murders) and other bodies where proceedings have been initiated against the Ministry of Defence and the RUC/PSNI.

After nearly five years of the GFA’s existence, this is but a thumbnail sketch of how its reforms are being slowed down, partially implemented or not implemented at all by the British in order to placate unionism.

For their part rejectionist unionism is intent on scrapping it altogether while Trimble’s reluctant accepters of a watered-down version are often to be seen, in their party-political dogfight with Paisley’s DUP, heading down the same dead-end road together.

Recently, in Britain, with a seeming stirring of a re-awakening Labour movement, reflected in the emergence of a new breed of trade-union leaders, perhaps these shortcomings in the policy and practice of the present government, which has been nevertheless more realistic -- and pragmatic -- than those of previous Tory governments, will be rectified by the inclusion in a new programme for Labour of something more in accord with the traditional principles of working-peoples’ solidarity.

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This document was last modified by Mick Carty on 2002-10-04 10:18:37.
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