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Goodbye to the Good Friday Agreement
21st May 2003
The April cancellation of elections to the local Stormont assembly in the North of Ireland marks a significant new stage in the decay of British plans to bring about a settlement of the Irish question on their terms. The indefinite suspension followed an earlier temporary suspension of elections and the dramatic closure, in October last year, of the local Stormont assembly itself including the dissolution of the executive amid a mass police raid on the parliamentary offices of Sinn Fein.
The Good Friday agreement, signed five years ago, was presented as Britain withdrawing gracefully from the direct rule of its colony in the North of Ireland, handing over to a process of co-operation between local politicians and between the colonial structure in the North and the formally independent Southern state. In practice the British kept appearing from behind the comic-opera façade of the Stormont assembly to make further demands on the republican leadership and giving further concessions to their local supporters in the Unionist party, who demanded redefinition of the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
The move to suspend and collapse the local structures make it crystal clear that all the claims of a new democratic dispensation in Ireland are false and that the old colonial structures, supported by religious sectarianism, remain in place. Just how comic-opera the Good Friday structures are is indicated by the fact that over 100 elected representatives and a full cabinet representing all the major local parties were needed to rule just under 1.5 million people – and were replaced in an instant by three British labour party backbenchers!
But the April events do not represent the collapse of the Good Friday agreement. That collapsed finally with the collapse of the executive. They represent something much more significant – the stillborn death of Good Friday mark two. This collapsed before it was launched, despite the personal involvement of George Bush and Tony Blair and despite repeated, and ever more desperate, attempts by the republican leadership to indicate its total support for the new state institutions and willingness to disband the IRA. The fact of this collapse led Lord Kilcooney, aka John Taylor, notorious weathervane of the unionist leadership, to predict that it would be a generation before a new Stormont assembly would reconvene.
It was the same Lord Kilcooney who pointed out the fatal flaw in the original deal, signed 5 years ago. This agreement, drawn up by the British and the Dublin government, saw the Irish bourgeoisie follow an earlier de facto recognition of the Northern colony with a de jure recognition. A few cosmetic all-Ireland committees were draped around this legal shift and the nationalists were promised places in a power-sharing coalition in a new local parliament. British rule in Ireland was to continue, sectarianism was to continue. The major shift was that nationalists, completely excluded from political power in the old Stormont regime preceding the troubles, were to have their share of sectarian privilege. The republicans, militarily at a dead end and moving towards a more right-wing and nationalist orientation decided to support this and claim victory.
Kilcooney remarked dryly that the Unionists were willing to share power in a revamped Northern colony but of course, he went on, it could not be equal amounts of power. The point was unanswerable. There really is no point to sectarianism if it is to be an equality of sectarian privilege.
The British pinned their hopes on ‘moderate’ middle class unionism led rather unconvincingly by the arch-bigot David Trimble. The problem here was that the Trimble wing never had a programme of reaching an accommodation with nationalism. Their argument was that it was through the structures of the GFA that they would best be able to defend their sectarian privileges, either totally crushing and humiliating the republicans and/or forcing them from the government. The republicans were well aware of Trimble’s position, but believed that the British would punish the unionists if they broke the structures of the agreement. In any case they believed that the nationalist family of the Irish capitalist parties and of Irish America would hold the British to their word.
The British saw things differently. If the North was to remain a colony to ensure capitalist stability in Ireland., it would need to continue to base itself on sectarian privilege and on a mass unionist base. Their job was to placate unionism – by bending the agreement to the right and even to the extent of turning a blind eye to open campaigns of sectarian intimidation by loyalist paramilitaries. The unionists demanded, and got, the destruction of IRA weapons by the republican leadership. All this did was to embolden the even more reactionary forces to the right of Trimble. It became clear that only the public and unconditional surrender of the IRA and its immediate disbandment would save the agreement. In the absence of this the agreement collapsed.
The British role
However the nature of the collapse indicated that the republican analysis and republican strategy had collapsed also.
Good Friday mark one failed because of Unionist protest at allegations of continued IRA activity – mostly intelligence gathering. In fact this activity did not break the terms of the Good Friday agreement, based on an IRA ceasefire. These ceasefire activities kept the IRA ticking over and helped prevent discontent, but had absolutely no political significance. Given the level of penetration by British intelligence and, more importantly, the abandonment of the republican programme by the leadership, there was absolutely no prospect of that activity leading to a new conflict.
The Unionist protests were in fact simply cynical ploys to add a new element to the agreement – the demand for disbandment. They lacked any moral dimension. At the same time that they demanded IRA disbandment the Trimble group were part of an organisation called the Loyalist commission. Its task was to provide political cover for armed sectarian attacks by the Loyalist groups.
The big shock to Republican strategy was the British response. The police raid on Sinn Fein’s parliamentary offices kicked away the illusions of a parliamentary democracy with the same efficiency as a few careless kicks demolish a sandcastle. It served dramatic notice that the British would not negate their history in Ireland and suddenly play a progressive role, that the British supported Unionist demands, that Sinn Fein would have to do a great deal more if they wanted to preserve the pretence of power and that the demand for IRA disbandment would be the starting point for future negotiations to establish a new agreement. In a visit to Belfast Tony Blair spelt it all out. The promises of the Good Friday agreement, supposedly set in stone, were now conditional on the unconditional surrender of the republicans. The final blow came when Sinn Fein’s friends in the nationalist parties North and South and their friends in Washington all lined up to lash out and demand capitulation.
