Editorial from Irish Political Review, March 2004

Northern Ireland: The Process Aborts?

The Good Friday Agreement is now being renegotiated, in definite breach of its terms, under the flimsiest of pretexts that its operation is being reviewed in accordance with its terms. Paisley does not pretend that it is being reviewed. He demanded renegotiation. The experts told him it wasn't possible. He ignored them and he is now engaged in renegotiation with the two Governments who are the guarantors of the Agreement.

The Agreement had no internal dynamic—a fact which we pointed out right at the start. Its functioning depended on continuous pressure by the two Governments compelling it to function. David Trimble only signed under direct intimidation by Blair. Once he signed, the pressure was taken off and he was allowed to waste a year and a half before the devolved Government was set up, and still count that year and a half towards the two-year timetable of IRA decommissioning. The Agreement was then pretty well dead in the water.

Paisley is now intent on making a settlement in a way that Trimble never was. Trimble is a footling person and he surrounded himself with footling expert advisers. Trimble is froth on the wave: Paisley is the wave.

It has taken thirty-four years since the election in which he damaged Terence O'Neill to displace the Ulster Unionist Party. He now looks frail and the game is to wait until he dies or retires so that a deal can be done with the opportunism of his lieutenants. It is a foolish strategy.

Trimble now aspires to do with the DUP what Donaldson did with him—outflank it on the fundamentalist wing. He demanded that the DUP should withdraw from the 'Review' talks because of an alleged IRA kidnapping. Paisley just laughed at him. He has freedom of action, which the lieutenants would not have. And lieutenants are only lieutenants: they do not know what they stand for until they stand on their own. And a fragmentary chaos is as likely an outcome of the removal of Paisley as an opportunist accommodation.

Paisley was derided until last year. He has now become hegemonic. His first convert is the Alliance Party, which has now reneged on the Agreement which it helped to negotiate. It now subscribes to Paisley's aim of a restoration of the old Stormont system with minor modifications.

Paisley's strength is that he knows what democracy looks like, and he stands squarely for what would be a democratic arrangement if Northern Ireland were a democratic entity. In democracies majorities govern.

Northern Ireland is not, has never been, and is incapable of being, a democracy. But that is not something either Government will admit, the British because it is Unionist, the Irish because it is weakminded. Paisley is therefore in a strong argumentative position.

It is tempting to think that things would work out, or that the Sinn Fein position would be strengthened, if the IRA was disbanded. That is an illusion. How does an Army with no visible existence disband to the satisfaction of a political body for whom the demand that it should disband is only a debating point which helps to ward off a direct discussion of power-sharing. Debating points can always be constructed. And helpful political policemen are always there to help.

A political policeman helped John Reid and David Trimble to pull down the last Executive by saying that an IRA espionage operation had gathered the names and addresses of prison warders. Somebody was arrested. Now, a year and a half later the case has been dropped with no charges having been pursued. And the political policeman put the word around that an IRA group had walked into Castlereagh high-security barrack in broad daylight, without disguise, and helped themselves to high security documents. An American chef who had worked in the barracks was named as the mastermind. He had returned to America when he was named and there was talk of extradition. He has recently made a return visit to Ireland in his own name, and visited Northern Ireland without disguise, and nobody bothered him.

Those allegations served their purpose and the authorities want to forget about them. The game now is to harass Sinn Fein in connection with the 'review'. So the political policeman says the IRA has conducted a kidnapping. Again arrests have been made and no charges brought. The racket has become so blatant that it is beginning to be remarked upon even in anti-Republican circles in Dublin.

But not by the Minister for Justice, MacDowell of the fringe PD party, whose electoral support is no greater than Sinn Fein's. He responds to the growing support for Sinn Fein by suggesting that it is a kind of illegally-funded criminal body. But he brings no charges so that his allegations can be tested. And the Taoiseach has approved these antics of his Justice Minister, on the ground that Sinn Fein accuses Fianna Fail of political corruption and deserves to be accused of criminal activity until it stops doing so. But everyone in the Republic accuses Fianna Fail of corruption. And the Justice Minister's spiel to the electorate at the last Election was that a strong PD contingent in Government was needed, to keep Fianna Fail wrongdoing in check. Of course, now his job depends a modicum of silence on the issue.

The basic problem in the North is that it is an anomalous Constitutional entity, neither a region of a state nor an autonomous province, nor an independent state. It is a device maintained by Britain for the purpose of maintaining leverage on the part of Ireland which it was obliged to let go. It is not a structure set up with good government in mind. It would of course be nicer if a kind of make-believe democracy could be operated in it. But that is not possible because the entity, not being a state, does not exert on the political conduct of the populace the kind of influence which states tend to do—and because a cultural disposition established over centuries of Imperial dominance makes it utterly distasteful to the Protestant community that it should be obliged to share power—or even the semblance of it—with Catholics.

That is a conclusion we were driven to after a quarter of a century of close involvement. And what we find utterly distasteful is the self-righteous Unionist humbug in the matter of abhorring violence in politics. Unionist Ulster raised an illegal army to defy an Act of Parliament, and that army was made the local arm of the British state. 'Government' for half a century took the form of routine humiliation of the Catholic community in a particularly irritating mode of informality. Threats of force were freely made in 1972 when Whitehall abolished the Stormont regime as a public nuisance. And it would be naive to expect that unification of Ireland would be allowed to proceed peacefully in response to a mere vote in the future instead of being dealt with as the Home Rule Bill was in 1912-14. And Paisley himself has a little private army to account for in his past—Ulster Resistance—though he is rarely required to address it.


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