by Bobbie Heatley
LET’S BEGIN with the facts. In the November 26th election for the Stormont assembly, three quarters of the electorate voted for pro-Good Friday agreement candidates. Of the plethora of parties which contested, seven achieved representation. Here was the result: DUP (Paisley’s party), 30 seats; UUP (led by Trimble), 27; Sinn Fein, 24; SDLP, 18; Alliance party, six; PUP (aligned with the UVF paramilitary group), one; UKUP (small unionist splinter), one, single issue (hospital campaign), one.
Sinn Fein, the SDLP, 22 of the successful UUPers, along with the Alliance and PUP together as a pro GFA grouping have 71 seats in the new Assembly, if it is ever permitted by the British government to re-constitute. Paisley together with an estimated 5 UUP anti-GFA malcontents and the UKUP number 36. The single issue campaigner must remain, presumably, unaligned. This means that pro-GFA members (MLAs) of the new Assembly have an overwhelming majority of two thirds to one third. This has not stopped Paisley and his rag-tail and bob-tail Good Friday rejectionists putting it about that the agreement “is over” because the “unionist people” have rejected it.
In a weak justification for that claim he keeps harping on about his party having the greatest number of seats in the Assembly. But that is spin. It has a bigger number than any other single party, a very different matter. But we shall come back to that issue later.
Alongside these latest results from a current election in the north, it has to be remembered that the Good Friday agreement (GFA) was endorsed five years ago in simultaneous referendums north and south of the border when the results were over 71 per cent and 90 per cent respectively. In addition the GFA is founded on an international treaty between the Irish and British governments, which also derive their legitimacy and authority from having been elected.
It would be helpful, therefore, in the future, if TV media interlocutors, when discussing with Paisleyites -- and their hangers-on -- the northern Ireland hiatus created by them, would emphasise that the GFA is the outcome of prolonged negotiations endorsed by a democratic process, a much more comprehensive one than the travesty which occupies DUP minds – a majority of their kind of Unionists. Only if that is done can the peace process be protected and the political process revived.
It is necessary to refer to these realities because, in the end, everything reverts back to the British government and there are few people here, unionist or nationalist, who trust it. Given its record in handling the GFA, Ireland’s Sunday Business Post (30/11/03) had good reason to headline a major article “British will dance to DUP tune”.
There has now been a five-year history of governmental (particularly British) obeisance to Paisleyism mediated through UUP GFA-rejectionism and, at what has been until now the upper reach, ultimately through Trimble himself. This has been for the purpose of saving Trimble’s UUP leadership, coercing the IRA into unilaterally surrendering its firepower or, failing that, to avail of an issue to “justify” slowing down the delivery of democratising reforms -- a project pursued in common with Northern Ireland unionism.
It is understandable that governing establishments who hold the power-levers of the state have an aversion to the existence of private armies within their jurisdictions and, in most cases, that is a perfectly democratic and legitimate stance -- although it does not always apply.
Fairly often state power-holding authorities welcome the emergence of paramilitary groups and take risks in actively creating them as auxiliaries to fight on the government’s side. Columbia is but one example and current investigations, presently existing knowledge and future journalistic and academic researches will undoubtedly fill in the picture with regard to Northern Ireland itself. And then there is the vexed question of when is a terrorist a liberation, or a resistance, fighter -- and vice versa? An old friend, Brendan Behan , had the answer in a bon mot “The terrorist is the fella with the wee bomb”.
Anyone who has been reading this column over the years will know that it has been predicted that the British government’s strategy over the past five years was bound to backfire. They have. And should the Sunday Business Post’s prognosis prove to be correct, then the biased and ill-informed political pundits who write in most other print-media outlets will be for once credible. The GFA will be in real, as opposed to virtual, trouble. It will all depend on whether or not the British government is capable of ditching, or curbing, its erstwhile northern Ireland unionist cronies and implementing a genuine change of policy.
Especially with this new, qualitatively changed, situation in the north, it ought to be faced up to that the rejectionist unionist tail will no longer be allowed to continue wagging the dog of society’s body-politic.
To reiterate: two-thirds of the MLAs (unionist and republican/nationalist) are pro-agreement. A political or democratic argument for pushing that reality to one side in favour of DUP backwoods men and women does not exist. Asked after the election if IRA transparent weapons decommissioning would allow them to go into a responsibility sharing executive at Stormont with Sinn Fein, they pooh-poohed the idea and, once again,raised the bar. Dismissing decommissioning as an inconsequential matter, Paisley demanded that the biggest political party in the north representing the republican/nationalist population, Sinn Fein, should “disband”.
If this is not proof that what unionists of his ilk object to is not arms, fundamentally a bogus excuse, but the GFA per se, then what is? The veil had been ripped off. Sharing provincial government with 'Roman' Catholics, on a basis of equality, is what sticks in his, and other, unionist gullets. The question now is whether the British government is going to waste time parlaying with such intransigent people, thereby jeopardising the peace process itself, or has a rational plan B in store in preparation for this bankruptcy of its hitherto pursued policy ?
