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Peter Robinson repudiates peace deal

Another step towards the abyss

12 September 2014

The statement by the North’s first minister Peter Robinson that the local administration is "not fit for purpose" and that the St. Andrew 's agreement, on which the current settlement rests, must be renegotiated has brought cries of horror from the press and from London and Dublin governments who have been accommodating an accelerating slide to the right by unionism.

Yet in his own strange way save Robinson is trying to save himself, the unity of the DUP and the local administration.

He makes no call for action. Negotiations can take before or after an election at some future time. There are no demands. Robinson and the DUP do not say how the St. Andrew's agreement can be improved.

Yet the flag protests going back to 2012, the withdrawal from the  Haass talks, the formation of a "Unionist family" which includes the loyalist paramilitaries*, these add up to unionism tearing up the deal and demanding a return to majority rule and the exclusion of nationalists from government.

This is despite the fact that the Stormont assembly is a haven of impunity for DUP ministers. Recently Robinson emerged from a four year sex and money corruption scandal centering on his wife Iris. Health minister Poots has been condemned by the judiciary following an attack on them in a dispute around a "gay blood" ban in the health service. The DUP used a technical "petition of concern" to squash a finding that Minister Nelson McCausland had lied to the assembly in relation to a housing corruption charge.

The logic of the situation is that the DUP can only enjoy office as long as it commands a majority within Unionism and panders to the most reactionary and sectarian elements within it. This is what Robinson's statement successfully does, serving as the "graduated response" promised to the Orange Order and paramilitaries in protest against curbs on a sectarian march. 

Sinn Fein argues that there is nothing wrong with the St. Andrews agreement and the problem is that the unionists are refusing to operate it. However Sinn Fein will join in any talks.

This is an example of Sinn Fein's amnesia. As with many other aspects of the peace process they claimed at the time of signing that it was woefully insufficient and would have to be improved. Now they are its chief defenders.

It is also an example of the party's willingness to conciliate unionism. The only purpose of the talks proposed by Robinson would be to move the whole process to the right, yet Sinn Fein are anxious to participate.
What is the cure if unionism is refusing to operate the agreement? Gerry Adams has wheeled out yet again the "dark forces" argument. The bad DUP are running the show. It is up to the good DUP to show leadership. From past statements we can see that Sinn Fein are appealing to Britain to discipline the unionists - an appeal that they have turned a deaf ear to.

In the short term the Robinson statement puts a great deal of pressure on Sinn Fein. They have threatened to block a major welfare cuts budget if unionism will not honour the agreements already made. Robinson is telling them that this will not work - that the unionists really are rabid enough to tear the structures of the peace process asunder.

This leaves the Shinners in an awkward spot. Do they build on their left credentials by holding their ground? Or do they demonstrate to southern capitalists that they are a safe pair of hands?  A recent "think in" in Louth, where one of the sessions was called "Preparing for government" may contain a hint.

In the longer run the Robinson statement marks a step towards the abyss. It cannot be withdrawn. Despite almost universal middle class support for the peace process, it continues to unravel. The steps are getting longer, the distance to collapse shorter.

*of the paramilitary components of the unionist family, one is currently engaged in ethnic cleansing of migrants, the other is engaged in an armed feud.

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