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Peter Hadden

Are you being framed?

With the launch of the Frameworks for the Future document

(March 1995)

From Militant Labour, March 1995.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

No sooner had the two Prime Ministers unveiled the Framework Document at the Balmoral Conference Centre, than queues began forming at Post Offices and all available copies were snapped up. Clearly, after 25 years of violence and sectarian division, people are not prepared to take the word of politicians. They want to see for themselves.

Those who strain their way through its 37 pages of legalistically worded complexities will be wanting answers to the questions, does it really open the door to a united Ireland? Or does it maintain the Unionist veto? And crucially can it provide a basis for reconciliation and a settlement?

To find the answers it is necessary to look beyond the document itself to the motivations and vested interests of its joint authors.

Protestant opposition

Even before the Troubles began, the British ruling class would have preferred to let go of Northern Ireland. They did not, would not and still cannot do so, because Protestant opposition to the alternative of a capitalist united Ireland would mean civil war.

With their preferred option of withdrawal relegated to the backburner, they have had no choice but to seek some form of reconciliation within the North. The only qualification they put is that whatever form a settlement should take, it should put nothing in place which would further obstruct their ultimate preference to pull out.

For their part the Southern Irish ruling class have long abandoned any practical ambition to reunify the country. Sentiment among the population may have, until now, compelled them to pay lip service to the objective of a united Ireland contained in Articles 2 and 3. Fear of the consequences of bringing half a million rebellious Catholics, not to mention a million hostile and disaffected Protestants, under their domain; explains their on-going preference for an internal settlement in the North. But such was the alienation of Catholics from the Northern state that, by 1972, when the old Stormont parliament finally collapsed, a purely internal settlement was no longer possible. The SDLP, then the predominant political voice of Catholics, would not enter a new Northern Ireland parliament unless some degree of cross-border involvement was also in place. In the main, Southern participation was demanded as a guarantor that there would be equality of treatment for Catholics. In Catholic areas the idea that the setting up of cross-border bodies represented more than that, that it was one brick of a new united Ireland in place, would have been greeted largely with derision.


The Sunningdale Agreement of 1973–4 balanced these various concerns. It guaranteed the Union but stated that should a majority in the North vote to end it, the North would be allowed to become part of a united Ireland. It provided for a power-sharing executive to be set up to administer services.

It proposed a Council of Ireland, of seven ministers each from North and South. This would be given “executive, consultative and harmonising powers” over a range of functions. There was also to be a consultative assembly of 30 members from each parliament. The possibility of an all-Ireland court and a common law enforcement area was mooted.

That was 20 years ago, at a time when the Troubles were raging with a violent intensity long since abated. The IRA dismissed it as a sell-out to unionism, a partitionist trap. Hardline unionists denounced it in opposite terms as a sell-out to Dublin. Protestant working class reaction in the form of the 1974 UWC strike swept it away.

Two decades on, the British and Irish establishments have co-operated to produce a re-echo of Sunningdale, down to the details. They reason that circumstances have so changed that this time it can work.

A decisive difference is the IRA ceasefire and the dramatic shift to the right at the top of Sinn Fein. After two decades of the armed struggle, it is the republican movement, not the British establishment, who have shifted ground.

The Framework Document meets not a single one of what Sinn Fein leaders have often referred to as the core issues, British withdrawal, self-determination for all the people of Ireland and Britain to act to persuade Protestants to accept a united Ireland.

Yet Gerry Adams saw in it a sufficient hint of green to give a guarded welcome. Sinn Fein leaders are clearly prepared to strike a deal around this document and sell this to the Catholic community with the false promise that it is a transitional arrangement to ultimate unity.

Unionist politicians have reacted with ritualistic fury, deliberately exaggerating and distorting what is set out in the document. The Unionist leadership have been well aware for some considerable time that all-Ireland bodies, some with executive powers, would be proposed. Their disagreement with the government during the document’s lengthy gestation period was not over the existence of such bodies but over their accountability. They insisted that these should be setup by and be accountable to a Northern Ireland parliament and the Dail.

New Assembly

Neither the SDLP nor Sinn Fein could accept this. If an Assembly had powers to setup these bodies it would in turn have the power to remove them. The SDLP have argued for institutional bodies set up in advance and not subject to an Assembly. Further they wanted these bodies or-the Dublin government separately to have some degree of supervisory role over the workings of a new Assembly. In short they wanted an inbuilt guarantee of no return to Unionist misrule, no right to Unionists to dismantle the cross-border element of any settlement.

The Framework Document sets about to reconcile these exclusive positions, not in order to bring about an eventual united Ireland but in order to allow a new administration drawing support from both communities to be set up the North. To placate nationalists states that in the event of an Assembly collapsing the degree of cross-border co-operation then in place will be maintained in some form.

