Editorial from Irish Political Review, July 2003

The Belfast Agreement:—A Dead Letter


The London and Dublin Governments insist that there can be no re-negotiations of the Good Friday Agreement. The reason for that is obvious. If the Agreement were set aside for the purpose of re-negotiation, it could never be put together again. It was in its time a gigantic confidence trick—as we said at the time. And confidence tricks are not easy to perform in Northern Ireland. This journal has observed closely the series of attempts by successive British administrations to foist a ‘Constitutional’ confidence trick on the Six Counties ever since the 1921 structure was broken up in 1972. We came to the conclusion that Constitutional confidence trickery was a hopeless project because of the habit of analytical thought that was so widespread in both populations. Two generations of pseudo-democracy—of communal Protestant rule under a pretence of elective government, but with elections boycotted by the political parties of the State—had engendered a degree of thoughtful political scepticism which is found nowhere else in the world. It could almost be said that everyone was his own politician. The hustling of the populace by influential party leaderships using illusory but emotionally-charged slogans, which forms part of the apparatus of democratic government as understood in Britain (see Bagehot), was something that could not be done in Northern Ireland—so we thought.

We were proved wrong—momentarily—in 1998. The Protestant community was hustled into supporting the Agreement even though its most representative leader—Dr. Paisley—campaigned against it.

The methods of democracy were brought to bear on the situation, even though the preconditions of democracy were lacking—political parties which formed an organic part of the governing of the State. A Whitehall spin-master who had been recruited from BBC Northern Ireland, Tom Kelly, drew up a blue-print for the propagandist hustling of the Protestant community, and it worked.

Kelly’s blueprint (which we described in April 1998) appeared totalitarian, and put one in mind of Dr. Goebbels, because it abstracted certain features of democratic government and set them out as a propaganda system to be implemented under central control in a situation where the preconditions of democratic government were lacking.

Even though Kelly’s blueprint for mass manipulation was leaked to opponents of the Agreement and publicised before the referendum and the elections, it worked. The Protestant community voted by a small majority to support the Agreement. It worked because the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party was intimidated by the Prime Minister into signing the Agreement by the threat of something worse if he refused, and bya public letter in which the Prime Minister gave a perverse interpretation of the content of the Agreement (see the article explanatory of the latter point in this magazine).

As soon as Trimble had fulfilled his obligation to Blair by enabling the referendum to be won, he set about preventing the Agreement from being implemented. The scheme of the Agreement was that the IRA should fade out over a two-year period in the context of the operation of the devolved government provided for by the Agreement. But Trimble prevented the devolved government from being established for a year and a half of those two years, pretending that the abolition of the IRA was an Agreement precondition of devolved government. “Guns before Government” was his slogan. He was eventually intimidated, at the end of 1999, into nominating Ministers, but did so under a six-week ultimatum. And so it continued.

Concessions in breach of the Agreement were made to Trimble all the way along by London and Dublin in order to save him from the Anti-Agreement elements in his own party. Since it was obvious that Trimble only signed the Agreement to ward off something worse, and he never campaigned in support of it, we described his conflict with Jeffrey Donaldson as a double-act. Trimble’s object was to subvert the Agreement from within, and he would not have found that so easy to do without Donaldson’s effectively conducted Anti-Agreement campaign amongst the ranks of the UUP.

It was evident from the start that the Agreement system had no internal dynamic. Only intense pressure from outside could give it a semblance of internal life. But the “Save Dave” mentality, particularly in Dublin, ensured that effective pressure would not be applied. Even the clever Martin Mansergh pursued the will o’ the wisp of Saving Dave—even though Dave made no serious pretence of wanting to be saved.

The Agreement is sacrosanct. And, as is the way with sacred things in the liberal culture of Western Christianity, it is treated as being of no practical effect. It must not be set aside and re-negotiated, but neither must it be taken for a binding Constitutional framework of political action, even though it was confirmed by a referendum and an election.

When Pat Doherty (Sinn Fein MP for West Tyrone) referred to the Agreement as if it were a Constitutional law made binding by referendum (Hearts & Minds, BBC NI 29.5.03), the interviewer, Noel Thompson, brushed this aside:

Doherty: “He [Nigel Dodds of the DUP] ignores the fact that 71% of the people of the North and a huge majority in the South, accepted the Good Friday Agreement. He talks only in terms of the Unionist community.”

Thompson: “That was a long time ago, Mr. Doherty, a long time ago.”

The BBC in Northern Ireland is very much an apparatus of the Government, in a way that is not the case in the rest of the state where it functions in the space between Government and Opposition. And Thompson is a very old hand at this business. He knew from the nods and the winks that the Agreement is now a piece of ancient history inherited from an obscure past. It is what Blackstone, the great ideologue of English law, called a dead letter of law.

Ancient history in this instance is the last Northern Ireland election.

The Agreement has fallen into the status of a dead letter so quickly because the Dublin Government has never been willing to act energetically in support of it. (The replacement of Albert Reynolds by Bertie Ahern was fatal in that regard.) And because at a critical juncture the SDLP (the architect of the Agreement when John Hume was leader) played politics against Sinn Fein instead of concentrating single-mindedly on the essence of what it had achieved.

