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Policing – Stormont instability leads to Sinn Fein capitulation

John McAnulty

8 August 2008

Rarely has there been a greater contradiction between spin and reality than in the North of Ireland today.

The official line, which retains popular support, is that, after 10 years of progress from the Good Friday agreement (GFA), we live in a new dispensation marked by unity of the ‘two traditions’ and a new stable local administration.  Under that administration we can expect to march forward into a future where sectarian tensions will decrease and a new era of peace, prosperity and stability can be built.

The reality is that, in the ten years since the GFA, the new Stormont administration has constantly collapsed. The GFA proved unable to win unionist support.  To get the new Stormont up and running the GFA had to be scrapped and replaced by the St. Andrews agreement.  The new agreement bent the structures as close as possible to Unionist majority rule consistent with keeping nationalists in the government.  Sinn Fein had to abase themselves, give unconditional support to the police and state structures and begin to dismantle the IRA.  Sectarianism was built into all aspects of civic society and the far right Loyalist death squads showered with patronage and money – their parasitic rule in Protestant areas and their role in intimidating Catholics endorsed by the state.

St Andrews agreement

The St Andrews setup was seen as more stable.  The argument was that the GFA had depended on a weak ‘moderate’ unionism.  The new deal would be based on the stronger base of the agreement of hardline unionists. In reality, because the GFA built sectarian structures into every aspect of society and because the British conceded and moved the agreement to the right at every point of unionist rebellion, the deal essentially destroyed itself through its own contradictions.

Writing the St. Andrews agreement so that it would win the support of Paisley was seen as adding stability. Given that there was no bigger bigot than the arch-bigot, his authority, plus the absence of any figure to the right of Paisleyism, would ensure the stability of the new administration.

That calculation has been disproved. The deal cost arch-bigot Ian Paisley his job as first minister after only ten months in office, and Jim Allister, the new superbigot with his new organisation ‘Traditional Unionist Voice’, demonstrated through a successful by-election that a large section of the DUP base rejected any deal that included Sinn Fein in government.

Even in the absence of Paisley, supporters of the settlement saw a new basis for stability.  The Democratic Unionist Party had changed. The majority faction, under the leadership of Peter Robinson, were pragmatists.  They would set aside their bigotry to enjoy the fruits of further corruption and kickbacks and the power and patronage of government.  Once in power, sheer common sense would keep them there.

The Allister vote showed quite quickly that this was no the case.  The Paisleyites are certainly corrupt enough for their task, but to enjoy the fruits of pragmatism they have to avoid being outflanked on the right.  If they slept through the Allister vote, the torrent of criticism at the July Orange marches would have dragged them awake.  Asleep was the last thing they were.  They swung into the attack against Allister – not by defending the new administration, but by arguing that they were the ones best placed to stop any democratic advances and best placed to crush Sinn Fein! 

The Unionist programme is for the restoration of unrestricted majority rule, with Catholics as second-class citizens.  Coalition government with Sinn Fein can only survive on the basis that it is a temporary expedient, to be ended as soon as the unionists fully assemble their forces.  Even this expedient requires that the Unionists be clearly top dog, and that they openly demonstrate this at every opportunity by stymieing Sinn Feins demands and humiliating their government ‘partners’ at every turn. 

The DUP can be pressured by their British masters, but they can argue that they are under threat from Jim Allister and the organisation ‘Traditional Unionist Voice’ and the British will understand. It is worth unpicking this.  If Allister wins a significant vote in the next election then Sinn Fein will have the largest vote and become the majority party.  Immediately the Unionists would begin an uprising.  The British would intervene and suspend the Stormont Assembly.  In other words the ‘equality agenda’ only holds as long as unionists have the biggest share of ‘equality’.

Finally we should not ignore the sheer irrationality of unionism. The present government contains a health minister who wants to ‘cure’ homosexuality, an education committee chair who condemns the theory of evolution, an environment minister who dismisses global warming and a sports minister with a history as a sectarian boot boy.

