Editorial from Irish Political Review, October 2004

Fissured Politics

The pseudo-democracy of Northern Ireland has now reached a clear position of stalemate. All that is new is that the stalemate is out in the open. The moves have all been gone through and there is nothing more that spin-doctoring can do to camouflage the situation.

Northern Ireland is not, and never has been, a state. It was never anything more than a delegated apparatus of the British state designed to keep the Six Counties at arm's length from British democracy and to give Britain leverage on 26 County affairs.

Because it is not a state, the democratic principle of majority rule cannot work in it. If it was a state it would have given rise to a form of politics appropriate to its functioning as a state. But the state in Northern Ireland has always been the British state—not only in ultimate sovereignty but in a wide range of the institutions within which everyday life is lived.

Politics do not relate to the actual state. Elections in Northern Ireland have never been contested by parties seeking a mandate to govern the state. The shifts and accommodations and compromises and de facto changes of individual position, which happen as a matter of course in the political framework of a state, have never happened there. Elections, therefore, do not give rise to politically functional majorities.

The majority is not a political majority. Policies for government have little or nothing to do with it. It has therefore no moral standing with the minority.

There has been a change in the relative strengths of majority and minority during the past 80 years. The ratio began at a potential 70:30—but the differential was usually much wider in practice due to demoralisation on the minority side. It is now a steady 60:40, or something less. But the change did not reflect a political 'swing'. It was entirely the product of what is politely called "demographics".

The 1998 Agreement took account of the fact that Northern Ireland is only a pretend-democracy in which actual democratic politics play no part. It made detailed arrangements for a subordinate administration in which Ministries were shared out proportionate to the voting strength of parties, and operated independently of each other, being responsible neither to a Cabinet—there being no Cabinet—nor to a Parliament. Ministers were chosen by party leaders from members who were elected to a kind of Parliament, called an Assembly, and operated independently thereafter. The Party could change its Ministers without reference to the Assembly and the DUP did so. Elections to the Assembly were political contests only within each of the two communities who were explicitly recognised as the component parts of Northern Ireland.

The Agreement gave formal structural expression to the social reality of Northern Ireland, and thereby entrenched that reality. The Democratic Unionist Party rejected the Agreement but took the two Ministers to which it was entitled under it, declaring that this did not imply acceptance of the Agreement. While refusing to recognise the Court, it took a seat on the Bench.

Last year it defeated the Ulster Unionist Party in the Unionist election on an anti-Agreement mandate. The UUP is also anti-Agreement. The difference is that the UUP sought to subvert the Agreement from within while the DUP rejected it outright.

Sinn Fein won the Nationalist election. The Social Democratic and Labour Party was held to have been gullible in its conduct of affairs since 1998.

The DUP, being the major party, will not accept that majority rule does not apply in Northern Ireland. it now refuses to operate the system under which it held two ministries for four years.

High-powered talks were held between the British Government and the DUP at Leeds Castle in mid-September (and also between Sinn Fein and the Government, but not between the DUP and Sinn Fein, and the other parties were also present in the vicinity). A BBC radio report, obviously based on a Government briefing, said that Sinn Fein had met Government requirements in the matter of arms' decommissioning, and the obstacle was the DUP refusal to operate the old Ministerial system, and suggested that, if the DUP made it impossible to restore the Agreement in its essentials, that fact would be taken into account when an alternative system was devised.

That was the threat which caused David Trimble to sign the Agreement on Good Friday 1998. The alternative was understood to be an enhancement of the minimal joint sovereignty arrangements of the Hillsborough Agreement of 1985. He thereupon decided to sign the Agreement but shred it by opposition from within. The Hillsborough Anglo-Irish governing structures were dismantled under the Agreement.

The threat does not appear to be working on Paisley.

The SDLP was a ghostly presence at Leeds Castle. In the subsequent bickering the DUP suggested that it too should give up something in the interest of compromising, if the IRA gave up its weapons. But the SDLP has nothing to give up short of treason. Its decline was due to the fact that it gave up so much to Trimble while getting nothing in return.

Durkan responded: "The IRA should never have had arms in the first place". And there are a great many other things that should never have happened, including Eve eating the apple. But politics is an activity conducted within the Fall, and its object is not a return to Eden.

We never gave any semblance of support to the IRA campaign. At a number of critical junctures the SDLP gave it very substantial support. But we have held for 30 years that the perverse mode of government in Northern Ireland was sufficient reason for the re-emergence of the IRA—in fact the construction of a new IRA out of Northern Ireland conditions.

Durkan's remark is a mere debating point. If it was the position of the SDLP in earnest, it would have agreed to forming an 'anti-terrorist' Coalition with the Unionists. But it knew very well that its electoral support would collapse if it did such a thing.

The gullibility of the SDLP was one factor in causing the Agreement to be a dead letter almost from the start. Another was the aggressively anti-Sinn Fein posture of Dublin Governments. A third was the fact that the appearance of Unionist support for the Agreement was brought about by confidence trickery and there was bound to be a reaction.

John Bruton has now put himself at the head of a movement to re-Anglicise Ireland. He became Taoiseach unexpectedly, at a time when his political career appeared to be over. He had the sense to know that, unlike De Valera, he needed to do more than look into his heart to know what to say. The Republic was not yet ready for a Unionist Taoiseach. He therefore requested Martin Mansergh, who had been assistant to previous Taoiseachs on Northern policy, and had been one of the organisers of the confidence trick, to stay on as his adviser. Mansergh refused. In the circumstances Bruton can hardly be held responsible for the weakness of his action as Nationalist guarantor of the Agreement. By instinct he was on the Unionist side, and when he sought help for his problem he was refused. And his Fianna Fail successor has often been worse.

And now, by an interesting turn of events, the very failure of Dublin Governments to act as Nationalist guarantors of the Agreement, as British Governments have acted as Unionist guarantors, has led to a resurgence of Sinn Fein in the politics of the Republic.

The culture of the Republic is not yet media-culture. It runs its own way, regardless of the Irish Times and Sir Anthony O'Reilly and the greater part of RTE.

The Northern Assembly was elected a year ago but has not yet been allowed to sit. Disgruntled fundamentalists of the defeated UUP are therefore short of outlets.

David Burnside found a platform at a meeting of the all-but-forgotten Northern Ireland Grand Committee at Westminster on 17th June, where he said:

"If I was applying to join the Police Service of Northern Ireland, apart from the discrimination in the legislation which has been raised… many times, the disgraceful state discrimination against young Protestant men and women in Northern Ireland. When you apply, in the application form, there are two main categories… There is Catholic, and there is Non-Catholic. Now that is historically wrong, and it is offensive to the population of Northern Ireland. I am a Catholic, a member of the Church of Ireland, when I recite the Creed, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Roman Church is a sect within the Catholic Church. It is the Roman sect. And it is offensive to us as Protestant people to be referred to as Non-Catholic some sort of grouping. And I would ask the Minister to get that legislation changed so that it refers to Roman Catholics, Protestants or Others… Because it is offensive to us as if we have somehow different citizenship in Northern Ireland, and we cannot be represented even within this discriminatory legislation as what we represent in our personal religious affiliations."


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The Irish Times Share Structure After 1974.
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Housing Policy In Northern Ireland.
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Farenheit 9/11.
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JFK Rides Again.
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