There are plenty of people out there who will be glad to remind Sinn Fein “well, we told you that politics wouldn’t work. You can’t democratise a colony”. That argument has been going the rounds for a long time. Back in the late 1960s Northern Ireland Civil Rights (NICRA) leaders were castigated in that way before the nationalist people as a whole lost faith in its peaceful, political, methods for extracting democratic reforms out of Westminster.
Bloody Sunday was thrown at them, as if to prove the point. But the critics were still wrong. Since then, a struggle for democracy in South Africa, in which politics played the predominant part, has resulted in self-governance for a colonised people. There are differences in the circumstances of the two situations but Sinn Fein’s “new departure” into politics, albeit in an entirely different international climate, looks like having the potential to further refute the critics; but, in order to succeed, it too has to deliver.
More questions: is the British government capable of recognising what is required from it, or is it so fearful of a South African-type outcome that it just cannot countenance reform steps that might dislodge the supremacy of its traditional Orange-unionist garrison in Ireland ?
Why, at this stage in the history of relationships between Ireland and England, when both are in a fastly integrating EU and there is nobody on the distant horizon who is eyeing Ireland up as a possible offshore battleship for a potential military attack on England, should England want to perpetuate a physical presence in Ireland ?
Do the higher reaches of the British governing establishment fear an example being given to Scotland, or is there another reason entirely? Many years ago the Daily Telegraph blamed the governing establishment in the 26-county Republic of Ireland for lumbering a reluctant England with the north. They were said to have an economic reason -- a reluctance to inherit Stormont’s budget deficits. But they had a political reason too: a fear of close to one million Protestants, with a different ethos, gate-crashing their formerly largely homogenous society.
Given these criteria, it is the 26-county Republic which would have had, in those days, the apparently more rational excuses for not wanting the border to be removed precipitously. But even though in these days matters for both countries have changed greatly, their rulers might still have what they consider to be mutually beneficial reasons for not wanting a “too quick” change in the constitutional status of the north.
I have a sneaking feeling that we have to go back to James Connolly for the explanation. In his stout opposition to the imposition of a border in Ireland, he warned that, while partition lasted, it would foster a “carnival of reaction” north and south. Is what we are seeing now a continuing realisation of Connolly’s prediction? What Britain does next in response to Paisley’s challenge to the GFA, will provide everyone with an answer.
But before we explore some possible political responses to a wrong approach on the part of the British government, in the light of the 26 November election returns, it might be worthwhile to refer to what the GFA actually says, since it would appear that the installation of the first and deputy first ministers is the key to kick-starting the devolved assembly.
Here is what the agreement actually says: “...they shall be jointly elected into office by the Assembly voting on a cross-community basis according to 5 (d) (1) in a section headed “Safeguards” ie. against simple majority rule where six-county unionism has an in-built advantage. Here the arrangements to ”...ensure key decisions are taken on a cross-community basis” are also spelt out. Cross-community consent is sought by: either, 'parallel consent' ie. a majority of those members present and voting, including a majority of the unionist and nationalist designations present and voting; or, by a 'weighted majority'(60 per cent) of members present and voting, including at least 40 per cent of each of the nationalist and unionist designations present and voting.
Under a section headed 'Executive Authority'(section 15) the text of the agreement states that “The First Minister and Deputy First Ministers shall be jointly elected into office by the Assembly voting on a cross-community basis, according to (5)(d)(1)...". There is no stipulation stated here that either must come from the first and second largest parties in the Assembly. Perhaps that had not been thought necessary given the realpolitik of the situation.
However, section 16 states that “Following the election of the first and deputy first ministers, the posts of Ministers will be allocated to parties on the basis of the d’Hondt system by reference to the number of seats each party has in the Assembly”.
Apparently, parties themselves take it for granted that this stipulation applies to all ministers whether or not first and second. Sinn Fein recognises this pecking order (“We are now poised to take the deputy first minister’s position”, Gerry Adams was quoted as saying in the Irish News of 2/12/03).
However, in getting a reformed Stormont up and running again, a major problem still remains: What hope is there for getting Sinn Fein and the SDLP to elect, on a cross-community basis, Paisley (or one of his underlings) as first minister given the DUPs policy of nihilistic politics ?
Whether or not the legal eagles attached to the British Northern Ireland Office (NIO) will undergo a serendipity experience and make a happy and unexpected discovery by accident that a loophole exists for enabling progress to continue is anybody’s guess. There could be a basis for it even on purely technical or the existing legal grounds in the hefty cross-community, pro-agreement bloc comprising 28 Unionists (now 29, one having objected to being classified as 'anti-agreement') 42 republicans/nationalists and six Alliance.
