Editorial from Irish Political Review, January 2004
Misguided Democrary?

There was an election in Northern Ireland six weeks ago, but the elected representatives have still not met in assembly, and there is no prospect of their doing so. They cannot meet until a politician elected in another country to another assembly decides to call them. And he will not call them until the matters which it is supposedly the business of the Northern Ireland Assembly to decide have already been decided by him without reference to it.

An arrangement of this kind was established by General Ayub Khan in Pakistan about forty years ago. He called it "guided democracy". It was generally ridiculed in the West, and judged not to be democracy at all. But that is essentially what is called democracy in Northern Ireland—with the difference that General Ayub was a Pakistani, while Paul Murphy is a foreigner.

David Trimble has succeeded in the strategy he adopted in 1998. He signed the Agreement under duress for fear of something worse. He co-operated in implementing it to the extent of being elected First Minister under it in the Summer of 1998 and then concentrated on preventing the rest of it from being implemented. He delayed the start of devolved government for a year and a half, and then had it suspended for most of the next three-and-a-half years. And now he has brought the Democratic Unionist Party to dominance within the Unionist community.

Outright rejection of the Agreement would have been dangerous to the Unionist cause in 1998, when Tony Blair was overflowing with omnipotence. But now Blair is a beaten docket, having killed thousands of Iraqis in pursuit of a delusion and thrown away his charismatic control over his own Party, and having placed his fate in the hands of Lord Hutton over the trivial issue of the suicide of a duplicitous civil servant. It is reckoned that he will not now do what he would probably have done in 1998—enhance the joint authority dimension of Direct Rule.

No doubt the Trimble ego is sad that it is no longer First Minister—but the £100,000 it got from the Nobel institution for doing the thing which he then proceeded to undermine will be some consolation. But Trimble is also an idealist, as anyone who saw him as a militant in William Craig's fascist movement, or dancing the Orange jig with Paisley at Drumcree, must realise. And the idealist must feel satisfied in a job well done.

The DUP seems to be irretrievably committed to removing the Agreement and establishing a different system of devolution. What is called "renegotiation" is rejection. And the two Governments, while insisting that there can be no renegotiation, only 'review', have indicated a readiness to renegotiate so long as the word used is "review". They have said that the essentials must be preserved, but are vague about what the essentials are, suggesting that they amount to "power-sharing".

But the distinctive characteristics of this Agreement, the things which enabled it to be agreed, are the specific arrangements under which power is to be shared—and the distinctive characteristics of something are its essentials. The essentials are the two autonomous electorates whose parties must have representation in government as of right, the rule that Government Departments are independent of the Assembly, and the rule that measures adopted by the Assembly require a majority of the representatives of each of the electorates to support it.

Between 1998 and 2002 these provisions might have been eroded under the pretext of a review, if the SDLP had been willing to collaborate. Seamus Mallon was willing during the Winter of 1998-99, but Trimble wouldn't play then—meaning in effect that, while the IRA was his ostensible reason for blocking the Agreement, the SDLP was unacceptable to him. And, when Trimble was ready to propose a power-sharing deal outside the terms of the Agreement, his obstructionism had undermined the position of the SDLP with the Catholic electorate.

Although John Hume masterminded the Agreement, the SDLP never accepted its political logic. The system was structured to give representation in government, as a matter of right, to two different communities. The pretence of 'the community' was dropped. The experience of three-quarters of a century had demonstrated the non-existence of 'the community'. If the Six Counties had been governed as part of the UK, through the medium of the political democracy of Britain, it is very likely that something like a community would have evolved in them. But the invention of the constitutional entity of Northern Ireland ensured that the political reality of two sharply delineated communities was reproduced, in aggravated form, in every generation. And the Agreement was formally structured on that state of affairs.

British democracy operates through 'swings' between the parties-of-state. So does the American. There are two major parties which take it in turns to form the Government. Because the difference between them is slight a section of the electorate swings from one to the other, determining which is to govern. British commentators reported Northern Ireland elections in terms of 'swings' because they were trained on the democracy of the State. But there were no swings in Northern Ireland. The parties between which there could be swings did not exist, and the so-called "Northern Ireland state" was postulated on the permanent majority of one party, which was not really a political party at all but an organised community within which 'normal' political differences were co-ordinated into harmony. (The German term, Gleichschaltung, used by Dr Goebbels in the 1930s would be appropriate to describe the procedures of the Unionist Party/State within the Protestant community during the half-century of the old Stormont.)

