Has the Good Friday agreement a future?

David Granville assesses whether the unionist establishment will be allowed to sink the 1998 Belfast peace accord

WITH THE political merry-go-round that passes for the Irish peace process entering yet another potentially critical phase, it has become increasingly clear that resolute action on the part of the British and Irish governments to convince unionists of the need to embrace fully the Good Friday deal will be essential if any real progress is to be made.

In recent months, British and Irish ministers have repeated their determination to revive the institutions, unilaterally suspended by the British in October 2002, during the coming year. As yet, little indication has been given on how this is to be done, especially as given that the DUP leader Ian Paisley has recently stated that his party has no intention of sharing power with Sinn Fein in the "foreseeable future".

At the start of this latest phase on 6 February, Sinn Fein found itself the only party unequivovally calling for an immediate resumption of the Good Friday institutions and the setting up of a new devolved assembly executive.

The DUP, UUP and SDLP all appear to favour either an alternative to the Good Friday proposals or a phased approach to the restoration of devolution - in some cases both. The DUP has come up with a two-stage plan reflecting the party's twin priorities of a return to a form of limited devolution short of power sharing and the exclusion of Sinn Fein from any 'ministerial' role - to which might as well be added 'in perpetuity'.

The UUP', meanwhile, wants Stormont assembly members to be able to exercise legislative and financial powers while British ministers continue to run Stormont's devolved ministries - a kind of 'direct-rule lite'.

Although fully committed to the implementation of the Good Friday deal, the SDLP also appears to favour some form of staged approach. Last May, the party put forward a proposal for 'civic administrators' - leading figures from business, the trade unions and community organisation - to run government departments until agreement could be reached on endorsing multi-party assembly executive. Further clear proposals have yet to emerge.

Unfortunately, government ministers and the six-county parties have not been the only ones to have been busy preparing for a new round of talks.

Until mid-January, it looked as if the then imminent Independent Monitoring Commission report was set to give the IRA a predominantly clean bill of health and provide a major fillip to efforts to revive the Good Friday process. As it turned out,the IMC - a body established outside of terms of the Good Friday deal and packed largely with figures associated with the security and intelligence world - delivereds a far less positive picture of 'IRA activity' than had previously been reported to British and Irish ministers.

Unionists parties were nevertheless grateful for the lifeline thrown by Special Branch head Sam Kincaid, who informed a Police Service of Northern Ireland policing board in mid-January that, although there had been some progress, the IRA was still involved in criminal activity.

Kincaid, who is set to retire shortly, is one of the ex-RUC 'old guard'. His intervention is being seen, at least by those outside of unionist circles, as part of concerted efforts by members of the security and intelligence forces to continue the 'war' against republicans and injure the Good Friday political process.

The part played by a Special Branch agent working within Sinn Fein in the so-called 'Stormontgate affair', which resulted in the suspension of the Northern Ireland assembly, became clear at the end of last year.

This and a long history of 'political policing', including the involvement of Special Branch agents in a criminal and terrorist acts throughout the conflict, highlights the need for government ministers to get the 'securocrats' firmly under control.

This needs to be done as a matter of urgency if, in conjunction with its Irish counterpart in Dublin, the British government is to fulfil its obligation to implement the international treaty commonly referred to as the Good Friday agreement.

Despite what now seems like an eternity of shuttlecock diplomacy, back-room bargaining, public pronouncements and momentous developments, including the IRA's disarmament initiative last year, the only thing it seems easy to agree is that much more needs to be done.

Ideally, both governments would have liked to build devolution around the political middle ground in the shape of the SDLP and the UUP. They may even have been able to achieve this but for the weakness of Trimble's leadership of the UUP in the face of opposition to the power-sharing deal from both inside and outside of his party.

The growth of Sinn Fein on both sides of the Irish border and the organisational weakness of the ailing middle-class party of Irish nationalism, the SDLP, further served to undermine Dublin and London's preferred strategy.

As all recent elections have demonstrated, Sinn Fein and the DUP have continued to consolidate their positions as the main representatives of unionism and nationalism in the six counties.

It is this reality, with all its inherent contradictions in terms of implementing the Good Friday deal - the DUP has opposed it from the outset - with which the two governments, especially the British, have struggled to come to terms in recent years.

In the past, political expediency has seen both governments effectively siding with the unionist leadership of the day in blaming Sinn Fein's and its relationship with the IRA for most of the difficulties which have beset the Good Friday process.

However, the IRA's abandonment of arms and commitment to pursue republican objectives through entirely political means has comprehensively dealt with with a key concern of the two governments and unionists. The DUP's irrational, though politically convenient, refusal to accept the reports of Genreral de Chastelain's decommissioning body and the two independent churchmen serves to highlight that the need for a change of emphasis on the part of the Dublin and Westminster governments.

A key element of this must be for the DUP leadership in particular, and unionists in general, to be left in no doubt that the exclusion of Sinn Fein, temporarily or otherwise, is not an option. For this to have any impact, rejectionist unionism, for which no move or 'concession' on the part of republicans is ever likely to be sufficient, needs to know that any alternative to the Good Friday arrangements, such as joint British/Irish authority, will be considerably less palatable to unionists than power sharing under the terms of the Good Friday deal.

There are signs that the British government is attempting to adopt a crude carrot and stick approach in an effort to shift the DUP from its current intransigent position.

Even so, Blair and his ministers are likely to need more leverage than that provided by a threat to withdraw the salaries of the Stormont assembly members or a promise to create a handful of unionist peerages.

Government attempts to shield security and intelligence-service personnel from prosecution for crimes committed during the conflict, the provision of generous redundancy packages for overwhelmingly sectarian British army regiments or the prospect of large cash injections cash for deprived working-class loyalist areas may also fail in 'buying off' the DUP.

While the DUP would undoubtedly prefer a devolutionary settlement which excluded Sinn Fein and involved little more than tokenistic power sharing, the party would settle for a continuation of Direct Rule rather than be faced with the prospect of having to work alongside Sinn Fein. This is precisely why Blair and his ministers must actively rule this out as an option.

The question now is whether the British government will be prepared to apply the same pressure to unionists that has been consistently and disproportionally applied to republicans over the years.

Given the history of the Irish peace process to date, it would be foolish to assume that it will, although a clear answer will surely make it easier to access whether the Good Friday deal has any real future.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2006-02-14 19:41:38.
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