So a settlement that is supposed to be based on equality, to be underpinned by the authority and pragmatism of the DUP is actually dependent on something quite different – the willingness of Sinn Fein to endure constant humiliation and to time and again see promised concessions dashed from their hands through the blind sectarianism of their government partners.

Kicking the Shinners

When Sinn Fein go to the British to complain they get tea and sympathy but no support.  A unionist base is necessary to maintain the British colony and the British colony is the mechanism through which capitalist rule in Ireland is preserved. Having fought for three decades to get this settlement, the British are very anxious to preserve it.  A new mechanism emerges – the British can’t give reform, but they can give reparation for its absence in the form of compensation – more grants and backhanders.  The Irish language act is a perfect example.  A key concession in the St. Andrews agreement, blocked by the DUP.  Appeals to Gordon Brown don’t lead to an act, but do lead to multi-million pound grants.

The majority of Sinn Fein’s middle class support understand this quite well.  They are quite happy to enrich themselves on the grants, contracts, government jobs and quango seats that fall their way and the ideology of equality is simply the fairy story they tell themselves and the section of their base that is still listening. 

That organisation is held by bands of steel: The torrent of grants and backhanders, constant pressure from the Catholic church and Fianna Fail, a whole series of issues such as the McCartney and Quinn deaths around which the British at any time could find ‘new’ evidence to expel them from government and the growing unpopularity of the ‘community activists’ themselves as they settle into their new role as unofficial local police. Above all there is the political reality of a petty-bourgeois movement that has collapsed into the arms of Irish capitalism and, aided by their new friends, capitulated to imperialism.  There is no way back. Admitting now that the settlement is not a reform or a step to a united Ireland and that it actually strengthens sectarian and colonial rule would simply lead to the immediate collapse of their movement.  Every time the noose tightens around their neck they must smile and loudly proclaim further victories.


The instability of these ramshackle structures has exploded into the current crisis.  A year in from its re-establishment the Stormont government has quietly and unofficially collapsed, with the cabinet committee supposed to keep the administration on the road unable to meet or to agree joint policies. The reason for the collapse is that a raft of minor concessions to Sinn Fein that were meant to make their capitulation at St. Andrews more palatable, supposedly set in stone by the agreement, have been repudiated by the DUP.  These included reform of the 11+ selection test, an Irish language act, and a small ‘conflict resolution centre’ as part of a sports stadium at the site of the former Long Kesh internment camp. Without these measures the republican claim to be advancing through an equality agenda would be shown to be hollow.

Above and beyond the equality agenda was the major issue of the promise to devolve policing powers by May this year. On this rests the republican claims to have won a limited autonomy in the North and to be involved in a process that will lead to British withdrawal. This was not simply an issue for Sinn Fein, but a central issue for the British.  Without devolution of policing the administration remains direct rule lite.  The colonial nature of the state will remain self-evident and the British will find themselves with direct political and administrative responsibility when the settlement decays further.

Unable to make progress with an obdurate DUP, the Shinners went to Downing St. to demand that the British bring the DUP to heel.  Unfortunately this coincided with a DUP vote in Westminster to support New Labour’s internment legislation. In any case the British, although the major force in the equation, need a loyalist base and will proceed very slowly if they feel there is any threat of a revolt from the right. Sinn Fein had to settle for a call from Gordon Brown for more intense negotiations – that resulted in Robinson going on holiday and the cabinet meeting – and therefore the administration – being cancelled for the rest of the summer.

Retreat – loudly proclaiming victory

The present debacle shows Sinn Fein’s evolution quite plainly;

Sinn Fein retreated – all the issues were taken up in one package to be discussed between Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson.  This was an acknowledgement by the Provos that they would not be given the original package and an attempt to cut their losses by horsetrading the remains.  This move alone is of enormous significance, because it cuts away at the claims that the process is a reform process – clearly issues like ending selective education come a big second to the needs of Sinn Fein as an organisation.

Next there is the visit to Gordon Brown – tea and sympathy, but no real pressure on the Loyalists.

