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Leeds Castle Talks: When surrender is not enough

John McAnulty

5th October 2004

The one thing that all the participants in the Leeds Castle meeting agreed following its closure on 18th September was that it had been a wonderful success. Only a few administrative details stood between the conference and the re-establishment of a new Stormont assembly.  A few further meetings would sort things out.  Tony Blair ‘could not believe’ that the settlement would slip away because of a few minor procedures.

The problem with this analysis, supported by the British and Irish press and a battery of pundits, is that this is what they said last time, and the time before.  Like a particularly bad version of Groundhog Day the Good Friday movie grinds its way towards a happy ending, only to have the picture fade to black and restart at frame one.

It is true that things have changed.  At the last two meetings the minor detail was the failure of the republicans to surrender absolutely and unconditionally, disband the IRA and accept completely the legitimacy of the sectarian Northern colony and its state forces and structures.  On one occasion Gerry Adams was said to be only a single phrase away from the magic solution.  On another a little more oomph from the arms commission in explaining the size of the arms destruction would have done the trick.

No such difficulties arose on this occasion.  A number of accounts indicate that the British, supported by the Dublin government, made sure that the IRA statement of disarmament and disbandment was fulsome enough by writing it themselves.  All the republican leadership had to do was bow their head in acceptance and then go on and give their support to the state, the ‘new’ police force (a renamed RUC) and the legal and judicial frameworks of the sectarian state.

The problem arose this time from the DUP.  Their minor difficulty was that they wanted the old majority rule Stormont returned to them. In any case formal discussion would not commence until IRA disbandment had taken place and they would not accept statements of intent as grounds for negotiation.

Supporters of the British argue that this is a temporary glitch.  Once the scale of the republican surrender sinks in, goes the argument, and when the triumph of unionism and of British rule sinks in, there will be a groundswell of opinion in favour of peace and stability that will force Paisley back to the negotiating table and into accepting Sinn Fein into government.

The problem with this view is that it was the argument used to predict the stability of the initial Good Friday settlement.  Then the argument was that the IRA ceasefire would have the same effect of rallying unionist support for a settlement.  In reality it took a titanic struggle by the British to bring the Unionists to the table, the personal intervention of Blair to secure a slim initial unionist majority for the deal and then a constant hammering of the agreement to the right in an attempt to maintain unionist support until it was so bent out of shape that it collapsed.

In the longer term the British have become victims of their own ideology, believing that it was republican resistance that prevented a settlement in the North of Ireland.  In reality a long line of initiatives fell to the right because of unionist opposition to reform and British unwillingness to destabilise the political base of their occupation. 
The republicans now hope that, following all their sacrifices, the British will punish the unionists for their intransigence and reward Sinn Fein and the Irish capitalist class.  If not they believe that they will be able to row back and at least rally the support of a demoralised base.

They are wrong on all counts.  One does not put an offer to disband an army on the table and then take it off again, especially when the surrender is written by the commander in chief of the opposing army.  Politically the IRA are already disbanded and can be written out of the equation, their existence only a bargaining chip in finalising negotiations and a means of keeping order in the ranks and silencing critics.

So the Leeds meeting was a success for the British to the extent that it brought almost to a close the chapter involving the decommissioning and disbanding of the IRA.

That chapter is not quite closed.  The Republicans regard the offer of disbandment as conditional on an overall settlement.  What the Unionists want is the unconditional surrender of the IRA as a precondition to negotiation.  Blair, as he did at the time of the Good Friday vote, tried to use his reputation for truthfulness and integrity to guarantee the IRA statement, but this is no longer valid currency, even with the unionists.  Paisley declared he was ‘too long in the tooth’ to buy that one. 

On the other side of the coin the republicans need responses to show that they are being rewarded for their surrender. On this occasion they expected the juicy bone of a public enquiry into the British state’s assassination of lawyer Pat Finucane.  Instead they got the rotted carcase of yet another cover-up – this one so tightly controlled, with evidence to be presented in secret, that a special law will be required for it to operate at all.

So a problem exists consisting of Republican disappointment at the low value placed on their surrender and unionist demands that they go yet further, but this problem is not insurmountable. The Provisionals really only have one demand now – that they get their bums on seats in a Stormont government in the hope that they can keep enough electoral momentum to win junior seats in a Fianna Fail government in the Southern state.

The major problem of the Leeds talks is that the resolution of the issue of IRA disbandment has revealed a more fundamental problem – the demand that the Good Friday agreement be replaced with something even more clearly in the interests of the bigots.  The procedural demands of the DUP are in fact the historic programme of unionism – the demand that their sectarian privilege should be the dominant principle of the state – rather than the rather weird concept of an equality of sectarian rights enshrined in the GFA.  An additional demand for changes in the voting procedure in the Stormont assembly to elect the first minister and deputy indicate that even if granted all their demands they would still not support the presence of Catholics in government. Essentially they demand that, even if a government structure meets all their demands, they would still require legislation forcing the presence of Catholics in government and would still refuse to voluntarily agree to their presence.

