Time to break with 'pro-unionist' traditions of the past

by David Granville

DESPITE PRIOR, if cautious, optimism , and what appears to have been a serious offer by the IRA to shut up shop and disarm by Christmas, few will have been surprised that the recent talks at Leeds Castle in Kent, along with subsequent efforts in Belfast, failed to breathe life into the Stormont assembly and the stalled Good Friday process.

It was always going to be a tall order for the parties to reach agreement, especially as one of the key players, Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has consistently opposed the historic Good Friday deal and continues to refuse to negotiate with the main nationalist party, Sinn Fein.

Indeed, Paisley, whose sectarian demagoguery has been a constant and unpleasant blot on the troubled six counties of Northern Ireland since the 1960s, has made it a point of honour to commit his party to consigning the power-sharing agreement to the dustbin of history, or at least 'renegotiating' it out of meaningful existence.

What many will have found astonishing, however, including some unionists, is that the DUP's efforts to neuter the Good Friday agreement have become such a priority as to result in them passing up a clear opportunity to wave goodbye to the IRA and its considerable supplies of currently unused weaponry - the continued existence of which has been endlessly wheeled out by unionists as being the major stumbling block in the full implementation of the Good Friday deal.

Responding to the failed Leeds Castle talks, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Dr Ken Newell, expressed disappointment that a "great opportunity" to remove the IRA from the peace process equation had been lost and openly questioned the DUP's desire to make devolved government work. On both counts, he was far from being alone in raising such concerns.

Nationalists and republicans have correctly seen the changes demanded by the DUP for greater 'ministerial accountability' and increased control over the over the operation of north/south bodies established under the terms of the Good Friday agreement as less than transparent ploys at re-establishing a unionist veto through the reintroduction of majority rule.

Given the experience of nearly eight decades of unionist discrimination and misrule these are not issues that either Sinn Fein or the SDLP can be expected to give way on.

Nor are they likely to be won over to the DUP's proposed change to the system for electing the assembly's first and deputy first ministers, the main objective of which appears to be to save the party the 'embarrassment ' of having to vote for Sinn Fein nominees.

Despite some mixed messages from Paisley subalterns, the DUP have no interest in genuinely improving, democratising or reviving power-sharing or the all-Ireland institutions, or of implementing the broad equality agenda. Its priority is to hold up or, preferably, wreck the Good Friday process while consolidating its position as the ascendent party of Ulster unionism at the further expense of David Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party.

As such, DUP's attention is firmly focused on the possibility of a UK general election next May, at which it hopes to replace the UUP as the leading unionist party in the Westminster parliament.

Serious and concerted pressure must be applied to the DUP if it is to be made to engage constructively with the Good Friday process. If not, it is doubtful whether any significant progress can be made towards re-establishing the assembly and the other Good Friday institutions.

This will require the Labour government, in conjunction with its Irish counterparts in Dublin, to break the with the tradition established in the wake of the Good Friday deal of propping up the leading unionist position whenever there is an impasse or disagreement over particular aspects of the process

No doubt there are those that say that this is either impossible or simply unrealistic. Yet, this is precisely what is required if the six counties of the north are ever to finally emerge from the dark period of past conflict and to move towards a 'normalisation of politics' along class lines. What happens in the longer term, ie whether the union with Britain is maintained or whether a united Ireland is the outcome, is down to the forces of Irish national democracy, supported by their friends throughout the world.

So what could possibly be done to persuade the DUP, a party which already negotiates and works alongside Sinn Fein in local councils throughout the six counties, to re-access its current position?

For one, it could be made clear to the DUP that failure to engage constructively with the Good Friday process, one that has been endorsed by significant majorities in separate referendums north and south of the divided island, will result in sanctions - both political and financial. The latter could include, for example, the temporary suspension of DUP assembly members' salaries and staffing costs - although this would be of limited benefit given that the British government has said that all MLA salaries etc will be curtailed at the end of the year if the assembly is not up and running by then.

However, there are essentially only two viable alternatives to the Good Friday process: a formal return to direct rule from Westminster, in contravention of both the spirit and letter of the Good Friday agreement, itself the subject of a formal and internationally binding treaty between Britain and Ireland; or some form of joint authority in which the British and Irish governments, as guarantors of the agreement, would be equally responsible for implementing as much of it as practicable.

While the former would be an entirely retrograde step politically, it is possible to argue that the latter would fall within the spirit of the original treaty.

All aspects of the treaty: the equality agenda, north/south co-operation and relations between both parts of Ireland and Britain, could be addressed in this way. Of course, the assembly itself would be a casualty. But if it is not allowed to function, it is reasonable to ask exactly what loss this represents.

This would have the effect of forcing the issue for unionists to either co-operate with the Good Friday process or face an alternative which, from their perspective, would be wholly unpalatable.

Since the failure of the United Irish rebellion of 1798, whose leaders aimed to break the connection with England and to unite Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, the British tradition has been to support or appease the upholders of the Union, both directly and indirectly, while frequently applying the stick, to say nothing of the gun butt or canon, to the genuine and legitimate national aspirations of the majority of Irish people throughout the island of Ireland.

The time has come for this to change. Tony Blair and his ministers may be politically and psychologically ill-disposed to challenge the ingrained convictions of successive ruling classes in relation to 'the Irish Question', but change they must.

Moving ahead with the Good Friday process intact is undoubtedly the best option.

However, by ensuring that Paisley and the DUP are under no illusions that key elements of the Good Friday process will be implemented with a renewed vigour, with or without their direct involvement - and possibly under the auspices of joint British and Irish authority - would force unionists to decide whether or not they wanted to have a say in the changes and policies involving the future of all the people of the north or carp from the sidelines and suffer the consequences.

So Mr Blair, how about that for 'Plan B'?

> A version of this article originally appeared in the Morning Star newspaper

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2004-10-06 11:14:25.
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