There were no 'swings' and no centre ground in the old Stormont. Those figures of speech simply do not apply to political life in the 'Northern Ireland state'. And the new structures established in 1998 have removed the very notion of a centre-ground from the political agenda. Those who present themselves as a centre-ground—the Alliance Party and the Women's Coalition in 1998-2003—were shunted to the margins as "Others". Between the two organised communities on which the Agreement is based there are only 'Others'—strays in a No-Man's-Land. And, when the strays wanted to be players they had to re-classify themselves as Unionist. (Both the Alliance and the Women's Coalition—a.k.a. the Communist Party—did it.)

And yet the SDLP, the architect of this tightly structured communal system, refused to act according to its logic and went chasing the non-existent centre-ground by encouraging 'swing' voting between the communities.

What the logic of the system requires is that each community should maximise its representation in the Assembly, and form a voting alliance for that purpose. Sinn Féin, the most thoroughly pro-Agreement party, was willing to have a voting alliance with the SDLP. The SDLP refused. Sinn Fein urged their voters to give their transfers to the SDLP, but the SDLP urged their voters to give their transfers to he Unionist Party (which did not reciprocate). It just made no political sense. And it had the effect of losing a nationalist seat to the Unionists, with the result that in a new government the nationalist community will probably be entitled to fewer Ministers.

(It is an inconsistency in the system that voting is by territorial constituencies which include voters of both communities. The system of registered voters used in the American primaries would be more appropriate to the general structure of the Agreement.)

What the DUP is demanding is the banning of Sinn Fein from office, regardless of its electoral support, and the establishment of Cabinet government responsible to the Assembly. The two Governments are mulling it over to see if they can find a way to concede these demands, which abrogate the Agreement, in the form of a 'review' of the Agreement. The DUP can cite the agreement of all other parties in the Republic that Sinn Féin must be banned from office there as a precedent for banning it in the North—although the Taoiseach has recently somewhat shifted ground with regard to the suitability of Sinn Fein as a partner in government. But the Governments have learned through painful experience that the nationalist electorate invariably increases its support for Sinn Fein when they try to isolate it.

(The nationalist electors know very well, even though the fact is never mentioned in the London or Dublin media, that the conditions under which IRA decommissioning was to happen over a period of two years under the Agreement were never implemented. The two years in question were to be years in which the devolved institutions and the cross-border institutions functioned and the police and justice reforms were implemented. Trimble's strategy from the very start was to prevent those conditions from being met, while taking the two-year decommissioning schedule to be unconditional.)

Cabinet Government, responsible to the Assembly with Sinn Fein banned from office, would be a complete abrogation of the Agreement, and a big step towards the re-introduction of the old Stormont system, even if a weighted majority were required in the first instance.

What the Agreement provides for is independent Ministries as party fiefdoms. That is the basis on which the DUP held two Departments after 1998. Its Ministers were not responsible either to the Assembly or to the Executive. In fact, there wasn't any Government as such, only Ministries. The First Minister was not the head of a Cabinet. And, while the other Ministers sometimes met for discussions, the DUP Ministers kept themselves apart.

The DUP wants a restoration of the old Stormont system, with itself taking the place of the "fur-coat brigade". And that is what the Unionist community wants. It would agree to something less in the first instance, but would feel a sense of grievance when doing so. And, if there were such a thing as a Northern Ireland State, and it was to be governed as a democracy, its case would be indisputable. But Northern Ireland has never been anything other than a systematically misgoverned outpost of the British State, excluded from the democratic politics of the state. And the reason for its existence was not that the British statesmen thought it was a way of providing good government for the Six Counties. It was constructed as a kind of No-man's-land between Britain and the new Irish State that Britain was obliged to concede after the failure of the Black-and-Tans, as a means of maintaining leverage on the 26 Counties.

Northern Ireland was developed as a means to the end of re-incorporating the rest of Ireland back into the British sphere.

Professor Bew, who has been Trimble's "close adviser" in recent years, is one of those who have been re-writing the history of Ireland on British lines, with particular regard to 1916-22. The Guardian (November 29th) comments: "it is difficult to disagree with the sombre observation of Professor Paul Bew that the Good Friday agreement has not generated the dialectic of compromise that its authors hoped, but instead has generated a dialectic of antagonism that has not yet run its course".

Professor Bew was once a Marxist of the most rigorous kind, but at a certain moment—could it be in 1990?—he discreetly became an ex-Marxist without announcing his conversion or revealing its intellectual or spiritual process. He was for some years an activist of the Official Republic movement which, after many strange peregrinations, found its way into a position of fundamentalist Unionism. He has expressed regret at having taken part in the Civil Rights movement around 1969, saying he would have been better advised to stay in bed. He has contributed to the publications of a fundamentalist Unionist think-tank called the Cadogan Group, whose first publication concluded that there was nothing much wrong with the old Stormont. For many years now he has been best thought of as a Government agent—as is the case with many of the strict Marxists of the 1970s. At a certain point he engaged in a literary collaboration with the celebrated murderer, Sean O'Callaghan, who is not a person one bumps into in the streets.