Is it not ridiculous that their overwhelming democratic mandate should be over-ridden by 30 DUPers and four UUP backwoods people? As things now stand, Trimble’s faction now constitutes 40.68 per cent of the unionist bloc. With (5)(d)(1) 2, in mind, am I not correct in suggesting that there might be possibilities there ? But I am not a constitutional lawyer and there may be some snag which I have missed.
On a previous occasion the problem of electing the first and deputy first ministers was overcome by some members of the Alliance party designating themselves temporarily as unionists. While they are, in fact, unionists, they hate owning up to it and found that artifice distasteful. But, perhaps in the cause of a greater good, some of their six MLAs might be prepared to lie back and suffer the experience again, if that would be still available and would work.
What I am querying here is whether all the options available in the GFA legal context been fully explored? Regardless of legalities, the over-riding and insurmountable problem may lie in the political (Orange) field and I fear that the NIO will kow-tow, as is its habit, to unionist extremism.
In that case, if the British government colludes in shredding or backtracking from the GFA, then the republican and nationalist people are likely to have their own ideas as to what would be improved outcomes for them.
In accepting the GFA they have made major unappreciated concessions to unionism, not the least of which is allowing it a respite in the inexorable progression towards a re-united Ireland. That was done by their acceptance of a re-defined principle of 'consent' which means that they will strive for re-unification by political means only and work to get a majority in the north to vote for it. This modification of a long-held republican canon is not the sell-out that their dissidents represent it to be. It does not deprive Irish people in the rest of Ireland of their rights in the matter. They too endorsed the change by a huge majority and it is posited on the methodology of the United Irishmen. Protestantism and unionism are not the same things (Paisleyism excepted) and the Protestant community in the north is not politically homogeneous, nor is it as a bloc frozen in aspic. The way in which NICRA split it up and sent its icebergs drifting off in different directions proves that point.
In an environment here of equal citizenship (or subject-hood), should that be fully attained, it is eminently possible, regardless of demographics, to win a sufficient proportion of Protestants, and perhaps the more liberal unionists, for the re-unification of the country. It was their forebears, after all, who introduced republicanism into Ireland. Nothing in the world is static.
But to return to the more pressing matter of a possible accommodation between Paisley and the British government detrimental to the implementation of the GFA, its equality of rights provisions especially, the position of the Irish government needs to be given its due weight.
Provided that Dublin is not made to backtrack, its stated position has the potential to be helpful. According to the Irish Times (01/12/03), the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, stated “...there is room to improve the operation of the northern Ireland political institutions.” But, “We are not going back to majoritarian rule”. That is merely what the GFA provided-for review is about.
Furthermore, the minister for foreign affairs, Mr Cowan, emphasises "...the two governments are determined to implement their part of the (Belfast) agreement even if the parties in the North fail to form an executive”.
That is fair enough, provided that Mr Cowan is not being over-optimistic in taking the British government at its word.
On top of the Irish government’s other inclusions in the GFA, the two governments are co-signatories to an Implementation Plan drawn up a few months ago whereby they undertake to go ahead (albeit with ifs and buts) putting into effect their commitments under the GFA -- phases 1 and 2 (north-south, ie cross-border relationships) and east-west (ie. British/Irish relationships).
In addition, Westminster still remains the sole sovereign power in the North and, while that is the case, the onus is upon it to implement the internal democratic reforms programme. After five years of the GFA, there is a mountain of work still to be done there. The Patten reform of policing is still partial. The Human Rights Commission is in tatters, nearly half of its original members either having resigned or are not participating. The Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) is still not fully satisfied with impending changes to the reform of Criminal Justice law. And so we could go on.
In conclusion, one more point. If Paisley, facilitated by a NIO proconsul, should be foolish enough to persist in stalling the agreement or putting it into reverse gear, then the republican/nationalist community here, assisted by its newly awakened support on an all-Ireland basis, is eminently capable of retaliating by augmenting its defence of the GFA, which is not re-negotiable, with a revisiting of its former, even more radical, demands.
Should another prolonged period of direct rule from London be in the offing, then why not graft on a Mrs Thatcher Maryfield-type device pro tem? Under the Anglo-Irish Agreement, this was an arrangement whereby the Irish government had a 'permanent' physical presence and input in the north from an office close to east Belfast. So, why not a revived Maryfield, but with a stepped-up role for the Irish government which previously had been confined to 'monitoring'?
Should a stalemate persist, and the British government proves itself incapable of governing the north according to the fundamental, democratising, principles of the GFA, why not the revival of another, recent, former demand?: that the British government, in agreement with the Irish government, makes a declaration of its intent to withdraw from Ireland in accordance with a mutually agreed time-frame.
Paisley has a history of resistance to relatively moderate six-county internal accommodations only to end up with outcomes which are vastly more radical than he bargained for. So perhaps a resurrected Maryfield with enhanced Irish government powers plus the Declaration of Intent demand hovering in the background would help to sober up some people who presently feel, wrongly, drunk with success as a result of the last election.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
2003 Bobbie Heatley