Mark Durkan revealed last year that Blair had proposed to him that the d’Hondt system should be set aside—which means that the system which is obligatory under the Agreement should be set aside—and that an SDLP/UUP Coalition should be established. Durkan rejected the proposal, even though his conduct until then had given Blair reason to expect him to agree to it.

The SDLP has always been unwilling, in the moment of truth, to strike out on its own, even though its misconceived attempts to be ‘moderate’ in a situation of extremities misleads others into supposing that it would act independently. Thus it has the worst of both worlds.

The first instance of this was in the Summer of 1971 (the year after its establishment), when Brian Faulkner (whom it had groundlessly constructed into an Orange ogre) took its breath away by making it an offer which would have made it possible for the old Stormont structure to evolve through power sharing. That was when the SDLP was led by Lord Fitt and the late Paddy Devlin. Fitt and Devlin responded enthusiastically, on the spur of the moment, to Faulkner’s offer. Then, on mature reflection, they decided not to return to Stormont and reject the offer—which they would have found difficult to do in terms of what they had been saying up to that point. They withdrew from Stormont and set up the long-forgotten Alternative Assembly at Dungannon.

When Seamus Mallon was party leader he reversed that relationship by making Trimble an offer which Trimble ignored. (That was November 1998, when Trimble had been delaying the setting up of the Executive for some months. He said that, if Trimble nominated Ministers, he would undertake to act with him against Sinn Fein in the event of IRA decommissioning not being delivered within the two-year period. Mallon’s willingness to act independently in the moment of truth was not put to the test because of Trimble’s rejection of the offer. But the rejection of Mallon’s proposal demonstrated that Unionist objections to operating the Agreement, which the UUP had endorsed and the Protestant community had voted for, went far beyond the ‘decommissioning’ issue.

Dublin has now conceded all that the Anti-Agreement Unionists were asking for some time ago (disbandment of the IRA as a precondition of Sinn Fein participation in government: see last month’s issue, page 18 which reproduces paragraph 13 of the Joint Declartaion). The matter on which Donaldson refused to sign the Agreement on Good Friday has been conceded—and far more as well—in the Joint Declaration of April 2003. And that Declaration proposes that Whitehall be accorded (in breach of the Agreement) the right to exclude from the Executive Ministers who have seats on it under the d’Hondt system. But, instead of now coming on board the Agreement, Donaldson has shifted the ground, carrying senior Unionist MPs with him (the Rev. Martin Smyth, and also David Burnside who, after a high-flying career in English industry, returned to take South Antrim with the support of English Tories and New Labour socialists).

The defection of Donaldson, Smyth and Burnside from the UUP Parliamentary Party at Westminster, leaves Trimble with two lightweights, Lady Herman and Roy Beggs, and a drastic loss of Parliamentary status. The UUP is now on a par with Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the DUP and Donaldson’s group.

The Daily Telegraph—which strongly supports Trimble—expressed amazement that the UUP should be “tearing itself apart” in the very moment when it has boxed Sinn Fein into a corner, and gained from Dublin and London the removal of the objectionable features of the Agreement. But the Daily Telegraph, for all its sentimental enthusiasm for ‘Ulster’, is a creature of English politics and cannot imagine itself into political life in that “integral part of the UK” which exclusion from the political life of the State has turned into a no-man’s-land.

Donaldson refused to sign the Agreement, and parted company with Trimble, because of one particular feature of it. He would have signed it under the intense pressure of 1998 if that feature had been amended. But that does not mean he wanted the Agreement, minus that feature. Now that the pressure has been removed, he wants more. And so do many other Unionists. And who can blame them?

It is not the Unionists who have brought the Agreement to nothing (as far as devolved government is concerned). It is the London and Dublin Governments, facilitated by the half-baked stance of the SDLP. It was evident that only irresistible pressure from outside would compel the UUP to act the part which it had signed up for—and it was only under irresistible pressure that it signed up for the part.


The Belfast Agreement: A Dead Letter.

Labour & The Cause Of Ireland:— A New Beginning Begun?
Joe Keenan

Offensive Propaganda.
Sean McGouran

The New Belfast Agreement.
David Morrison

The Clonbanin Column:
LP Donations; Rabbitte; Spring; Conference prices; Emblems; McDowell; Leahy; Capt. Kelly

An Cor Tuathail: I heard A Tale That Tormented Me By Day.
(Compiled by Pat Muldowney)

The Sale Of Lissadell House.
Julianne Herlihy

A Report On Northern Ireland.
Councillor Mark Langhammer

"Stormont In Any Form Will Never Work"
(Report: M. Langhammer, New Ireland Group letters)

The Labour Process. (Part 2 of a review of Das Kapital)
John Martin

Sean McGouran

Cold War Politics.
Wilson John Haire (Letter to Editor)

Lissadell House: Sinn Fein View

Northern Ireland News Digest. May/June 2003

Labour Comment, edited by Pat Maloney:
"If you think middle-class: vote Labour"

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