Britannia waives the rules

Irish Democrat editor David Granville looks at the implications of the British government's second temporary suspension of the Good Friday institutions

There is something distinctly disturbing about a government which opts for the least democratic option when faced with a political crisis such as the one threatening the Irish peace process and the Good Friday agreement.

Presented with a choice of suspending of the Good Friday institutions - albeit on a temporary basis - or embarking on fresh assembly elections, John Reid, like his predecessor Peter Mandelson, opted for the former.

The move has had the effect of confirming Irish republican and nationalist suspicions that the unionist veto on progress remains in operation - and that Britannia waives the rules whenever it suits her interests.

Despite being couched in terms of 'the lesser of two evils' and of creating a six-week 'breathing space' in which 'to save the agreement', John Reid's unilateral and illegal 24-hour suspension owes as much to the British government's desire to save the political skin of Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble.

Quite remarkable, given that it was David Trimble who precipitated the latest crisis through his resignation as assembly first minister over the issue of IRA arms decommissioning.

However, his party's decision to reject both the British and Irish governments' plan for saving the agreement and the IRA's proposals for putting weapons "completely and verifiably beyond use", agreed with General John de Chastelain and his Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, poses new threats and exposes as never before the real nature of unionist agenda: minimum reform in return for abject republican surrender.

No one outside of the insular confines of Ulster unionism will have seen the IRA's statement last week, and General John de Chastelain's confirmation that the proposals were acceptable to his decommissioning team, as anything other than a momentous and extremely welcome development.

Unfortunately, faced with the ongoing threat to his leadership from the No-men of Ulster unionism, both inside and outside the UUP, David Trimble's once again resolutely refused to adopt the mantle fashioned for him by some commentators as the 'De Klerk of Irish politics'.

Playing largely to the unionist gallery, where several prominent figures are queuing up to take over his position as the leader of Ulster unionism, he chose to eschew courageous leadership and to opt for the familiar and more comfortable ground of hard-line rejectionism.

It's a tactic that Trimble and his supporters have employed a number of previous occasions, while nominally continuing to support the Good Friday deal.

However, the threat to scuttle the agreement once and for all, by withdrawing unionist ministers from the northern assembly if the republicans refused to participate in a humiliating public display of decommissioning, must sorely be testing the patience of Tony Blair and secretary of state John Reid in view of the IRA's proposals on arms decommissioning.

For those baffled by the Ulster Unionist leader's rejection of the IRA's proposals, it is worth restating that the issue of decommissioning - it's only republican arms that are at issue for unionists - has merely provided the smokescreen behind which Trimble and co. have been able to hide behind in their efforts to limit democratic change and the establishment of a genuinely new dispensation in the north based on 'equality of treatment' and 'parity of esteem'.

The arms issue has always been something of a red herring and could have been resolved successfully by now had the British government made it clear to unionists from the start that the consequences of adopting a largely negative approach to the implementation of all aspects of the Good Friday deal would have been the withdrawal of tacit political patronage and the further marginalisation of unionism.

All the hot air from unionists on this issue, while IRA guns have largely remained silent since 1994, and despite the serious intensification loyalist attacks on nationalists and Catholics over the last two years, should be seen in this context.

The question on the minds of many people in Britain and Ireland now will be: given the difficulties that the Ulster Unionists have caused British ministers as a result of rejecting the two governments proposal and the IRA initiative on arms decommissioning, why has so much effort been expended in propping up the increasingly beleaguered Ulster unionist leader.

Although the answer to the question is complex, a number of key factors are clear. The first of these is that, for reasons best known to itself, the British government remains convinced that David Trimble and his Ulster Unionist Party remain a central plank of Blair's vision of a reformed union, of which a settlement in the north of Ireland based firmly on social-democratic and devolutionary principles is a key element.

Given the growing opposition to reform within the mainstream unionism and the threat to Trimble's leadership from the No-men of his own party, led by Geoffrey Donaldson and David Burnside, it's increasingly difficult to see how such a strategy can be sustained in the long term.

From a British state point of view it is abundantly clear why the promise of new assembly elections - the only real democratic option to the stalemate which has led to the latest impasse -was not enthusiastically embraced.

Based on the recent experience of the Westminster and local government elections in the north, the most likely outcome would have been significant gains for Sinn Fein and anti-agreement unionists, particularly the flat-earth fundamentalists of the Democratic Unionist Party.

Blair knows only too well that he has no chance of progressing his vision of a new unionist settlement in the north while intransigent bigots like Ian Paisley are in the unionist driving seat.

Faced with blatant and unrealistic demands for a return to unionist supremacy, Blair would soon find himself in a position of having to adopt a more positive approach to Irish nationalism - and by implication and the right of their ever-growing mandate - Sinn Fein. This is not what the government has in mind, though they may find themselves there soon enough.

From the perspective of middle-class nationalist nationalism, as primarily represented by the SDLP, there was a mixed response to the British government's temporary suspension tactic. Yet, while there was muted opposition in some quarters, notably from SDLP deputy leader and assembly deputy first minister Seamus Mallon, the threat of further losses to Sinn Fein, which would almost certainly confirm the republicans as the dominant party of Irish nationalism in the six counties, ensured that political self-interest ensured that criticism of the government was kept to an absolute minimum.

The position of the Irish government is more perplexing. Ignoring the media spin, and the swiftly arranged meeting between the British secretary of state and Irish minister Brian Cowen for the morning following the suspension, there is no getting away from the fact the Irish government, was 'informed' of the British decision to temporarily suspend the Good Friday institutions.

This is an odd interpretation of the bi-partisan approach adopted by the two governments over the peace process - although broadly in keeping with past experience - and leaves few in any doubt as to who is 'wearing the trousers' in this particular partnership.

A more robust approach from the Irish government has long been overdue and changes may be more imminent than some suspect. Sinn Fein is expected to gain another couple of seats in the forthcoming elections. In a country where governments are notoriously reliant on coalitions and the support of minority parties this could substantially stiffen the resolve of the next Irish government in its dealing with the British.

The logic of the recent temporary suspension of the Good Friday institutions, as presented by the British government, is that a comprehensive peace deal is tantilizingly within reach.

The concern now, openly voiced by senior republicans such as Martin McGuinness, is that the IRA will withdraw its proposal for decommissioning arms and end its contact with the de Chastelain commission.

It is to be hoped that this is not the case and that the progress made in recent weeks on the key issues of arms decommissioning, British demilitarisation, policing and the 'stability' of the Good Friday institutions can be salvaged and built on. Unfortunately, nothing that the British government has done in recent days has made that more likely. Quite the contrary.

The cost of saving Trimble may not only be fruitless - there is no guarantee that he can survive the challenges within his own party or within the assembly, it could be disastrous in terms of a long-term lasting settlement.

However, unionist efforts to slow the reform process to a crawl cannot succeed indefinitely - beyond that it is up to the forces of Irish national democracy, in all its forms, and the friends of Ireland in Britain, who must continue to play their part.

While unionists and loyalists clearly recognise that every move towards a new dispensation in the north based on ending inequality and sectarian domination undermines the value system and political culture which they had previously understood to be their 'God-given' right to be enforced in perpetuity by the British Crown, the unionist monolith is no more and will never return. And a good thing too.

The above article originally appeared in the Morning Star newspaper on 14.08.01.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-02-04 13:28:59.
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