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After the Good Friday review - The political landscape of restoration

John McAnulty

3rd March 2004

All is well! This was the message to come from the opening of the 'review' of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in February. 

Spokespersons for the British government shrugged off the permanent crises that the Good Friday process had faced, the collapse of its institutions and what was, from their view, a disastrous election which left Sinn Fein as the majority nationalist party and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Ian Paisley as the majority unionist party. They maintained that while the republicans had been too slow and niggardly in their concessions, once in a majority Paisley would mellow and moderate his tone. Careful diplomacy would have the GFA up and running again. 

In fact the nature of the Good Friday Agreement is sufficiently illustrated by the fact that 'success' within the context of the agreement would now mean the arch-bigot Paisley or his deputy as the prime minister in a local colonial assembly.

The electoral success of Sinn Fein actually represents no direct difficulty for the British and is mainly of significance in terms of the negative unionist reaction. There was really no political difference between Sinn Fein and the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). Both vied to show themselves as the most stalwart defenders of a British settlement which guarantees partition and the continued existence of the colonial sectarian statelet in the North. The success of Sinn Fein therefore did not represent any challenge from nationalism aimed at the GFA.

The success of Paisley's DUP is a different story. British strategy throughout the development and attempted implementation of the GFA was to offer a (minority) share of sectarian privilege to nationalists. In order to do so, while maintaining the unionist base that allows them to guarantee capitalist stability in Ireland, it was necessary to keep at arms length the Paisleyite rejectionists and construct a 'moderate' unionist majority willing to tolerate the presence of Catholics in government. The whole history of the GFA has been a history of British attempts to bend the agreement further and further to the right to appease the reactionary and sectarian Unionist leader Trimble and keep at bay the even more rabid Paisley. Paisley's election victory and the defection of Geoffrey Donaldson and his supporters from Trimble's Unionist Party to Paisley's DUP mark the final and absolute collapse of the British strategy. 


The British have spent over 30 years in a dirty war to keep their presence in Ireland and preserve their unionist base. Abandoning that base has never even got onto the agenda, let alone been seriously considered. Paisley's victory, and the immediate willingness of the British to rewrite the agenda around that victory, therefore means that we are no longer talking about a peace process or about the process of the Good Friday Agreement. We need a new word. A good word might be restoration. Success now would be the restoration of the sectarian state in the North in something like its original form without all the smoke and mirrors of a fake sectarian equality.

Yet the spurious optimism of the British seemed borne out by the initial review talks. Paisley came to the talks not with one proposal but with three! This development was immediately welcomed by the British, the Dublin government and by Sinn Fein itself. The fundamentalist monster of Irish politics was coming in from the cold! 

In summary the proposals were as follows:

The local assembly and executive would be re-established as before, the 'mandatory' coalition in their terms, with the added pre-requisite of total disarmament and disbandment of the IRA.

The local Stormont assembly would be reconvened without an executive, all issues resting on majority vote in the assembly.

The local Stormont assembly would be reconvened with a voluntary coalition coming together to form an executive, as opposed to the forced coalition demanded by the GFA. 

Beyond Good Friday

No-one involved in the chorus of welcome for the proposals seemed to notice that we had left the GFA far behind and were already deep in restoration territory. The British and Dublin had in practice torn up the agreement by accepting the DUP proposals onto the table and Sinn Fein had, by its welcome, indicated that it would stay on board to discuss a new deal without the pretence of reform dusted over the old GFA.

If this were not evident immediately then a brief analysis of the DUP proposals quickly clarifies things.

The proposal that the DUP would operate within the Good Friday Agreement is nothing of the sort. Their proposals refer only to the Stormont assembly. They don't mention other strands of the agreement supposed to be central to its operation, such as cross-border bodies and human rights legislation. These items aren't even on the agenda - there is no prospect of the DUP agreeing to cross-border institutions. Under unionist leadership the Human Rights Commission has imploded. Only in dreamtime can we imagine a genuine defence of human rights from Paisley.

In relation to the assembly itself the new demand - for the total disbandment and disarming of the IRA - would in practice depend upon the judgement of the DUP. They could, and would, always have and always will ask for more while it would be impossible for the republicans to completely disband. After all, the authority of the IRA is what holds the republican base to the GFA and there are plenty of militarists waiting to lift the mantle of the IRA if it is dropped by the Provos.

The DUP aren't serious about a 'mandatory' coalition with nationalists. They are serious about the proposal for an assembly and executive constructed by voluntary coalition. There's a name for that proposal - it's called Stormont. The old Stormont, slightly modified at first, but still red of tooth and claw, where a unionist majority would head straight back to the apartheid society the 1950's. The DUP are serious about their proposal, but it's not a serious proposal. The old Stormont blew up and gave rise to a 30 year war. There is simply no way short of all-out pogrom to impose the old Stormont on a much larger Catholic minority.

That leaves an assembly without an executive. Again there is a name for that. It's called direct rule. This is the real dilemma that the British face. The last assembly, with its 108 members and host of ministries, all replaced at a moments notice by 3 junior labour ministers, had a distinctly comic-opera element. When do they admit that there is no chance of a deal? Do they keep up an even more comic opera assembly that will be a focus for sectarian rivalry and instability or do they rule without one, leaving no figleaf covering their responsibility for the sectarian hellhole that is their colony in the North of Ireland? 

"kicking the dog to see if it is dead" 

In this new political landscape the pretence of negotiation with Sinn Fein is wearing thin. We are well past what former SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon called "kicking the dog to see if it is dead" and in the landscape of restoration Sinn Fein is to be kicked anyway in the hope that ever more public and craven capitulation by them may yet persuade unionism to do a deal.

