The political landscape following the death of the Good Friday Agreement
‘Paisley for Prime minister!’ Says Adams.
30 June 2006
The opening of the Stormont assembly and attempts to set up a new administration in the North of Ireland on Monday 15th May was overshadowed by traffic gridlock in Belfast as Charles and Camilla Windsor visited the Colony. Their visit, timed to coincide with the assembly opening, spelt out none too subtly to both Unionist and Nationalist politicians the unswerving British support for occupation, partition and sectarian division. In the words of one of Margaret Thatcher’s well-known sayings about the North of Ireland; ‘As British as Finchley.’
The visit was entirely appropriate given its context. It underlined the nature of the new assembly, set up under a new British legislative framework. Whatever process it operates under, its no longer the Good Friday agreement. That whole period of Irish history, ushered in by the defeat of the hunger strikes, has come to an end.
The reality of the burial of the GFA is indicated by the fact that Peter Hain, the British ruler of the North, had some time previously rushed through special emergency legislation to allow the assembly to open. The legislation was necessary because the original agreement guaranteed ‘equality of the two traditions’ by bolting all the various parts of the deal together. It was therefore impossible to have an assembly without a power-sharing executive, cross-border bodies, and all the other bells and whistles designed to provide a comfort zone for nationalists and show that the sectarian state in the North could deliver equality. Now all the flummery is gone, stripped down to a Stormont assembly with a unionist majority and a desperate attempt to coax Paisley to assume control of the colony – still ‘as British as Finchley’.
Just how unlikely a successful outcome is can be seen when we consider:
The blind bigotry of unionism is not confined to historical events. The sectarian killing of Catholic schoolboy Michael McIlveen in Ballymena was followed by posthumous insult by a local DUP councillor. Paisley’s condemnation of the killing was nullified by his endorsement of claims of provocation by the Loyalists.
Leaving aside the question as to why coalition government with these scum should be so desperately promoted by Sinn Fein and Irish nationalism generally, why would they think that such a government is even possible? The explanation is quite simple, this time, we are told, the British are going to get tough. If Ian Paisley does not sign up then Unionism will be punished. The British will cut down the cash flow and sack the assembly members, all sorts of unpopular measures such as water charges will be introduced, the review of public administration will end the featherbedding of the local population, and new supercouncils will see Unionism marginalised west of the Bann. The whole Stormont kit and caboodle will be folded up and ‘joint authority’ will be introduced.
The nationalist fantasy recorded above, the source of a slew of statements following the announcement of the Stormont assembly’s recall on 6th April, lasted all of two days. By Saturday secretary of state Hain had announced that there was no possibility of joint authority. By the following week the political demand from all sides was not for the punishment of unionism, but for Sinn Fein to fully support the RUC/PSNI and join the policing boards.
The response from nationalism was not to protest these new attacks but to endorse them. Bertie Ahern said on the 6th April ‘I hope we will see the restoration of accountable institutions in Northern Ireland with politicians back in the lead position.’ There was no mention of all the other institutions supposed to confer an all-Ireland dimension to the restabilisation of partition. This accurately reflects the position of Irish capital. If there is silence from the North, no threat to their own rule, and they are allowed to proffer advice to the British then all their demands have been met.
The Provos, given their subservient position in relation to Irish nationalism, are forced to tag along behind Bertie Ahern and Fianna Fail, their partners in the nationalist family. Gerry Adams finds himself welcoming a minutes’ silence at the start of the assembly following the murder of schoolboy Michael McIlveen as a sign of progress. In fact the whole history of the troubles is filled with hypocritical tears from unionism. If everyone opposes the sectarian killing of Catholics how is it that the killings continue ten years after the Provo campaign ended? Taking at face value the Unionist hypocrisy is in fact an enormous political capitulation by the Provos, made manifest by Adams’ proposing that the greatest proponent of sectarian hatred, the archetype of bigotry, Ian Paisley, become Prime minister of the sectarian state.
The proposal was greeted with hoots of derision from the Unionists and with irony by the media. However in time to come the enormity of the Provo capitulation will sink in. Rarely has a political movement made such a u-turn, endorsing what it was formed to destroy, and Adams’ short speech will become a stain that will never wash from Irish republicanism, indicating how unfit the physical force tradition is to achieve an Irish democracy or bring about the defeat of British imperialism.
In an attempt to persuade big Ian to say yes the British are busy in the background. Honours are showered on Paisley and his cronies. Money is thrown at the Loyalist paramilitaries. The quangos of victims commission, Police board and parades commission are packed with DUP appointees, Orangemen. and even representatives of the death squads. In one case all fair employment procedures are ignored to simply appoint by decree, in other cases the British secretary of state chides the SDLP for mischief making when they point out that his appointees are lying about the sponsors they have available. The frenzy of capitulation to the bigots reaches such a point that secretary of state Hain is found guilty in the courts of breaking his own laws in appointing Orangemen involved in attempting to force Orange marches through Catholic areas to the parades commission.
