Issue 239 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
One of the reasons the peace process staggers from crisis to crisis is that the Belfast Agreement bristles with contradictions. There has been a consensus in the political mainstream and the media that the best way to handle the contradictions is to ignore them--the idea having been that once the Northern Ireland Assembly and the other institutions were 'up and running', the Republicans and the Unionists would gradually get used to one another--and to the Mercs and perks of office. Eventually, different understandings and expectations would melt, fade away, prove politically biodegradable.
This perspective, at once starry-eyed and cynical, was rudely shattered by Peter Mandelson's suspension of the assembly on 11 February.
The agreement was constructed according to a model of Northern Ireland society which recognised no dimension of politics, or of social existence generally, other than sectarianism. The problem, it was implicitly assumed, had to do with the given historic inability of 'the two communities' to get along with one another. The solution, then, was to devise a set of structures, with checks, balances and failsafe mechanisms, within which Catholic-Nationalism and Protestant-Unionism could coexist in permanent and relatively peaceful stalemate. The people, like the politicians, would, in time, learn to rub along with one other without abrasion at the interface sparking a new conflagration. As Tony Blair put it on glad, confident Good Friday morning (it is understood Alastair Campbell thought the phrase up for him), 'There are no winners and no losers.'
Consonant with this approach, the assembly was structured along frankly sectarian lines. Members registered as either Nationalist or Unionist, and the selection of ministers and all significant decisions required effective majority backing from both sides.
With the entire population implicitly allocated to one or other community and all the structures thereafter geared to striking a fine balance between the two, the settlement imputed no blame to any past political arrangement or section of society for the development of the situation which exploded into war 30 years ago, nor offered any judgment on the role of any of the parties to the war. This applied to Britain as well as to the Irish elements. Britain was not to be blamed for having set up, armed and sustained the Orange state for 80 years. Instead, Britain, in the person of Blair, was self-projected as an evenhanded benign outsider labouring mightily to coax the warring Irish factions towards sensible compromise.
It was almost as if the last 30 years of violence and all that went before had arisen from Irish irrationality and communal misunderstanding. So, nowhere in the agreement is the 'Northern Ireland question' explained or defined or put into context. A first time reader might conclude, perplexed, that this is a solution without a problem, a prescription without a diagnosis, a cure for which there is no known disease.
But one of the major questions looming over the negotiations which led to the agreement had to do precisely with whether it was the Northern state or the Republican assault upon it which had legitimacy in the course of the last 30 years. The outcome of these evasions is that Republicans can point to the text and say that Sinn Fein is nowhere charged with responsibility to secure IRA decommissioning, and that decommissioning, when and if it happens, must be undertaken step by step with the dismantling of British army installations. This fits with the Republican view of the IRA as a legitimate army which fought the forces of an illegitimate state, not to the point of victory, but at least to a standstill.
In this perspective, the agreement represents a fair enough reflection at the political level of the state of play on the battlefield when the ceasefires were called. To demand now that the IRA hands over its arms is to ask for admission of a defeat which was never inflicted. On the other hand, the agreement refers to the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons only, implicitly categorising the IRA along with the armed Loyalist groups and not with the British army, thereby denying legitimacy to the IRA's campaign. Trimble bases his stance on this reading.
No colour coding
A wider view of the situation, taking in not just the agreement and the fate of the assembly but contemplating the surrounding society as well, sometimes suggests that there are two souls to Northern Ireland contending for dominance. When you see the North solely through the prism of the agreement, everything looks Orange, unless Green. But in the plain light of day people can't be colour coded so easily.
There is much concern about jobs under threat, cuts in the health service, poverty wages, student fees, the underfunding of schools, and so on. The general level of class struggle is probably lower than in Britain or in the South, but the same issues and opportunities exist. In the NHS, the postal service and the fire service workers in the North have shown at least as much fight as workers across the water when action has been asked for.
The extent to which the possibilities of class action are realised will be a factor in determining how the current situation pans out. If their options remain as narrow as at the time of writing, some Republicans may look again at a strategy which they have hitherto rejected out of hand--going into opposition in the assembly and basing themselves on grassroots agitation outside.
Within the present assembly, Sinn Fein would be overwhelmingly the most powerful opposition group (with 18 of 28 non-executive party seats), able to dictate the pattern of debate on the executive's performance, and to combine parliamentary activity with mobilisation on community and class issues. This would open up possibilities not available under the rigid restrictions of the agreement.
The IRA ceasefire was called because Republicans had realised that the armed struggle offered no way forward. But unless the decommissioning deadlock is broken, they will have to face the fact that the alternative strategy has carried them no further. That could spark a more fundamental reappraisal of the politics of their engagement in the peace process. The level of ongoing class struggle would be crucial in that context.
One ancillary source of confusion is that Sinn Fein leaders, locked into an alliance with constitutional Nationalism which they hope is going to lead them into government North and South, have tacitly allowed it to be believed that they would, or might well eventually, go along with Trimble's interpretation. This has involved telling their own supporters one thing while not contradicting political opponents publicly proclaiming the direct opposite.
Gerry Adams did not risk injury in a rush to endorse statements by Sinn Fein vice-president Pat Doherty and Southern leader Martin Ferris in the United States in November when they accurately expressed the Republican position on decommissioning--that it wasn't a requirement of the agreement and hadn't been guaranteed by Sinn Fein at the Mitchell review. Instead, Adams stayed tightlipped as Trimble dismissed the US pronouncements as empty blether aimed at gullible Irish-Americans. This has lent plausibility to Unionist claims that Sinn Fein has gone back on its word.
Into this situation arrived a man with no discernible beliefs of his own, but with a reputation as the political fixer of the age--the Modern Machiavelli, the Dark Prince of the Manipulative Arts and so on. He has proven as surefooted as a giraffe on ice. History may record his only significant achievements as the building of the Millennium Dome and the demolition of the Irish peace process (at least Mo Mowlam made us laugh).
As the equally valid but contradictory readings of the agreement generated a new crisis, Mandelson's strategy has been to pull a stroke for Trimble today, stroke the angered Sinn Feiners tomorrow. In the end, both by instinct and in accordance with which side he thought was the stronger, the more determined, the more dangerous, he put his weight behind Trimble and dumped Adams in it.
A close look at how the collapse came about reveals much about Mandelson and more about New Labour. Why couldn't Mandelson wait for the imminent second report of the de Chastelain commission before announcing suspension of the assembly at exactly 5.03pm on 11 February? He has said himself that his decision had to be on the BBC's Six O'Clock News. But why?
Because Sir Josias Cunningham said so. Cunningham is a perfectly ridiculous figure, one of the grand panjandrums in the Orange Order and president of the Ulster Unionist Council. He had a postdated letter of resignation from Trimble in his pocket which he proposed to activate before the Unionist Council met the following morning if there was no word of the IRA having begun decommissioning. He needed the news on television by six o'clock so that delegates from the Ballybigot and Killytaig branches of the party had reasonable notice whether they'd be having to gird themselves to save Ulster at breakfast time in the morning.
Farcical as this might seem, it's fact.
Once again, the Unionist bosses have played the Orange card and a British government has balked at calling their bluff.