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Good Friday Mark 2 – but not quite
11th March 2003
The Belfast summit of the 3rd and 4th of March was proclaimed by Tony Blair as a wonderful success. The parties had gone away to reflect, he proclaimed. The British settlement of the Irish question will then go from strength to strength. In the background David Trimble of the Official Unionists staged a public walkout, followed by his PUP muscle. The other parties milled around in disorder before leaving themselves.
In fact Blair had torn himself away from his ongoing plans to attack Iraq in the expectation that the meeting would unveil the Good Friday Agreement mark two. Good Friday mark one had fallen to the right because of its inherent instability. Its promise, of equality of sectarian privilege within a colonial set-up, could not be met. There would be no point to sectarianism if it did not give an advantage to a dominant group. The Unionists have understood this from the beginning, dividing only between Trimble supporters who argued that this could be hollowed out from the inside and the supporters of Ian Paisley who argued for its immediate collapse and reconfiguration. Despite a whole series of retreats by Sinn Fein Trimble eventually pulled the plug, a move immediately endorsed by the British and also by the Irish Government – yet another blow to the battered concept of ‘nationalist unity’.
Good Friday Mark two was to continue the process from where Good Friday Mark one had left off. After a long period of secret arm twisting Sinn Fein had been prodded into "an act of completion " - a retreat so final and humiliating that it would persuade the Unionists to support a new deal. The outline was as follows:
Sinn Fein was to publicly destroy a large consignment of weapons, declare an end to any military struggle against the British and effectively to disband all but a secret nucleus of the IRA. It was to support the RUC, now rebranded as the PSNI and join the policing boards. In return the British would demolish some obsolete military installations, withdraw some troops (unless it needed them) and allow a handful of (un)wanted IRA volunteers to return under strict supervision. For their part the Unionists would agree to elevate the bigot Trimble to the post of prime minister of the sectarian and colonial Parliament.
The deal fell apart when Sinn Fein looked for guarantees that this was the final surrender and the Unionists would be prevented from constantly trying to drive them out of their positions in the Stormont Parliament. Trimble's walkout showed that they would be continuously at his mercy as long as Unionists remain central to British domination of Ireland.
Blair talked up the positive. Sinn Fein's concessions will be put in the bank and more will be asked for. The Republicans have been reeling ever since, both at the fact that the surrender had been refused and also by the open support of Dublin and the nationalists for British and Unionist demands for more concessions.
More concessions may well be wrung from Sinn Fein. The fact is that the British settlement is constantly in crisis. It is now driven by Republican surrenders that are never enough. The expectation that the Republican leadership can live with this constant humiliation and retain its base in a nationalist working class expectant of real reform is not credible.