But the bigger concessions it makes on this issue are actually to the Unionists. Here and there it may have a green hint but the bigger shift is to the orange end of the spectrum. Those powers which are to be transferred to cross-border bodies must be agreed in advance by the parties. Even if an Assembly were to disappear the only functions which would continue to be administered on a cross-border basis would be those which Unionists had earlier agreed should be thus administered.

The Unionists principle demand that cross-border bodies, once set up, would be responsible to a Assembly and the Dail, is conceded. Dublin is not provided with any power of oversight over an Assembly. It may comment through a proposed inter-governmental conference – but any action to redress complaints can only be taken by the London government.

Matters which are referred to a new Assembly, and these may in time include control of policing, are, in general, excluded from the agenda of this inter-governmental conference.

Articles 2 and 3 of the Southern Constitution are to be reworded in the event of agreement: The fact that no wording is included does not reflect a desire of the Southern government to keep them, but their nervousness that a referendum proposing their removal in the context of too many concessions to Unionists, might be lost.

The biggest concession of all to the Unionists is that this is not presented as a final agreement but as a proposal for negotiation. This, the promise of a referendum, and the restatement of the principle of no change to the existing constitutional position without the consent of a majority in the North, would most certainly have been dismissed by the republican movement of twenty years ago as “the Unionist veto”.

While Unionist politicians have reacted as if they were back in 1974, the response among the mass of Protestants has been very different. Middle class Protestants have hardly batted an eyelid at the contents of the document – the local employers body, the CBI, has welcomed it, cross-border bodies and all.

In Protestant working class areas the predominant mood, overriding the uncertainty, is that this is a time for talking, not fighting. Among paramilitaries and ex-paramilitaries there is a reluctance a second time round to act as unthinking foot soldiers of warlike middle class politicians.

The government is calculating that this mood will bring the Ulster Unionists, if not the DUP, to the Conference table. Their strategy seems to be to open a protracted process of negotiations during which they aim to ensnare Sinn Fein and the IRA so firmly in the arena of constitutional politics as to rule out any return to the armed struggle.

High on the shopping list of government expectations is a change in Sinn Fein’s constitution to allow them to take seats in a northern Assembly. The decommissioning or safe disposal of at least the IRA’s heavy weaponry will be sought as a condition for Sinn Fein’s inclusion in round table talks including Unionists. Already in working class Catholic areas, the State are attempting to facedown Sinn Fein pickets and petitions and reintroduce the RUC. These efforts are likely to intensify putting pressure on Sinn Fein to accept a rearranged police force.

Whether all of this will eventually lead to an agreement on a version of the Framework Document diluted further in a Unionist direction, is an open question. There are many potential pitfalls, not least the possibility of a general election in Britain which would be turned by the Unionists into a referendum on the document.

Not a solution

However, despite the certainty of a tortuous and bumpy road, an agreement is still possible. An Assembly may be set up and the un-easy peace, now half a year old, may be maintained. In acknowledging this possibility it is important to spell out clearly that such an agreement would not in itself be a solution. The Framework Document does not provide an answer to the Northern Ireland conflict. Certainly we all prefer talks to more killing but a lasting peace will not come from whatever form of wheeling and dealing takes place between our sectarian politicians.

What is the real cause of the problem? On the one side it is the poverty and unemployment which blights working class communities. On the other it is the division which separates these communities and which is being reinforced by all that is happening now.

The Framework Document contains not a word about jobs, about decent wages, about properly funded public services free of the threat of privatisation. How could it when it has been produced by two governments who stand for privatisation, for low wages and for exploitation?

Back to guns?

It wants to bring the politicians together, but on the basis of perpetuating the divisions which keep Catholic and Protestant workers apart. It offers no prospect for the reconciliation of the conflicting aspirations of Catholics and Protestants, merely that these should be pursued by political not military means. And when the politics reaches stalemate at some future time – will it then be back to guns? is a framework for a postponement, not a resolution of the conflict.

When the only voices that are heard are those of the existing politicians it would seem that working class people are separated by an unbridgeable gap. The truth is that the working class have far more in common than separates them.

There is only one answer – to build working class unity in the struggle for jobs, for decent wages and conditions, for adequate services and against all forms of sectarianism.

Cross-border bodies made up of right wing politicians from north and south would not protect or guarantee the interests of either section of the working class. Instead, we need the maximum unity of the working class organisations; trade unions, community organisations, political parties, north and South to fight the corruption, the exploitation, the neglect of working class communities which is the common platform of right wing politicians whether they be orange or green.

Likewise unity with the organisations of the British working class on issues as diverse as the stopping of motorways being built through working class areas of Glasgow to the reversal of education cuts in Oxfordshire, is the only east-west link worth having.

If there is to be an Assembly we need a socialist party capable of standing up to Tory cuts, defending our services and of offering a united class alternative to the bigots. No to this framework for sectarianism. Working class unity against all Tories and all bigots is the real way to a solution.

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