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Peter Hadden

An agreement maybe – but no solution

(April 1998)

From Voice [Dublin], Issue 11, April 1998.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

The two long years of “negotiations” in Stormont have, according to the two governments and the main parties, entered the endgame.

The tight schedule set by the Dublin and London governments is for basic agreement by Easter, a referendum in May and elections to a new Northern Assembly in June.

The recent rounds of diplomatic activity – the trips by party delegations to Downing Street and Dublin, the banquets and receptions in Washington, the hints of increased participation by Blair, Ahern, and even of another Clinton visit – are all part of the intense pressure being placed by the British and Irish governments and the US establishment on the main parties to cut a deal.

The deadline allows no time for slippage. Beyond June the summer marching season will be at its height with the days being counted off to Drumcree IV. Even with an agreement in place Drumcree will prove difficult, as hard-liners on both sides opposed to any deal will look to confrontation in Portadown to wreck it. Drumcree coming on the back of a talks stalemate and the seeming collapse of the peace process could unleash violence on the scale that was threatened and only narrowly averted in each of the last two years.


Outside the talks hard-line groupings on both sides are organising to try to prevent an agreement and scupper one if it comes. The reactionary loyalist regroupment involving Paisley’s DUP, the LVF and the most intransigent sections of the Orange Order has been holding rallies and meetings warning against “sell out”. The LVF are attempting to maintain their sectarian military campaign with vicious attacks on Catholics and also on mixed families and mixed communities.

Their “sell out” warning has its inverted echo on the republican side with the military attacks carried out by the Continuity IRA and by dissident Provisionals clearly aimed at making the position of the Sinn Fein leadership impossible.

The strains within the parties participating in the talks are increasingly obvious as those opposed to concessions flex their muscles. The challenge laid down by the 32 County Sovereignty Committee to the Adams leadership of Sinn Fein is heading to expulsions and a split. At this stage Sinn Fein’s position is that it will not enter a new “partitionist” Assembly. To move away from this abstentionist stand they would have to amend their party constitution, and, in doing so, deepen the split which is already there.

Four of Trimble’s MPs have publicly opposed his talks’ strategy and there are broader rumblings in his Ulster Unionist Party. We already saw over Christmas how precarious is the UDA/UFF cease-fire while the PUP have made no secret of pressures from within the UVF to answer recent bombings and mortar attacks, if only in order to stop any drift to the LVF.

Clearly the reason why the governments are intent on rushing through an agreement, a referendum and Assembly elections in one single momentum is to unbalance the opposition and have everything signed and delivered before the limitations of any deal start to register. They are also aware that, with further delay, the parties at the table could start to fragment and be unable to make anything stick.

While a deal is not ruled out the obstacles are great. Trimble’s Unionists still will not talk to Sinn Fein and are sticking on their opposition to cross border bodies which are not subservient to an Assembly. Sinn Fein, on the other hand, are calling for all-Ireland bodies to have direct responsibility for such areas as “policing, human rights, the legal system and the administration of justice”.

The SDLP would settle for much less but there is a limit to how far they can go without the comfort of support from Sinn Fein. The PUP have made clear that an agreement will have to involve a procedure for the release of prisoners before they will sign.

Mowlam has recently been trying to talk up the prospects of agreement. But two years and several million pounds of personal expenses into the talks what is most striking is how little progress has been made. If something does merge from all this it will be very much a down market version of what the British, Irish and US establishments had hoped for at the outset of the peace process.

Process has failed

From the standpoint of the working class movement it will fall far short of the resolution of the sectarian conflict which most working people in Ireland, north and south, would like to have seen. In terms of the original ambition the peace process has failed.

When the talks began the issues they were to deal with included controversial and divisive matters such as policing, justice, decommissioning and prisoners. There has been no serious debate, let alone agreement, on these matters. All that the government can do in order to obscure this failure, while still sticking to their timetable, is kick all these issues to touch by proposing a number of commissions to deal with them.

The sum total of what the talks can produce is, on the most optimistic assumption, a partial agreement on future political structures. It is true that the outlines of a deal on structures is there, but the same outline was there when the talks started.

If a deal is reached it will be for the setting up of a new Assembly in the North, with a committee system of government – in other words with a complicated system of power-sharing but by another name.

North/South bodies

The proposed Council of the British Isles linking the Assemblies in the North, in Scotland and in Wales as well as the two governments has been thrown in as a sop to the Unionists hoping it will make it easier for them to swallow the more bitter pill of North/South bodies.

On North/South bodies, the best the governments can hope for is a fudge that will allow the Unionists to claim they are only glorified variants of the Fisheries Commission subservient to the Assembly, while the SDLP can inflate them into the embryo of future, more powerful executive structures.

The proposed changes in Articles 2 and 3 and to the Government of Ireland Act and Anglo Irish Agreement would only put a constitutional imprint on what has been the public position of the two governments on these matters since the period of the run up to the first IRA ceasefire. To sell such an agreement the parties would put their own sectarian “spin” on it. The unionists would present it as a final accord which therefore guarantees the Union. Those nationalists who support it would argue that it is a “transitional arrangement” which opens the door to further gradual change, a drift to a united Ireland by degrees.

A new Assembly made up of the same faces as were in the Forum and the talks would be nothing more than a new platform for the same conflict over the issues the talks could not resolve and over other issues as they arise. A new stage but with the same actors can only produce the same result.

If the talks result in stalemate the governments will either have to put their own proposals to referendum over the heads of at least some of the parties or else go back to the drawing board and concoct a new chapter of the “peace process”, but under circumstances which will have little to do with “peace”.

If there is agreement a significant section, if not all, of the Republican movement is likely to be in opposition. The divisions within republicanism would be over whether that opposition should take a military or political form. A new Assembly with the DUP and other unionists trying to wreck the new structures from within and possibly with Sinn Fein refusing to enter, would not look much different from the failed Assemblies, Conventions, etc. which, during the last three decades, have been regularly constructed and have just as regularly crumbled.

The real measure of the success or otherwise of the peace process is not what comes out of the tete-à-tete between the Governments and the sectarian politicians, but what is happening on the ground, especially in the working class communities. In reality the sectarian polarisation is deeper and more bitter than at the time of the first IRA ceasefire.

The sectarian parties are based on this division and are incapable of overcoming it. In fact their contribution through the peace process and before has been to deliberately widen the gulf which separates the Protestant and Catholic working class and a significant section of the middle class as well.

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