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Evil omens face push to restore Stormont
24th September 2003
In antiquity all major decisions were preceded by augury. An animal was sacrificed and the entrails examined to determine the wisdom in proceeding with the plan. Politics in Ireland have stepped up a gear with the decision by the Blair Government to launch a drive for the restoration of the colonial Stormont parliament in the North. Unfortunately for the British and their allies the omens for this drive have come from the stinking entrails of the Unionist Council meeting of 6th September.
At that meeting Unionist leader David Trimble won yet another victory – newspeak meaning that he survived yet again by the skin of his teeth. As in the most cliffhanging episode of an action thriller his hold on life got visibly weaker. His vote remained static despite the British government ripping the Good Friday Agreement to shreds and inserting a new body with the power to expel Sinn Fein if there were any sign of IRA activity. Despite also his usual tactic of launching a unity offensive towards the anti-agreement unionists and the risible plan of the opposition to install the grey and colourless deputy leader Reg Empey (aka Reg Empty) as the leader of the party.
The static vote paints far too rosy a picture. The reality was than Trimble’s attempts to discipline the large section of his party in open revolt had failed and the attempted disciplinary action was withdrawn immediately after the meeting. At the same time major figures in Trimble’s own camp had dismissed out of hand the new moves by Britain to placate unionism and a number of senior figures had drifted into the opposition camp.
The problem with all this is that British strategy in Ireland sees the central element of a settlement being a stable ‘moderate’ unionist majority that will restabilise partition. The Good Friday agreement was tweaked to the right as far as it would go and then it was broken with new demands on republicans that went well outside the confines of the deal. The whole process collapsed, not because the republicans were unwilling to concede, but because a majority of unionists were no longer willing to support an agreement that kept republican ministers in government. Now a new deal needs a significant section of unionism to shift to support a new administration in the North.
The new plan has a way around this – public surrender by republicanism on such a scale that even the unionist critics will be dumbfounded. Trimble argues this case, claiming that unionist opposition is really qualified support and that what appears as a unionist minority for the agreement can be transformed into watertight support by the right republican concessions.
The scale of these concessions may be thought to make this seem reasonable. The Provos are being asked to make it crystal clear that they support unconditionally the partitioned state, that they are ready to decommission and that they support unreservedly the colonial and sectarian police force. They will underline this with a major ‘decommissioning’ exercise and will then be immediately presented with a timetable for disbandment from London and Dublin, backed up by a commission to expel Sinn Fein from office at the slightest sign that they are dragging their feet.
The republican leadership made valiant attempts to sign up to this before the final suspension of Stormont and elections in the North. They attempted to maintain some ambiguity but when challenged tried desperately to find a form of words that would find favour. Today they have nothing to say about the demands of London and Dublin other than a demand for fresh elections. With ministerial bums on seats they would still claim capitulation to imperialism as a successful tactic to their demoralised supporters. The one plea from Adams is that the form of words is ’do-able’ – that is that some ambiguity can be preserved to placate their base.
But the omens say it all. The entrails of the unionist council were borne out by the meeting of the Unionist executive the following week. Trimble was unable to win a majority to support the Provisional surrender and the discussion was deferred indefinitely.
A secret dream of nationalism was that hidden in the Good Friday Agreement was a sanction that would see the punishment of unionism if it stepped outside the bounds of the deal. There is no such sanction. The unionists have danced a jig on the bones of the Good Friday Agreement and have met nothing but appeasement. They have decided that, if the future is Orange, they feel no need to concede a place in government to Catholics in general and Sinn Fein in particular. Direct rule by the British is maintained by a network of quangos and commissions on which they have a majority and through which they can defend their sectarian privilege. The Trimble wing of the party did not argue for a new compromise with nationalism, but rather sticking to the discipline of the Good Friday Agreement could best protect that sectarian privilege. Events have proved Trimble wrong, even though he has, with the more or less unqualified support of Britain, squeezed concession after concession out of republicanism and publicly defeated and humiliated them. He has been unable to persuade his own party of the necessity to have catholic – let alone republican ministers ‘about the place’ at all.
At the moment the British are hinting that a Provo capitulation may lead to elections but not necessarily to an executive. This opens up for republicans the terrible prospect of a final surrender without any reward. The likelihood is that there will be no election unless the British decide that they can live without Trimble. It is hard to imagine anything that would placate the growing tide of sectarian reaction to the extent that Trimble would win a majority.
The fact is that the crisis of unionism is not an immediate crisis of British rule. Without an election that guarantees a Trimble victory there will be no institutions but equally there will be no opposition, outside of a growing republican militarist wing that is entirely innocent of politics and whose idea of strategy involves threats to kill civilians who support district policing boards.
However things are not stable. The UDA and UVF have kept up a low level campaign of ethnic cleansing through the summer and streets and estates have been cleared of Catholics in wave after wave of petrol and blast bombing. An upsurge of attacks on catholic schools passed almost without comment, as does also the fact that representatives of David Trimble sit on a loyalist commission with the loyalist pogromists and intercede on their behalf with the state forces. The new RUC, renamed the PSNI, have proved indistinguishable from the old force. In recent incidents in the Deerpark Road in Belfast, a tiny street that could be patrolled by 3 police officers, Catholics have been cleared in front of the eyes of hundreds of the RUC/PSNI. A British strategy of keeping the loyalists within bounds by jailing a few of the more troublesome leaders and bribing the rest has failed.
None of this would matter if Stormont were up and running. Then sectarian pogroms would simply be local squabbles amongst the Irish. Without Stormont the North remains clearly a colony and the British remain clearly responsible, although no one currently blames them for the mess. The British have nothing to lose from an attempt to get the Good Friday institutions up and running. The alternative is to run into the timetable for review built into the agreement where the collapse of the process and failure would have to be more openly admitted.
One more British farce in Ireland will make little difference. There is even the faint chance that the British will get lucky for a while and relaunch the ramshackle structures of partition. However the entrails of the unionist party have been thrown on the altar. The omens are not good.