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Crisis talks end: Now Britain will lay down the law
After years of Pollyanna-like optimism and uncritical support for British policy in Ireland the British and Irish media have finally accepted that the good Friday agreement is in crisis. Yet even now, when the agreement has failed to deliver on any of its promises and is quite clearly the framework of a society in which sectarian division will be frozen for the indefinite future, crisis is probably too strong a word – instability would be a better word. The difference between crisis and instability is quite simple. A crisis would require a conscious opposition putting forward an alternative, and this is conspicuously absent from the current situation. The walkout by the spokespeople for the loyalist paramilitaries simply indicates that their guns aren’t going to be surrendered – not that the British government or the unionists are concerned about death squad arms – and also that they do not believe that a deal will be done at the meeting and want to appear as the hardline opponents.
In fact all the parties without exception support the new Stormont institutions and want them to continue, along with the gravy train and the patronage that go with them. Even so, the unionists want it spelt out that their sectarian privilege is secure in the new state and, such is their bigotry, they may still bring the agreement crashing down. If they do the institutions of the agreement will still remain. The British will still call the shots and the perspective of all the parties, including Sinn Fein, will be to lobby the British.
The first thing that needs to be understood is that the threat to the agreement comes from the right. Sinn Fein support for the agreement is total and no significant threat has emerged from dissident republicans or from the left. The threat from reaction has existed from the beginning. Any impartial examination of the history of the troubles shows that the difficulty has been that the British have never been able to persuade their unionist base to accept anything that would remotely satisfy the mass nationalist revolt.
In the end the British waited for the collapse of mass opposition and the entry of their erstwhile opponents into the reformist camp before putting together the Good Friday agreement. They gave nothing of real substance and pleaded with unionism to support the deal. It scraped through and, despite constant shifts in the agreement to placate the right, ever since then there has been a slow but steady erosion of the pro-agreement unionist vote. The current situation represents a crisis because up until now the British have been willing to ignore the opposition of Paisley’s DUP and have based their policy on holding the UUP under Trimble. This is no longer possible because the anti- agreement unionists now hold the majority in the UUP and the British have no intention of discarding their unionist base.
What that means right away is that the July crisis conference has nothing to do with placating Sinn Fein. It has only one purpose. That is to force a public surrender and the disposal of arms by the republicans.
The other thing to be understood is that there is no longer any opposition to a deal on arms from the republican leadership. All they have to say is focused on what they will get for their sacrifice, the need to bring back the agreement to where it was and assurances that the arms question will not extend into endless demands from the unionists – which of course it will.
What is becoming clear is that the republican leadership, having abandoned revolution, really believe in reform. The agreement retreated from the Patton report, in their view, because then secretary of state Peter Mandelson got it wrong – not because the sectarian northern statelet needs a sectarian police. At the center of their current strategy is the belief that the British really wish Ireland well and want to do the right thing. That view cannot long survive. What they will be offered are ways of sweetening the pill and that may not be enough at the present juncture and a more extended period of instability will follow.
The republicans also believe in electoralism – that more votes mean more power. They don’t understand that British control is not changed in the slightest by their vote and that by accepting the Good Friday agreement they are in a catch-22 situation. A small vote would mean they were weaker and had to make concessions. A big vote is a vote for the deal and they still have to make concessions!
Gerry Adams rails against deadlines, but there is one deadline that he can’t avoid – next year’s general election in the South. The price of coalition is the disposal of arms and all the other parties to the agreement, including their erstwhile friends in Dublin and Washington are united in demanding the final surrender.
The breakup of the Weston hall talks indicates the limited nature of the crisis. It suggests, not that agreement is impossible, but that it is possible, requiring so much however that the parties need the excuse of British imposition to make it work – much in the way that the original Good Friday agreement was imposed. Leaks from the republicans indicate that the sticking point is not decommissioning on their side but unionists acceptance of a republican presence on local police boards – something that was in the Patton report but then removed. What irony! The British are to fight tooth and nail to allow the disarmed republicans to take responsibility for a sectarian police force over which they will have no control!
Behind the scenes lies a real crisis. In the period since his resignation David Trimble has endorsed the unrestricted sectarian right of Orangemen to march wherever they please. More chillingly he “mistakenly” slandered a catholic youth, Cieran Cummings, the victim of a sectarian killing, as a drug dealer. There was no mistake here. All the intelligence resources of the state were at Trimble’s fingertips. What he was doing was lining up with the army of bigots who quietly endorse the use of terror against the nationalist population. This is the face of moderate unionism on which the Good Friday agreement is based. This is the sectarian hell-hole that London, with Dublin as junior assistant, are attempting to stabilise.