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Twenty one years on - can the corpse of the Good Friday Agreement be revived?

26 April 2019

The 10th April marked the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. The Stormont assembly has been closed for 3 years and all aspects of the process are on life support,

Yet what was most striking was the paucity of grief. The absence of political institutions has been greeted by another wave of apathy. That apathy was broken by a peace movement around the death of journalist Lyra McKee, but that movement had one demand: That the politicians must get around the table and agree. However that goal is a fantasy. The politicians did agree, but the DUP concluded that it preferred direct rule to minor concessions to nationalism and Britain supported them. The British decision to hold talks is very unlikely to go anywhere, but a call for fresh agreement can only translate into pressure on Sinn Fein to give more.

Outside the ranks of #wedeservebetter, a middle class group who admit that their only demand is stability and to hell with justice, the strongest calls for a revival of Stormont came from the NGOs and trade unions. A mechanism to ameliorate some of the effects of the “Fresh Start” welfare austerity is coming to an end and the British claim that nothing can be done without the return of the Stormont executive. This is very embarrassing for the union bureaucracy, who were able to use the amelioration mechanism to justify their acceptance of Fresh Start Agreement.

This is a deliberate strategy by the British. They now rule the North directly, using claims of special powers for local civil servants as cover. When they want something done such as a budget or a renewed Policing Board that goes ahead. Anything else is refused on the grounds that it requires the return of Stormont - a form of pressure on Sinn Fein on the unions. The DUP are not affected as they have set their faces firmly against devolution and have a direct line to the Tory government.

A particularly cruel example of this policy came just after the anniversary when the courts ruled that the Secretary of State's refusal to sign off on compensation for survivors of sexual abuse, mostly victims of clerical abuse, was entirely legal. The justification was that the issue would be resolved with the return of Stormont.

British action goes a great deal further than silent direct rule. In reality they have folded up all the institutions of Good Friday. It took the Dublin government months to get an intergovernmental conference and then days to explain that cabinet secretary David Lidington and secretary of state Karen Bradley were really important people. Of course, nothing was achieved. In fact, having torn up the GFA, the main effort of British diplomacy was to burn the fragments as an easy way out of Europe - a mechanism prevented by the “backstop”.

British behaviour is easily explained. As far as they were concerned, the GFA was a pacification process. At no point did they ever concede sovereignty. The process has been successful beyond their wildest dreams:

The Irish state has amended its constitution to remove any claim to an Irish republic.

The guerrillas who once fought the British now vie to administer the sectarian state.

Struggles once seen as battles against imperialism are now understood in terms of identity politics. Once a hotbed of politics, the North now flat lines, with zero political protest.

The signs of the North's new status are everywhere: Karen Bradley, the British secretary of state, is widely derided as a know-nothing, disinterested and partisan incompetent. There is less willingness to admit that this simply reflects British indifference.

Indifference is not restricted to the British. Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Fein's northern leader, is reduced to silently smiling in the background while the party's focus shifts south. Fianna Fail try to quietly absorb the nationalist group the SDLP while Fine Gael leader Varadkar puts one over on them by standing a former SDLP leader as a candidate for the European parliament. The fact that both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are willing to play about with the national question means that they see no risk of it rising up and biting them.

Political activity in the North has fallen to zero. Sinn Fein and the nationalists keep up the pretence that the GFA is still in operation, partly because they don't want to explain why their politics failed so utterly, partly because the apparatus of MLAs and councils has been maintained and therefore the elements of patronage that maintain their support. Both nationalist and unionist middle classes are largely content with political silence and the sectarian division of the spoils.  Workers, mainly nationalists and emigres, are subject to ongoing intimidation in a segregated housing system and all workers are facing astounding levels of austerity, but they have no political voice.

In the case of the Dublin parties, they saw the Good Friday Agreement as closing down the national question and the last thing they want to see is the question reopened.

The Irish settlement faced absolutely no opposition from nationalism. There is still no sizeable opposition. The settlement survived, on and off, for two decades as the unionists pushed it to the right and Sinn Fein conciliated them. The process failed when unionism rejected the surrender of Sinn Fein on language rights.

As we see from the Lyra McKee protests, the big gain for the British is that the collapse of Irish republicanism was so extensive that memory and consciousness have been totally obliterated. Ideas of imperialism and class struggle have been replaced by concepts of culture and identity. Even when protest breaks out people are unable to frame an alternative outside of the bubble of identity or to hold the British responsible even when they clearly hold full responsibility for the governance of the colony. The protests end up being reactionary with a silent pressure on Sinn Fein to give way on Irish language rights.

Irish nationalism, which brought us the Good Friday Agreement, is now spinning a watch before our eyes and telling us that the British will now decide to withdraw.  If the British ever manage Brexit and get around to seriously looking at the political graveyard in the North they will look in the direction of unionist majority rule. The unionists would prefer ongoing direct rule. Both strategies have the weakness that they are, over time, utterly unstable. As with all unstable systems that requires a push from outside. That push can only come from a revived working class.

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