The immediate response of the London and Dublin governments was clear cut.  The Good Friday agreement must be defended!  Unfortunately it’s a meaningless slogan. The whole process has been pushed so far to the right in the drive to placate unionism that what remains can not be convincingly called the Good Friday agreement. The vast majority of the agreements and institutions have vanished. The requirement for a Republican disarmament and demobilisation has been added in circumstances where the unconditional political support of the republican leadership for the sectarian state and its institutions has been made a condition of their presence at the table, let alone in the government.  A sign of the times was the fate of the Patten reform supposed to, in the sweet by and by, deliver a colonial police force composed of equal numbers of each religious designation.  In the week before the talks Chief Constable Orde announced that the full-time RUC reserve, a Protestant militia scheduled for disbandment under Patten, would be reduced in size instead. The force is not large, but its retention means that even minor reforms have no hope.  Even the limited changes proposed by Patten are dead in the water, and with them the dream of a sectarian state in which there would be equal amounts of sectarian privilege. What is now being negotiated is the price of a junior partnership under the wing of the DUP.

If the history of the agreement does not fill its supporters with confidence, the current reaction of the British and Irish governments to the DUP proposals should really worry them. Blair expressed disappointment at the re-statement of Orange supremacy.  He could not believe that the agreement would fall because of a few procedural issues. He was outdone by Bertie Ahern.  Bertie reacted to the DUP ultimatum by immediately offering to split the difference.  What this mid-point between Orange supremacy and the balancing act of the Good Friday agreement looked like he failed to say openly.  When his offer was rejected by the DUP he issued a statement saying that the Good Friday agreement would not be changed – and that any changes would be compatible with the spirit of the GFA!

This open invitation to the DUP to drive a coach and horses through the wreckage of the old agreement was quickly followed by action by the British. In a speech to the Labour party conference by proconsul Paul Murphy (delivered from a prone position due to sudden illness) the British announced that there was nothing wrong with changing or amending the old agreement to ‘improve’ it and that they would shortly, along with the Dublin government, publish proposals for moving the process forward.

All this should be crystal clear.  A last push is to be made to get a Stormont assembly up and running with a new agreement which gives the DUP a sectarian edge allowing overall sectarian control by unionism. Even then it may be rejected by the DUP because of the continued presence of Catholics in government, so one of the clauses will change the voting rules so that the DUP no longer have to endorse the nationalist deputy first minister. Sinn Fein will offer little in the way of resistance.  Their standard call in these circumstances is a call for direct talks – ignoring the content of what the unionists have to say. The Sinn Fein leadership looks more and more incoherent, with Adams pleading with London and Dublin to avoid tampering with the ‘fundamentals’ of the agreement – he is unable to influence the British decision to rewrite the agreement and is reduced to echoing Dublin claims that the spirit of the agreement will be adhered to. The SDLP have been much firmer in rejecting the capitulation to loyalism, but they have been in a weak position, depending on Dublin support that clearly isn’t there.

So a failure to restore the Stormont assembly will depend more on an inability of the DUP to say yes than on the ability of Sinn Fein to say no.  It sill hangs in the balance.  Ian Paisley was asked by a reporter during the Leeds conference if he would not like to be the unionist leader who saw off the IRA and returned a regional assembly to the North.  He replied gruffly that his chief aim was to ensure that no-one would he able to write ‘Lundy’ (traitor) on his gravestone.  There seems little risk of that.

What we can be sure of is that any assembly, if established, will be constantly unstable.  Sinn Fein and the DUP have yet to speak to each other face-to-face.  If they do form a government it will be one that the DUP will never openly acknowledge that it supports.  The relationship between two parties will be based on constant sectarian rivalry.  The rivalry will be ratcheted up by internal rivalries – for example, the SDLP has recently out performed Sinn Fein in their defence of the GFA while Sinn Fein have focused more on a burning desire to get back into government.  At the same time the Official Unionists have pushed hard for IRA disbandment in advance of any final negotiations while the DUP have largely ignored the issue of the IRA in their push to ensure sectarian dominance in a new assembly.  So the rivalry between nationalist and unionist will be accentuated by competition within each group about which party best represents the sectarian interest.

Whatever arises from the present impasse, no matter how corrupt and unstable, will still require an opposition to put the current attempt at a sectarian settlement out of its misery.  It remains the case that the vast majority of workers in the North believe that a return to a Stormont assembly would improve their lot, in part because of the feeling that they would have greater influence over the direction of a local administration, in part because of the collapse of the democratic consciousness of the republican base, and also because of the simple-minded cross-community economism of the local trade unions and what passes for a socialist movement.  Overcoming this consciousness will involve on the one hand hard experience of trying to involve local parties in defending workers rights – a project that will fail absolutely – and, on the other hand, a fight by Marxists to defend and popularise their own understanding of the nature of the sectarian colony.

The first task will soon be on the agenda.  The British plan a full-scale economic offensive on an already low-wage economy, beginning with new water charges and water privatisation. The second task, of recovering and popularising the legacy of the Marxist analysis, is still in its infancy.



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