So the central dynamic of the post Good Friday situation is the involvement of Nationalism and erstwhile republicanism to a process of endless capitulation to unionist bigots while the British shower the sectarians with bribes. However the outcome of this process is not that Paisley becomes Prime minister. Despite the inducements and the abandonment of the old agreement there seems no prospect at all of restoring a devolved administration.
In order to see why we have to look sideways at the Ulster Unionist party and the decision by leader Reg Empey to co-opt David Ervine to the Ulster Unionist group at the Northern Ireland Assembly. Ervine is a leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, voice of the UVF death squads. The decision demolishes completely the claims of political principle by the UUP. For decades they refused to talk to republicans, then they staged crisis after crisis and were the main force in bringing down the Stormont assembly. Their party imploded at the last election, with many in their leadership organising behind Paisley. The underlying principle of unionist intransigence was their claim of total opposition to political violence which put the Provos beyond the pale – ‘no guns in government!’ was their cry. Now in an instant we have a UUP proposal for participation in a new government grouping by a representative of an organisation that all reports say is still actively terrorising nationalist workers, is heavily involved in drug-dealing and is not involved in any ceasefire or decommisioning of arms. What gives?
The UUP obligingly explain that there is a higher principle at work. That principle is the principle of Protestant majority. Protestants are the majority and this should be reflected in government. All the points they made about law and order, about opposition to political violence, about their horror of terrorism, these are all subordinate to this higher principle.
What this does is confirm the very worst picture that the opponents of unionism have painted of the movement and the everyday experience of those old enough to remember unionist government. This ‘principle’ of Protestant majority means that Unionism is only in a very secondary and peripheral way a political philosophy. What it is mainly is a sectarian conspiracy, fundamentally opposed to any form of democracy. Empey’s co-option of Ervine simply reflects the everyday reality of the old Stormont regime, when unionist toffs rounded up thugs to act as their mouthpieces in working-class areas.
Remember that this is the ‘moderate’ wing of unionism. Although the DUP have launched a song and dance about how they have not besmirched themselves by doing a deal to bring paramilitaries into government, their links to Loyalist terrorism are even stronger than the UUPs. The DUP have been involved in a number of armed uprisings and were closely involved in the formation of the UDA and later in fostering the LVF split from the UVF. Much of the inter-loyalist violence is actually a reflection of a struggle between the main Unionist parties, with the UDA and LVF supporting the DUP and the UVF supporting the UUP.
What the principle of sectarian majority means is that there is no section, layer, grouping within unionism who can gradually won over to power sharing or to a society of equal rights. The British search for a moderate majority within unionism, and their policy of concession to encourage this hidden majority, has inevitably led to the Paisleyite victory and the collapse of the Good Friday agreement.
Just how hopeless the British strategy is, and how despairing Nationalist and republican support for it, can be seen in the aftermath of Paisley’s rejection of Adams’ nomination. The rejection was expected and forseen and the British had in place a plan B – an all party committee that would prepare a ‘roadmap’ for the return of Stormont. The plan was blown out of the water before it could launch, with Paisley announcing that he would not participate in a committee that involved negotiation with republicanism.
This final rejection did not generate a British reprimand. The proposal was amended to form a non-negotiating committee. But of course a non-negotiating committee is not going to achieve anything. The British, and the nationalist behind them are reduced to blind hope that, if they get the Paisleyites in a room with everyone else, they will finally agree to something.
We are up against the endstop. The corrupt vision of the Good Friday agreement has ended in Paisley. The Paisleyite programme is quite simple. They want the Stormont of old, with a Protestant government, the state forces a Protestant militia and root and branch discrimination against Catholics. That programme is impossible. The Catholic minority is much larger and the virulence of Paisley should not blind us to the fact that he is unable to create the all-class alliance of the past. Paisleyism is a decaying fragmented rump held together by one man and is itself only one section of a fragmented unionism.
Consistent British support is the vital
fluid that keeps unionism alive, and it is direct rule that will remain
the mechanism of British rule for the forseeable future. This is itself
in decay, with the wave of neoliberalism and privatisation in the pipline
likely to significantly increase the contradictions within the Irish colony.
The collapse and decay of republicanism still gives the British and their
allies a free hand to do as they will, but they no longer have a convincing
mechanism that will bring about a new long-term capitalist stability on
the Island of Ireland. The revolutionary force that will kick the whole
anthill over will have to go through Irish nationalism first. That
movement certainly won’t include Sinn Fein. ‘Paisley for Prime Minister!’
is a slogan that will take a long time to fade away.