Time for plan B

by Bobbie Heatley

FIVE YEARS on from the signing of the Good Friday agreement, the Blair government’s strategy for devolution in the north continues to unravel.

Its strategic aim has always comprised two interlocking elements: a prolongation of north-east Ireland’s incorporation within the United Kingdom and an abatement of the ‘IRA problem’.

From the beginning this meant pressurising the IRA to ‘decommission’ weaponry unilaterally. While such a requirement was not part of the Good Friday deal, Blair conned the unionists into thinking that he could deliver it.

The bigger faction of Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party had the nous to understand Blair’s strategy and it had no difficulty in supporting it. Blair, for his part, saw in the UUP a welcome, ready-to-hand, instrument for the pursuit and realisation of his project.

But, problems awaited both leaders. Within the British state-establishment -- particularly sections of the military and secret intelligence services -- there was an intense dislike of the political road being mapped by the agreement’s democratic reform programme, which, along with demographic projections, appeared likely to deliver, by political means alone, Irish reunification within a couple of generations.

Such forces hankered for an outright victory over the IRA, despite the stalemated military reality. They continue to have strong backers in Tory, ill-educated (about Ireland at least) Labour circles and in the mass news-media.

Aside from his own pro-unionist predilections, Blair and his governmental apparatus (Northern Ireland Office etc) has not been impervious to these influences.

Here again, there has been a certain amount of coincidence of interest between Blairism and the UUP. But differences within and between each grouping were always a feature of the strategy and were bound to emerge fully in time.

The quality and quantity of reform lay at the crux. Exactly how much reform would be necessary and permissible (as adjudicated by British and northern Irish unionism) to keep mainstream republicanism ‘on board’ and just how thorough-going could it be without undermining the existing power-structures monopolised by Orange-unionism?

Both Blair and Trimble have experimented with the Good Friday process in their attempts to solve this riddle.

Until recently, things seemed to be going quite well for them. They were happy enough with the stop-go nature of the process and the patchy quality of such ‘reform’ as had been delivered.

Testing republican patience, the assembly has been mothballed on several occasions prior to the present suspension. Key policing and criminal justice reforms remain in the incubation phase.

Three people have now resigned from the new human rights commission in the past ten months. The latest, Patrick Yu, executive director of the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities, over concerns that the human rights bill “undermined the Good Friday agreement” and “existing equality protections, such as fair employment legislation”. The previous two resigners, Christine Bell and Inez McCormick, complained that the commission was inadequately funded and, therefore, incapable of doing its job properly.

Legislative changes at Westminster to Mandelson’s truncated Patten policing reforms are still awaited while independent organisations such as the Belfast-based Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) have been very critical of previous gestures towards criminal law reform. The CAJ has been particularly critical of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 2002.

Key changes to the criminal justice system in the north have only recently been announced, including changes to the powers and duties of the Director of Public Prosecutions --particularly germane in view of the widespread dissatisfaction with the DPP’s record concerning to the murder of Pat Finucane and a number of other high profile cases.

Despite this, the mainstream republican movement has stuck with the agreement and put up with the tactics of Blair’s unjustifiable mono-mania aimed at placating (and saving) Trimble who, in turn, was engaged in mollifying his anti-agreement rejectionists rather than promoting the agreement.

This has played into the hands of the rejectionists who are still baying for the dislodgement of Blair’s puppet UUP leader. Despite having been ‘democratically’ outvoted at numerous Ulster Unionist Council meetings, the rejectionist campaign has been kept going unremittingly throughout this whole period.

Their latest heave began in June and, when they failed once again, three high-profile ‘No-men’ resigned their whips as members of the UUP’s Westminster parliamentary party.

Suspended from the party as a whole, they took their case to the High Court in Belfast where, to Trimble’s great danger and chagrin, the decision of the party officers was overruled.

One week later he survived a motion of no confidence, tabled by one-third of the members of his own constituency UUP, although almost forty per cent voted to oust him as their candidate. His leadership of the party has never before been more tenuous.

Even if he does hold on to it for the time-being, a deeply divided UUP is said to be looking for a new leader capable of bringing together the party’s pro and anti-agreement wings. One might as well search for a snowball in hell.

None of these outcomes will be of much help to Mr Blair. As an effective instrument for pursuing the Blair government strategy, the UUP has now become, in reality, a dead duck. Instead of taking on and defeating the rejectionists at the outset of the Good Friday process, he collaborated with Trimble in humouring the rejectionists since this served also his purpose of stalling the agreement’s implementation.

The more concessions the rejectionists got, the more their appetites were whetted. They came to believe that in pushing against the British government they were, in fact, pushing at an open door.

When Blair came to Belfast last year to spell out his ‘implementation plan’ the demands directed at the republican movement were indistinguishable from resolutions adopted at the previous Ulster Unionist Council meeting.

The IRA decommissioning demand had transmogrified into the immediate unilateral disbandment of the IRA. When this command was not responded to, a whole series of choreographed events was then set in motion to provide Trimble with his biggest weapon of pressure to date -- an ‘exit strategy’ from the executive at Stormont .

This caused the latest and current suspension of the assembly and has left the British government in a pickle as to how it is to be resuscitated. Scheduled elections have been postponed twice already and a no date for the autumn can not be wrung out of Downing Street, despite the Dublin government’s expressed discomfort.

No one, other than the Trimble faction of the UUP, had wanted the elections postponed. It is possible that Blair’s lifeline to Trimble’s coterie could turn out to be his final attempt at salvaging his previous strategy.

In near desperation the London and Dublin governments then came up with the ‘joint declaration’ which, they hoped, would kick-start the devolutionary process once again. But the ink had not dried on it before it was rejected out-of-hand by the UUP rejectionists.

Blair’s gift-wrapped gold nugget for Trimble in the joint declaration consisted of yet another concession to unionism -- an independent monitoring body, which was supposed to convince Trimble’s rivals that the beleaguered UUP leader had finally secured a fail-proof device for getting Sinn Féin excluded from any future Stormont executive.

But, as the rejectionists are not buying into the joint declaration, any more than they are the Good Friday deal, both Blair and Trimble are up a creek without a proverbial paddle. The question now is not so much as to whether Trimble can survive as to where does the British government go from here?

Even if Blair announces an autumn election there is no possibility of him getting the result which he is seeking. Anti-agreement unionists are certain to be in a majority in the newly-elected assembly.

Under the deHondt system, majority support from both sides of the community is required for the election of the first and deputy-first ‘ministers’ and the more significant legislation. This would not be forthcoming from the unionist benches.

Cross-border bodies reliant on a Stormont assembly input would similarly be disabled. A huge hole would have been rammed into the bows of the devolutionary aspects of the Good Friday agreement.

So far, Dublin and London’s response has been to promise that they will carry on implementing those reforms that are not dependent on the devolved institution. While the rejectionists will be discomfited, they are likely to be content with the prospect of another prolonged period of direct rule from Westminster.

It is unlikely that Blair will be happy that his previous strategy has been comprehensively demolished. For one thing the would-be democrat will have been totally unmasked in yet another nearer-to-home context. Republican and nationalist Ireland -- the vast majority of the country’s people who voted overwhelmingly for the Good Friday agreement -- will not be accepting of such a denouement.

'Real' Labour in Britain is currently showing signs of a re-awakening and is examining diverse aspects of Downing Street’s behaviour. Ireland needs to be added to that list for scrutiny.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2003-07-18 10:36:00.
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Copyright © 2003 Bobbie Heatley