by Bobbie Heatley
A FLURRY of recent statements from British secretary of state Dr John Reid and others suggesting that the six counties must not become a “cold place” for unionists — a sentiment conveniently echoed by US president George Bush’s special envoy to Ireland Richard Haas — have served to underscore the Westminster government’s preoccupation with assuaging unionist concerns over the reform process underpinning the Good Friday agreement.
On the face of it, Reid has adopted an approach which will seem only reasonable to many. Underlying it is a subliminal message that he is undertaking a difficult balancing act between the ‘two communities’ in the north of Ireland, with the intention of keeping the peace while, at the same time, gradually moving the Good Friday agreement reforms along.
Reid’s approach, in consonance with traditional methods employed by British governing establishments and superficially justified, provided that it is aimed at what he says it is aimed at.
After Mr Mandelson’s short sojourn , during which time he demonstrated an undisguised bias towards unionism — at least in its ‘Trimbleite’ manifestation — almost anything would have been an improvement as far as national-democratic opinion was concerned.
Yet it must be reiterated that the reforms embodied in initial stage of the Good Friday deal — those concerned with the internal governance of the six counties — are not matters which can be ‘long-fingering’ under any pragmatic pretext.
Nor are they ‘concessions’ to the IRA, as the unionists like to proclaim, but rights which have been denied to republicans, socialists and nationalists throughout the fifty years when unionism at Stormont enforced uninterrupted one-party rule.
The instruments of enforcement, let us remind ourselves, were the creation of a police-state, sectarian discrimination, and gerrymandered elections — backed up with an attempt to impose the hegemony of a ‘mono-cultural’, bogus, ethnicity based on an equally bogus conflation of Protestantism with unionism and Orangeism.
It is necessary to recall these facts as many remained in place after Westminster’s imposition of direct rule in 1972. The implementation of the first phase of the Belfast agreement is intended to deliver on these issues now, not at some unspecified later date when the better nature of
Ulster unionism agrees to allow them — an unlikely occurrence if left to its own devices. Within this context, it is clear that when the British proconsul attempts to sell his ‘balanced’ incremental approach under a slogan which calls upon a very long suffering people not to make northern Ireland a “cold place for unionists” that he does not have a democratic leg to stand upon.
But what exactly does he mean? This can best be discerned by examining his record since he was parachuted into northern Ireland about fourteen months ago.
In a recent interview given to a leading Dublin newspaper Dr Reid outlined what he regarded to be his achievements since he took up office:
- The Stormont assembly set on a firmer footing. Maybe — although it is by no means clear that he has taken the necessary step to remove it from continuing danger. The consequences for the assembly of candidates standing on behalf of the ‘rejectionist’-wing of unionism becoming a majority bloc after the next election in May 2003 remains uncertain.
Many will remember the voting shenanigans which were resorted to in order to get Trimble and the new SDLP leader Mark Durkan elected as first and deputy-first ‘ministers’ in the current assembly. Little sign here of a ‘firm footing’, it could be argued.
Is the secretary of state’s pandering to loyalist paramilitarism and unionist rejectionism even remotely likely to remove this threat and what steps has he in mind to preserve devolution, a key component of the agreement? If the interview in the Dublin paper is anything to go by it appears to be a subject he doesn’t wish to talk about.
- He has achieved an act of IRA decommissioning. Very good. But he has been very unsuccessful in coping with the loyalist paramilitaries in this connection, especially the UDA and the LVF —- although in the past month or so he can, aid by a mass cross-community turnout against them, claim a significant diminishment in their bombings and shootings.
Despite the fact that, in the main, they have now become hostile to the Good Friday agreement reform programme, he remains optimistic. He has discerned ‘hints’ that the UDA ceasefire, dismissed as bogus last autumn “will be reviewed soon” -— meaning, presumably, that he will soon declare it reinstated.
- He has achieved some cross-community support for policing. But he has not, as yet, produced the promised changes to Mandelson’s legislation that would make the policing arrangements fully compliant with the Patten report reforms.
Figures for the recruitment of Catholics —- as opposed to nationalists and republicans -— into the Police Service of Northern Ireland present a distinctly skewed picture as a significant number of applicants are known to be from outside Northern Ireland, indicating a continuing lack of support from that side of the ‘indigenous’ community within the six counties.
However, what Dr Reid did not refer to in his interview with the Dublin newspaper were his breaches of the Good Friday agreement in response to howls of complaint from frost-bitten unionists who cannot accept that it provides for the equal treatment of the politics and culture of republicanism and nationalism.
One of the latest manifestations of this is that criminal justice reform is being watered down at this minute to preserve the dominance of a unionist ethos in the courts of law.
In order to preserve the Policing Board which they had joined, the SDLP accepted the retention of the royal crown in the police badge. But, they have found it politic to voice their displeasure, despite their post-nationalist and ‘you can’t eat symbols’ attitude, over this latest backtracking on reform the justice system.
The Irish government complained about having not being consulted regarding this change. Once again the Belfast agreement is being treated as if it were the property solely of the British government — despite its endorsement in referendums throughout the whole island of Ireland.
The issue of Ireland’s reunification as a politically independent nation had been raised, in their different ways, by both Sinn Féin and the UUP but it should not be forgotten that the moment’s pressing issue is to get the initial stage of the Good Friday deal and its derived reforms fully implemented in their integrity.
On the basis of his own claims in the Dublin paper interview, perhaps Dr Reid could be awarded four out of ten at this stage with the proviso that, for everyone’s good, he must do better.
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