He supported the Agreement in 1998, when other members of the Cadogan Group—freer spirits—opposed it, and he became a media-apologist for Trimble. Now that Trimble has accomplished his destiny he wonders, in language which echoes the 1970s, about the "dialectic" of the Agreement. His conclusion is something that was evident from the outset—and might even be said to be its raison d'etre. The "dialectic of antagonism" was inherent in the 'Northern Ireland state'—an entity about which Professor Bew has written extensively.

(This state was never anything but a subordinate authority put in place by the sovereign authority of the State and continuously beholden to it.) The Agreement gave formal structural expression to the inherent antagonism of Northern Ireland, and, barring miraculous intervention, could not have produced a "dialectic of compromise".

Prof. Bew had an article in the Sunday Times on 30th November, entitled A Pyrrhic Victory In The Polls: Direct Rule Tinged With Green, in which he says:

"Seamus Mallon acknowledged the damage done to unionist confidence by reports of IRA adventurism through the Florida arms case on to Columbia and the various alleged espionage scandals".

It matters little what Seamus Mallon says now. Mallon's moment came and went in the Winter of 1998-99. He made an offer to act with Trimble outside the structures of the Agreement if Trimble co-operated with him in getting the Agreement institutions going properly and the IRA failed to meet the two-year timetable—even though half a year of that period had already been wasted by Trimble. What did Prof. Bew advise in that situation?

With regard to the allegations that damaged Unionist confidence—they were Unionist allegations. The Unionists wanted very much to have their confidence damaged, and so they made damaging allegations—which are still no more than allegations (with the possible exception of the Florida incident, which rarely features in the Unionist recitation). And Prof. Bew said he had no problem about believing that the IRA strolled into Castlereagh high-security barracks without disguise in broad daylight, having arranged for the continuously-recording security cameras to be switched off for the occasion, and strolled out again with a batch of highly secret documents.

Prof. Bew continues:

"Some will say [within the Cadogan Group?] that an unnecessary complex and expensive form of government has gone and good riddance. It was always difficult to see how the assembly might function in the long term without a proper opposition. But there is reason to weep. Northern Ireland needs to displace its sectarian conflict into reasonably harmless disputes; this is for the most part what the institutions of the agreement did. Our politicians were never so happy [as] when they spent hours in Stormont's myriad Byzantine committees. Some of the benign effects trickled down into society at large. Now there is no counterbalance to the working of mutual antagonism."

If the assembly was having that effect of dissipating Republicanism, why did Trimble not let it run?

In fact the Assembly was another forum for engaging in the antagonism of the communities, even while discussing gas and water (so to speak). You did not need to watch the televised proceedings for very long to see that. And, all the while, the antagonism on the ground outside grew sharper and more extensive. (Chapel going in Ballymena and going to school in Ardoyne had never been so exciting while the war was on.)

There was an atmosphere of make-believe about the Assembly. People had a point to make by the way they behaved in it. Everybody knew that it did not have the makings of a stable mode of government. The displacement of community conflict ("sectarian" is a misnomer) by "reasonably harmless disputes" is something which can occur in the party-politics of a state, given the appropriate party structure. It cannot occur in Northern Ireland. We did our utmost to bring the Six Counties into the party-structures of the British democracy. Prof. Bew was utterly opposed to that project. It was also opposed by the British Government, with its eyes on the South. At this juncture the project appears realisable only through the party-politics of the 26 Counties.

Meanwhile in the Republic the Britishising project has suffered a setback.

About twenty-five years ago Tony O'Reilly appeared on a BBC, Northern Ireland, variant of Desert Island Discs. He said he was proud of being Irish and never felt inferior in English company. So why say anything at all about the superiority of the English? He was obviously a man with an inferiority complex, needing to be recognised as an equal by his superiors. He got his wish recently when the Queen touched him on the shoulder as he knelt before her. And many others were lining up waiting to be admitted to the Order of the British Empire. And then along comes West Indian Benjamin Zephanaiah and declares himself a free man without knavish yearnings. And this stimulated Yasmin Alibaj Brown, a Ugandan Asian, to withdraw from the Order of the British Empire, to which she was admitted some years ago. And a list of people of republican spirit who refused Royal and Imperial baubles was leaked, and the refuseniks suddenly became the people of honour.

Mary Robinson's great object as President was to bring over the Queen. But what point would there be in it now? Bring over the West Indian peasant instead so that Dublin 4 can see what a free republican spirit looks like.


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