Gerry Adams fights back, criticising the DUP for failure to ‘engage’. 

DUP leader Peter Robinson slaps him down, accusing Sinn Fein of blocking executive business. 

Sinn Fein retreat from the confrontation, with Gerry Kelly assuring the Loyalists that Sinn Fein is anxious to play its part.

A joint statement is issued by the office of the minister and deputy first minister, saying that there will be a policing and justice ministry someday. It will have a minister who will not be drawn from the ranks of Sinn Fein and the DUP.

Gerry Adams loudly supports the new dispensation, arguing that it represents steady progress by the new coalition government.  In fact it is a staggering retreat.  Sinn Fein have given way on an issue that was built into the St. Andrews agreement – the issue that guaranteed the transfer of powers in May and was the basis on which they forced through their parties support for the colonial police force. Even more significant is their decision not to nominate for the post.  Not only does it weaken their position in the administration and expectations that they would hold the post, it means an abandonment of the d’Hondt procedure that allocates positions in rotation according to vote share – this was meant to be a fundamental guarantee to nationalists that the Northern administration could not decay into the triumphalist and unrestricted sectarian rule of the past.

Worryingly for Sinn Fein London, supported by the Dublin government, call on one of their puppet committees, the Independent Monitoring Commission, to report on the existence or non-existence of the IRA army council.  The best defence that Deputy Minister Martin McGuinness can muster is to argue that they have already surrendered and that the IRA ‘has left the stage’. However the process is a familiar one.  The Provos have already begun to wind down the Army council, but hoped they could do so privately and following the transfer of policing.  The London move means that there is every likelihood there will be no deal.  The IRA can be pressured in the hope that this further humiliation will give the DUP enough room to agree a deal.  An IMC report can, of course, following the pattern of previous crises, be used to blame the Provos for the failure and try to force further concessions that will keep the sectarian carnival on the road

None of this is enough, both Robinson and his deputy, Jeffrey Donaldson, claim that not only is there no agreement involving a timetable, there is no timetable for when an agreement might be made! Donaldson had gone on to indicate that the dissolution of the Army council would not effect the DUP position and that a transfer will only take place when it has sufficient public support – that is when the DUP base is comfortable with the idea – that would be some time the other side of hell freezing over!.

No settlement

In any case the settlement is no settlement. It has been suggested that a member of the tiny unionist Alliance party be appointed as Justice minister.  Alliance have confirmed that the issue was mentioned in a meeting with Robinson but reported that no serious proposal was put forward by the DUP. In any case the Alliance party say they will not weaken their base by fronting for the DUP. If they were persuaded it would mean an increased unionist majority.  There is no possibility of a nationalist minister being appointed from the DUP – the whole purpose of the retreat is to show that the Unionists are top dog.  The appointment of an official unionist would represent a defeat that would dwarf the present nationalist difficulties.

For the British the devolution and policing and justice functions would seal the settlement they have been building – enabling them to return to the days of the old Stormont where they could claim all the issues of discrimination and oppression are no longer their concern and all queries could be referred to the colonial assembly.  In reality the British would retain full control of the police – see Chief constable Hugh Orde’s decision to deploy Tazers on the grounds of operational independence despite the complaints of Sinn Fein members of the policing boards. The actual ownership of the police is not the issue, without the formal transfer of powers it is pretty obvious that direct rule continues and that the settlement is on the skids.

It is not possible to say if the British will be able to wheedle an agreement out of the DUP.  What can be said with confidence is that any accommodation will be many miles to the right of even the St. Andrews agreement and that the continuation of the ramshackle administration is utterly dependent on Sinn Fein capitulating further to the forces of sectarianism and their imperialist minders. 

The future evolution of the Stormont administration is towards a rancid sectarian swamp, proclaiming Loyalist domination at every opportunity.  The British role and the role of Sinn Fein means that this arrangement will not decay spontaneously.  It requires a working class opposition – a task that will be made easier when Sinn Fein collapses under the weight of its own contradictions.


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