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Westminster Elections: Crisis? What Crisis?

In the aftermath of the Westminster and local government elections in the North of Ireland, that much overused word, crisis, can now be said to apply to the Good Friday agreement.

The word that dared not speak its name during the election campaign was the word Sunningdale. This was Britain's last full scale attempt to stabilise its Northern colony. In 1974 the British co-opted the Catholic middle class and southern Irish capital into support for a power sharing executive that would stabilise partition. The result was a massive reactionary backlash of unionist bigotry and sectarian intolerance. An unfortunately timed Westminster election led to the return of eleven out of twelve seats to anti-agreement unionists. Sunningdale, as far as the British were concerned, was dead from this point on, although it took armed rebellion by the loyalists to finally bury it.

The British learned their lesson. The current attempt at stability has two important changes.

There are fewer concessions to nationalists in the Good Friday agreement and those that there are focus on a share of sectarian privilege within the northern state rather than on any real cross-border dimension.

The British are also willing to press ahead in the face of opposition from "extreme" unionism (not such a radical change when we consider that David Trimble is seen as a moderate).

This was enough to slow down the mobilisation of unionist reaction, but not enough to stop it. The elections saw Ian Paisley's DUP come within a few percentage points of replacing David Trimble's UUP as the main unionist party.  We can add to that the section of the UUP that stood on an anti-agreement platform and out-did most Trimble loyalists in votes. This gives a convincing unionist majority against the agreement.  In principle British strategy around the Good Friday agreement has failed. This principle will shortly turn into practice when David Trimble applies his usual defence, that is of placing himself for the head of the reaction and adopting their demands. In this case the demand is for the unconditional surrender of the republican weapons or his resignation as first minister and the collapsing of the executive.

When we consider that the other big story of the elections was the rise of Sinn Fein and its overtaking of the SDLP as the main nationalist party it would appear that it might be impossible for the British to square the circle.

Yet what must be born in mind is that we are facing instability rather than opposition. The good Friday agreement remains extremely popular, especially among nationalists and the rise of Sinn Fein is specifically based on their support for the agreement and their adoption of the policies of the of the SDLP.  Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest, at least in Belfast, abstention by some traditional republican supporters which was more than made up for by their capture of a growing middle class vote. In the long run their new supporters expect them to make further concessions on the arms issue and they have a great deal of freedom to do so.

There have also been substantial shifts within the DUP. In practice they have had to acknowledge the potential for gains in power and sectarian privilege from the new Stormont regime and they want to keep it going. Their policy has gradually shifted from a demand for the destruction of the agreement to a demand that it be amended to exclude Sinn Fein.

If there is no shift on weapons by the Provos the most likely outcome now is the suspension of the Stormont executive with the retention of some of the mechanisms of the Parliament and the refashioned statelet. There will be a protracted battle to stabilise the agreement which will hang  around the desire of the DUP to retain the gains that it has made and their gut sectarian reaction to the presence of Catholics in the government.

Both Sinn Fein and the DUP will appeal to the British and point to the mandate from the elections. What must not be forgotten is that it is the British who actually hold the power. Their position is defence of the good Friday agreement, but the agreement today is not the agreement was signed it has moved persistently to the right and will move further. It now includes the new RUC without even the gloss of many of the "reforms" proposed by the Patton report, a new and more lethal plastic bullet at their disposal, clear indications that the much-vaunted cross-border elements of the agreement are meaningless and a low-intensity loyalist war that includes persistent "ethnic cleansing" of Catholics and appears to be largely invisible to the British and the media.

It the agreement falls to the right the conclusion will be that the British were too demanding of unionism and the next attempt at settlement will be even more reactionary. What this election shows is highly reactionary the agreement already is. The shift from SDLP to Sinn Fein and from the UUP to the DUP could have been predicted from the structure of the agreement itself. The structures of the agreement demand a sectarian vote and reward the most vocal defenders of community rights, where “community” is defined in sectarian terms. The traditional parties lost out with the alliance party committing suicide in order to shore up the pro agreement vote within the unionist community. Those who claimed to be the thrusting voices of a new class politics reborn by the agreement, like the loyalist PUP and the pro-imperialist Women's coalition, saw sharp falls except were their most prominent spokespeople where standing.

What was shown up most cruelly of all was the lack of any real opposition.  The republican dissidents were unable to mount any serious challenge and were reduced to a spoil your vote campaign around one of their prisoners in West Belfast.  Even the “military” challenges by the various armed organisations were shown to be clearly bankrupt.  The left did not step in, with the SWP running a "red-green" campaign marked mainly by a breathtaking opportunism, a programme to the right of the SDLP and a determination to stay within the Good Friday agreement and not raise it as an issue in the election even when challanged to do so.

This is all the more inexcusable because the sectarian competition that the Good Friday agreement promotes extends to the terms of the agreement itself and builds in a persistent instability.  The main strength of the deal comes from the absolute weakness of the opposition.  Building an effective opposition depends on the left breaking from a tradition of chronic economism and/or those republicans concerned with opposing the agreement actively organising a political opposition.  The enourmous obstacles in the way of such tasks should not be underestimated, but what the elections show is that the longer the task is left the more difficult it will get.



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