Sinn Fein point mutely to their increased vote and their position as leading nationalist party in the North. Surely the British respect democracy? In response the unionist parties, the British and Dublin queue up to meet the political leadership of the UDA despite a vicious loyalist feud, a constant litany of sectarian attacks, a rash of vicious racist attacks and an almost total lack of electoral support for the loyalist front organisations. The message could not be clearer. The loyalists are needed as glove puppets for the British and the British are telling Sinn Fein that the future is Orange despite the level of political support for the Provos. The Sinn Fein task is to conciliate the orange reaction and make a deal more to the liking of the British and unionists.

The message is even more clearly spelt out in the furore around the attempted IRA kidnap of republican Bobby Tohill. In normal times the British would expect the IRA to police republican dissidents and would turn a blind eye. In this case they intervened and, even before the arrests were completed, pumped out from every state information agency the news that this was an IRA operation. 

This has happened before. Every collapse of the GFA has been accompanied by some new claims of IRA activity - break ins at the state security headquarters at Castlereagh, spying at Stormont, now the Tohill affair. All were used to establish republican responsibility for the failure of the process at a time when the actual mechanism was that the institutions were collapsing in the face of unionist rejection. The British are accepting the fact that the DUP proposals are bogus and that the review talks will go nowhere. They are establishing now that it is the reluctance of the republicans to disband that is to blame. The Dublin administration fully supports this ploy, with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern naming Gerry Adams as a member of the IRA.

The Johnny Moment

We are now at the 'Johnny moment'. Johnny White, spokesperson for loyalist 'mad dog' Johnny Adair, routinely explained his enormous wealth by claiming that it arose from the proceeds of the sale of jail handicrafts. For years a media committed to the GFA meekly accepted this fairytale, only to round sharply on White when he fell from favour. For years Adams' claims never to have been a member of the IRA, although widely disbelieved, have passed without comment and have not been an issue. Only now, when Sinn Fein are seen as an obstacle to a settlement, has this changed and the claim met with widespread official derision. 

The Sinn Fein leadership, featherbedded by the capitalist media, see themselves as political geniuses. They now have to face much choppier waters when they are portrayed as unreformed terrorists. To make matters worse, the more vehement Adams' denials of IRA membership, the more uneasy becomes a base that is steeped in republican militarism.

The Sinn Fein response to the attacks is one of total bemusement. Their initial welcome for the DUP proposals was followed by a call on everyone else to hold to the GFA and then followed again by calls for unconditional talks between themselves and the DUP. They demand that negotiations be within the framework of the Good Friday Agreement except that they themselves can step outside for unconditional talks! Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness draws attention to the unionists, Dublin and the British lionising of the UDA while they continue their low level war of sectarian intimidation but then welcomes this hypocrisy in the name of inclusion. 'Include Sinn Fein too!' is the desperate cry.

Gerry Adams speaks to the faithful at Sinn Fein's Ard Fheis on 28th February. 'We will not be bullied - pressure on Sinn Fein is a waste of time' he announces to rapturous applause, ignoring the fact that the process has been driven by repeated attacks on Sinn Fein and repeated capitulations by his movement - the last crisis began with a major surrender of weapons and full-scale recognition of the Northern state by Sinn Fein. In return they got nothing except the blame for not doing enough to persuade the unionists. True to form, Gerry Adams defiance is followed immediately by indications that Sinn Fein is willing to take further steps towards the disbandment of the IRA if London and Dublin stick to their side of the bargain!

The factor that most disorients Sinn Fein is the collapse of their strategy of nationalist unity. The Irish bourgeoisie want stability in the North. They want the ability to influence some of the patronage dispensed in the colony and an advisory role behind the scenes where they have the ear of the British. If the price for this is indefinite colonial status for the North and sectarian dominance by unionism in the administration then so be it. They have little patience for Sinn Fein obfuscation designed to reassure their traditional base that they are still a party of anti-imperialist radicalism. If the Shinners do not do more, a lot more, the Irish bourgeoisie will punish them for it. There is even wild (if unrealistic) talk of joining with Britain to exclude Sinn Fein from a new executive!

Direct rule and restoration

February was supposed to mark a process of review of the Good Friday Agreement. That never got off the ground. The mechanism was to exert much greater pressure on Sinn Fein and to make it clear that they were the villains of the piece because of their failure to capitulate fully enough and quickly enough. 

The outcome of the GFA review farce was inevitable. The next period will be a long period of direct rule by Britain, with or without the comic opera assembly. This direct rule will not be an empty time. It will have one aim - the aim of restoration of a partitionist executive, this time without all the flummery and pretence of equality and democratic rights that helped destabilise the first experiment. The fact that London, supported by Dublin, have tried to cut to the chase and force immediate republican capitulation indicates just how savage the drive to ensure the sectarian rights of unionism will be.

The major difficulty for the British is that the Paisleyite triumph is not a mark of unionist resurgence but rather of its continuing decay. This decay is confirmed by the fact that the departure of unionist dissidents has not brought peace to Unionist Party leader David Trimble. Rather he faces a further leadership challenge from the right. A process that depended on depicting the arch-bigot Trimble as a moderate may be rebuilt with an even more bigoted unionist leader! Win or lose for Trimble, the UP and the DUP will be locked in a battle to prove who is more irreconcilable and represents the firmest defence of unionist privilege. The fact that this battle is to play out in a statelet where 40% of the population is Catholic and whose existence is being guaranteed by Irish capital through the Dublin government gives some indication of the difficulties of a stable imperialist rule in Ireland. 




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