GFA mark 2 fails
Sinn Fein offered no resistance. The period from October to March was spent in carefully crafting these conditions. The collapse of the negotiations at least allows the Irish working class to see the nature of the deal. At their centre was to be an IRA declaration that they would surrender arms, run down background activities and were moving towards disbandment and that Sinn Fein would unambiguously support the structures of the new state by joining the Policing Board. In case this was not enough Dublin and London would establish a commission that would oversee the winding down of the IRA and punish Sinn Fein if the military wing showed any sign of activity.
At first this was described as a ‘deal breaker’ by Sinn Fein but like so many other republican positions this was quietly dropped. The reward, spelt out in a joint declaration by London and Dublin, would be a reduction in military levels. Some border watchtowers would be demolished, and the British army would be reduced to ‘only’ 5000 soldiers and 14 bases – subject of course to their being absolutely no resistance. The sectarian colonial structures at Stormont would be re-established, repressive legislation would be redrafted – not to meet human rights demands but to allow nationalist influence on various boards and quangos. There would be some further pretence at cosmetic reform of the police and that a small number of ‘On the Runs’ – republicans still wanted by the British – would be allowed to return home under extraordinarily humiliating circumstances. They would be tried by a commission on the allegations put forward at the time they left, a sentence would be imposed and they would then be released on licence – subject to imprisonment at the whim of the British administration.
There were however some worrying signs. A first attempt to make the deal at a summit led by Blair and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Aherne ended in disarray when the Unionist parties walked out. The final deal was crafted, only to be torn away from the fingernails of the Sinn Fein leadership as they made lunge after desperate lunge to meet British terms.
The republicans were told that the IRA statement, carefully worded so that it would read surrender to the British and yet be sold to the republican base, was insufficient and unclear. Desperately Gerry Adams stepped forward to provide that clarity – that is to define the terms of surrender in words provided by the British. The British responded by declaring that this was real progress – if only Gerry had used the word ‘will’ instead of ‘should’. Adams provided the missing word, but this was not enough. It was now necessary to list in detail all the activities that the republicans would now abjure. “What part of absolutely no activity do you not understand?”, asked Adams. But by now it was clear that no words would be enough.
The reality that had now dawned was that the unionist opposition to sharing power with Sinn Fein was absolute. There were no conditions to meet because there were no conditions under which the Trimble wing of unionism could enter elections and propose a coalition government with Sinn Fein that would not lead to his defeat and a large majority for anti-agreement forces in his own party and for the rejectionist, and even more bigoted, Paisleyite Democratic Unionist Party. Even bearing Gerry Adam’s head on a spike, Trimble was bound to be defeated. The Unionists would not share power with Sinn Fein and even hints that they would share power with nationalists if Sinn Fein were excluded seemed distinctly shaky.
Under these conditions the British role became what it was in the fall of GFA 1 – to pull the plug, defend unionism and condemn the republicans for not giving enough.
Back to the drawing board
However this is not a re-run of the October collapse. This is not yet another suspension of the cardboard executive or postponement of the elections and no amended GFA 3 waits in the wings. The indefinite postponement of the elections in the North is in fact their cancellation. With the elections goes much of the structure and political content of the Good Friday Agreement. There will be no Autumn election because the agreement itself contains provision for a review that must take place then. After 5 years, surrounded by the ruins of GFA 1 and GFA 2, the review will inevitably become negotiation for a completely new settlement.
The outline of that settlement should be clear. Good Friday has fallen twice to the right under the weight of Unionist bigotry. On both occasions the British have provided cover and blamed republicanism. Irish nationalism and US imperialism stand foursquare with Britain. Britain will chair the new negotiations and set the agenda. Only one conclusion is possible. The weakness of the Good Friday Agreement was that it was too radical! It gave nothing to Irish democracy, but that nothing was too much! Any new arrangement must shift away from coalition structures. There may be a greater shift of power towards direct British patronage and appointed committees, where the Unionists are better able to ensure that they maintain the lions share of sectarian privilege. The republicans will be made an offer they can’t refuse – a more humiliating surrender and less reward for it. To some extent that shift has already begun. The British are going ahead with a promise to dismantle a few watchtowers in South Armagh that they no longer need. There are behind the scenes talks about the legislation involving ‘On the Runs’. The British will press the republicans to give full support to the new police and join the Policing Board.
The most immediate sufferers will be the republicans. The British can continue to reward them but they cannot give them the rewards they really need. Only parliamentary seats and ministerial positions in the North can hide the absolute collapse of their strategy of reform and give momentum to the only tactic they have left – to use their Northern electoral success to propel themselves to greater electoral success in the formally independent 26 counties. In any case the ‘Stakeknife’ story of a high-level informer in the IRA leadership shows that conditions are now much more hostile for the republicans.
However the outlook in the longer term is ominous for the British. Negotiating a new agreement and making it work will depend on a capitulation to unionist sectarianism by the nationalists that will be difficult to sell. A settlement, if it is established at all, will depend for its operation on the absence of any largescale resistance. No amount of bribery seems sufficient to keep the thugs in the various loyalist groups at bay.