by David Granville
FORMER LABOUR MP and longstanding friend of Ireland Tony Benn was correct when he wrote in his recent column for the labour movement paper the Morning Star: “The prime minister’s decision to postpone the elections to the Northern Ireland assembly represents a direct denial of the rights of the people there and a repudiation of the commitment to democracy, which he now claims was one of the prime objectives of the war in Iraq.”
Of course, Benn was far from being the only one to point this out, or the fact that the Blair government was once again guilty of pandering to the unionist veto in order to save the Trimble’s political skin. However, the chorus of disapproval at the British premier’s action went far beyond criticism from the left and the predictably angry remonstrations of mainstream republicans.
SDLP leader Mark Durcan accused Blair of “playing fast and loose” with the democratic franchise element of the Good Friday deal.
More diplomatically, Irish taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who has been forced to resign himself to playing second fiddle to the British premier on matters relating to the implementation of the Good Friday deal, nevertheless acknowledged, with an astounding degree of understatement, that the postponement would cause more problems than it solved. “The assembly has done a full term and this is the time for an election,” Ahern commented. “That is our view. We have endeavoured to convince the British government of our arguments. In the end they decided to go an alternative route.”
Even so, and despite later attacking the Ulster Unionist Party for ‘its’ failure to restore the power-sharing executive in Belfast, Ahern felt it necessary to put on a common front with Blair over the latter’s assessment of the IRA’s clarification of its ‘future intentions’, as presented to the two governments via Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams.
On the face of it, the excuse for postponing the election is based on little more than a wilfully perverse interpretation of robust IRA assurances concerning the full implementation of the Good Friday deal.
However, the palpable relief with which the Ulster Unionist leader greeted the postponement announcement, against a background of widely predicted gains for anti-agreement unionists and Sinn Féin at the expense of both the UUP and SDLP, suggests that other motives are at play.
The British government continues to believe that Trimble’s political survival is central to their limited devolution project in the six counties. Since the signing of the Good Friday deal in 1989, ensuring that Trimble maintains this central position has required a string of anti-democratic measures – hence the postponement of elections originally scheduled for 29 May and the various previous suspensions of the Good Friday institutions. It has also given the UUP leader undue control over the speed and depth of reforms deemed unpalatable by unionists.
Given even the limited disclosure of the Stevens report and other recent revelations concerning the nefarious acts of British state security forces, it is not unreasonable to speculate that allegations concerning ‘Stakeknife’, an IRA spy ring at Stormont, and republican involvement in the Castlereagh break in, have as much to do with sowing doubts in people’s minds about the sincerity of republican intentions towards the peace process and attempts at putting a brake on the forward march of Sinn Féin in the six counties as anything to do with legitimate security concerns.
This is precisely why Trimble and co have been so successful in frustrating and putting off key reforms and why they are still able to insert new hurdles for republicans to jump outside of the Good Friday deal.
The British and Irish governments have now published their joint declaration and the IRA have categorically confirmed their support for the peace process and given assurances that they will take no action that will jeopardise the full implementation of the agreement.
It’s now time to let Trimble stand on his own political feet, or fall, if that is the democratic will of the unionist section of the six county population, and for the election to the Northern Ireland assembly to proceed as swiftly as possibly.
For Tony Blair to do otherwise would simply confirm that Britain’s commitments to a peaceful and democratic solution in the north are as bogus as David Trimble’s frequent outbursts of pompous indignation.
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