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Understanding St. Andrews – the no longer the Good Friday non-agreement

20 October 2006

John McAnulty

The key to understanding the St. Andrews agreement announced on Friday 13th of October lies in the name.  The word agreement means that there was no agreement.  The St. Andrews prefix means that the Unionists, having long ago successfully insisted that the British demolish the Good Friday agreement, have now succeeded in losing the name as the last connection with the former settlement. The British have handed the script over to the DUP – down to the name change. Paisley said that he would never sign up to the Good Friday agreement. Now he no longer has to.

Trumpeted as an agreement, the declaration has none of the characteristics that go with the process.  It was not the outcome of discussion between the parties and Ian Paisley at no stage said that he accepted it.  The new ‘historic’ agreement (so says secretary of state Hain – Blair has felt the hand of history too often to experience it again without provoking derision) in fact fits into the humdrum mould of all the preceding points at which the Irish pacification process tweaks to the right.  Sinn Fein accept the defeats of earlier meetings, signs up for one final deal and finds that the unionists have moved the goalposts and that the unionist programme is now the programme of the British. Dublin stands firmly with their London allies and closes the door on any Sinn Fein retreat.

The starting point of the present offensive was the demand that Sinn Fein do more.  Having decommissioned their arms and in the process of standing down the IRA, they must now offer unconditional support for the police and the British judicial system and formally pledge allegiance to it. Adams and co had clearly signalled their willingness to do so, but as their last throw of the dice, wanted the assurance that Paisley would do them the honour of becoming first minister and allowing them back into the colonial administration.

The substantive issue that prevented agreement was presented as the policing issue. The DUP demanded unconditional support for the police and the state.  It was no longer enough for Sinn Fein to support the policing boards.  Now they would have to directly support the police at every level, support all the laws, courts and the state structures and sum all this up in an oath of allegiance.   This of course is not something that is demanded of citizens in a democracy.  Democrats would be free to oppose the structures and laws they live under.  However this seemed to present little difficulty to Sinn Fein, who constantly assured commentators that they were at St. Andrews to reach agreement.  Their call was for the DUP to announce that they would join a new assembly.  The DUP response was that the policing issue was a precondition to further agreement.

To fully understand this difference one has to be familiar with the workings of sectarianism in the North of Ireland.  It is not the case that the Loyalists seek full-blown apartheid. They are perfectly able to work with nationalists.  What they demand is that they do so from a position of supremacy.  A useful way of establishing this supremacy is through a loyalty pledge.  Every post in the old Stormont regime, down to the street sweepers, required an oath of loyalty to the crown.  Those who refused could be excluded from employment. Nationalists who agreed had essentially kow-towed to unionism and been ritually humiliated.  It is just barely possible to imagine Sinn Fein inside a Stormont government, but they would have to be ritually humiliated in advance.  The policing demand is just one of a shopping list of changes, the major one being that the DUP be given the power to expel the Shinners if they made a wrong move and another being a time-table for transition to full-blooded unionist rule.

Blair played his part by making the significant change that transformed the Good Friday agreement into the St. Andrews agreement – a new legal instrument that restores a limited form of unionist majority rule.  The new executive would oversee minister’s decisions, making the decisions of nationalist members subordinate to a unionist majority. A flood of other bribes and concessions followed, designed to meet almost all the needs of the DUP.  Many are already in place – the UVF spokespeople on the policing boards, the Orangemen on the Parades commission, millions promised to the paramilitary groups.  The new concessions included the final abandonment of the Old GFA and its replacement by the St Andrews recognition of unionist rule. A whole set of regressive social and economic policies appear to have been granted to loyalist reaction – the retention of the 11+,  a cap on rates to help the rich, deferral of business rates, a reduction of corporation tax to 12.5 %  and a new assembly to retain the proceeds of the wholesale provision of public services.  The return of the political reaction would be matched by a massive transfer of wealth from workers to bosses! One indication of the scandal and corruption of the whole process is the claim by Paisley that he had been given the power to retain the 11+ exam. The needs and rights of the education service and of Irish children are subordinate to the task of placating this bigot! 

The loyalists did not get the power to expel Sinn Fein. The major bribes are conditional on them signing up to a new government and they have been threatened with ‘plan B’ if they don’t sign up.  However plan B does not include the republican dream of joint rule of the North.  This has been explicitly ruled out by both governments.  The Provos were given a language law promising to enhance the status of Irish.  Both British and Irish governments then launched a pantomime reminiscent of  the comedienne Mrs Doyle in Father Ted and her catch line ‘Ye will, ye will’.  Of course the DUP would sign up – they more or less had already – no one could turn down a deal like this – there had been an historic agreement and the new assembly was on its way.

The calculation here is that the DUP are rational and that, given almost all they asked for, would agree a settlement.  The unionist business community want the bribes and the extended influence.  Many in the DUP want the trappings of power. If Paisley could be persuaded to finally endorse the deal his authority would be so great that no-one would be able to challenge it.  In reality the rule is that the Biggest Bigot rules, and Paisley is all too aware of the danger of being attacked from the right as a Lundy – a betrayer of the sectarian rights of the Loyalists. What followed was reminiscent of the siege of Holy Cross school.  At one point in the seige the British, having smothered the Loyalists with concessions and bribes, had to suspend meetings because the bigots could think of no other demands than what they really wanted, which was to crush the nationalists and strengthen apartheid. 

The same process manifested itself after the talks. Paisley’s supporters were not long in telling ‘the big man’ that he had sold out.  A leading DUP figure, Jim Allister, said that the IRA must be completely disbanded and that Irish civil servants should not be eligible for jobs in the North. The language act was a step too far and would represent a serious assault on the Loyalists ‘Britishness’.  At the same time Independent unionist Bob McCartney and Ulster Unionist David Burnside both attacked the proposed accord as a sellout – even worse than the GFA, claimed Burnside. Paisley then needed to demonstrate again that he had cowed and humiliated the Provos, and he responded by boycotting the first organising meeting and demanding that Sinn Fein take an oath of allegiance immediately and unconditionally. 

The reason why there can be no stable agreement with Paisley is that he would need to demonstrate Loyalist supremacy on a day-to-day basis. A new assembly would be a cockpit where the one aim of the DUP would be to expel the Provos. It is notable that a tiny sop to the republicans, promised over and over again – the return of the ‘on the run’ activists who fled the North to avoid charges – was withdrawn after Nigel Dodds of the DUP labelled it a ‘dealbreaker’.  The DUP are not in the slightest way involved in this sidedeal  between Brits and Provos.  The fact that they blocked it and that the British agreed shows what Sinn Fein can expect in the future.

The failure of the first meeting of the St Andrews roadmap was significant.  It was significant because it failed not through Loyalist boycott, but because the British, determined to achieve stability through a reinvigorated sectarian state, immediately suspended the meeting to provide cover for the DUP.

Sinn Fein present their defeat as a process of community reconciliation, but their chief opponent is not the DUP but their British sponsors supported by their Dublin allies. The pacification process is now a rout, kept in existence by the headlong political retreat of the Provos.  Even that process will offer less as public humiliation is piled on humiliation and their northern base decays.

The Good Friday agreement has accustomed the Republican leadership to a political process contained within the bars of British rule, but it is becoming yet again clear that imperialism, even with all the cards in its hands, is unable to deliver a stable settlement in Ireland.


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