Workers' Liberty #56


Good Friday, goodbye?

The Good Friday (1998) Agreement is not dead yet, but if it rises from its sick bed it will be the greatest miracle since Jesus Christ called forth Lazarus, alive again, from his tomb. Signs of breakdown are everywhere, says John O'Mahony

There is a small rash of sectarian attacks on Catholics. These for now are the work of racist bigots intent on embittering relations between the Catholic and Protestant communities and on burying the Good Friday Agreement. Others are in process of using even more potent weapons for the same purpose.

In the European elections on 10 June (after Workers' Liberty has gone to press) Dr Ian Paisley, an opponent of the Agreement, is certain to win one of the 3 Northern Irish European seats and John Hulme of the constitutional nationalist SDLP, who supports the Agreement, will win another. (Both are sitting Euro-MPs.)

Opinion polls show that roughly the same proportion - around 70% - as voted for it in the referendum a year ago still favour the Agreement. But that referendum percentage was, in the elections to the Assembly, broken down into its Catholic and Protestant communal constituents. Pro-Agreement Unionists won 30 seats for barely over half the Unionist vote, and anti-Agreement Unionists, Paisley's DUP and others, won 28 seats, for not much less than half the Unionist vote.

Trimble's overall majority depended on two PUP, paramilitary-linked, Assembly members. One of Trimble's Party members defected in a crucial vote last January, making it 29-29.

After a year that started with much-hyped expectations and then saw the Agreement falter and go into crisis, there is Protestant-Unionist disillusionment with the Good Friday Agreement - and thus a shift from the Protestants to the anti-Agreement Unionists in the election is to be expected. The whole Six Counties is one constituency for these elections.

Paisley is treating the election as a second referendum on the Good Friday Agreement. So are other anti-Agreement Unionist candidates. Paisley's claim that he was right a year ago and that Trimble was duped or treacherous will seem plausible now to some who scorned it them.

The big question, assuming a shift to the antis, is whether it will be so large as to destroy Trimble's moral authority. That authority rests on his claim to represent the Unionist majority. It is, therefore, already weak, if not downright spurious. Trimble has said he will resign as First Minister if he loses the Unionist majority in the Assembly. A sizeable shift to the antis in the European election might well lead to defections from Trimble's party in the Assembly. That would probably be the coup de grace for the Good Friday Agreement.

Recently, the ever-balancing British Government has been leaning on the Unionists to get them to accept a formula that would let Sinn Fein/IRA take up, or start to take up two seats in a new Six County government, before the IRA has decommissioned any of its weapons, on a promise, or a hope that the IRA will start to get rid of some weapons by next May. That, if the Euro-elections register a shift of Unionist votes from the Trimbleites to the antis, might be a bit of balancing too far, and bring Trimble tumbling down.

Almost exactly a quarter of a century ago, in the February 1974 UK elections, opponents of the Sunningdale Agreement (under which a power-sharing government had been set up in Belfast) won 11 out of 12 Westminster seats, a spectacular success that struck a mortal blow at the power-sharing Unionists, who still had a majority in Belfast. They were finally seen off by an Orange General Strike in May 1974 (see Workers' Liberty 19 and see "Another Day" on pages 17-20).

In the Euro-elections Paisley is trying to do again what he and others did then - destroy the moral and political authority of the more conciliatory Unionists. A success or a triumph for the antis will fuel tensions and conflicts in the upcoming Orange marching season.

If the Good Friday Agreement disappoints the hopes of those who backed it, where will the blame lie?

First and foremost with the crazy framework which Northern Ireland is! A Six-County settlement requires its advocates to do an impossible balancing act between the island's natural Protestant minority and a manufactured, artificial, Six County Catholic minority (in a decade they may be the majority there, as in the rest of the island). The Six County entity is too narrow a frame; the Catholic minority there an unnecessary complication. The Protestant majority areas could far more easily be accommodated by way of autonomy in a United Ireland.

Secondarily, the blame will lie with the London, Dublin and US governments, who hustled through the Good Friday Agreement amidst a carnival of hyping and "spinning", while leaving unresolved - because the Agreement would not have been possible without fudging - the issues that have since come to the fore. Decommissioning was already an issue in the aftermath of the first IRA ceasefire, from August 1994- February 1996: did they think it would go away?

Thirdly, IRA-Sinn Fein. They too, signing up to the agreement, could not have imagined that decommissioning would go away. They still pursue the "guns and votes" strategy they have had for two decades, with the emphasis for the moment on votes. They hoped London, Dublin and Washington would bounce the Unionists into powersharing with them, while the IRA stood ostentatiously to arms in the background.

On one level, it is an artificial issue: those who "decommission" can rearm in the future. IRA disarmament now would not necessarily mean a great deal should they decide to rearm. It need not necessarily even mean demobilising "Oglac Na hEereann" - the Army of Ireland, as the IRA knows itself. Why don't they do it? Conversely, the Unionists too know that rearmament would be possible, after "decommissioning"; they have paramilitaries on their side (Trimble in the Assembly depends on David Irvine and Billy Hutchinson whose paramilitary alter ego, the UVF, is as adamant as the IRA against decommissioning) - so why do they make decommissioning the live-or-die test for the Good Friday Agreement? Because both sides play politics and attach enormous importance to symbols as a means of binding themselves together.

It seems obviously true for Trimble to say his Unionist "majority" would not survive a decision to share power with members of a conspicuously unstood-down IRA-Sinn Fein. Even should he want to, it is improbably that Gerry Adams could keep their movement united around a decision to disarm.

The argument that the Good Friday Agreement did not bind them strictly to disarm before the Six County government is set up is true, but the implication that it is unreasonable for the Unionists to want it is disingenuous. But that was always one of the greatest problems with the Good Friday Agreement: it meant radically different and incompatible things to those in each of the communities who bought Blair's promises.

Back to the contents page for this issue of Workers' Liberty

Back to the Workers' Liberty magazine index

[ Home | Publications | Links ]