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Five Years On – the GFA re-examined

THE GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT (and its institutions) has now been in place – on and off – for five years.   Before the Agreement was completed, Ulster Nation stated in March 1998 that “Any ‘settlement’ will not be regarded as final by the pan-Irish national-chauvinist consensus but merely another milestone along the road to ‘the reintegration of the national territory’.”

 This theme has been taken up by Jeremy Smith in his excellent book, Making the Peace in Ireland, (reviewed on Page 11).  As he put it, pro-GFA unionists emphasised the peace, whereas the Irish national-chauvinists emphasised the ‘process – a step on the road to an inevitable united Ireland.

While ambiguity – the smell of fudge cooking – can be useful in achieving an agreement, its very nature opens up doubts over what has actually been signed.  This ambiguity has been the main reason for the stop-go nature of the institutions over the past five years. 

Take, for example, the issue of paramilitary arms ‘decommissioning’.  The signatories promised “to use any influence the may have, to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years…’ of a yes vote.  As we argued during the 1998 referendum vote, this passage, inserted as a sop to the unionists, was meaningless.

David Trimble has tried to tell the world – and he possibly believes it himself – that this committed the IRA to total decommissioning by May 2000.  It did nothing of the kind!  It started out from the fiction that Sinn Féin and the paramilitary parties, the PUP and the UDP, were wholly separate entities from the groups bearing arms.  From this premise, all the paramilitary-aligned participants had to do was say that, yes they had brought up the subject with their gun-toting colleagues but unfortunately had been unable to succeed.    Sinn Féin can even claim to have had a late measure of success with two unspecific ‘acts of putting arms beyond use’ to date.  Most of Mr Trimble’s political woes have come from his misreading of this passage in the GFA.

The British government launched a massive propaganda onslaught to undermine critics of the GFA and to swing a Yes vote.  Over £3million was poured into the coffers of the Yes campaign.  A leaked document from NIO Director of Communications Tom Kelly indicated what would happen.  Opinion polls were manipulated and dozens of business, ‘community’ and church leaders were wheeled out to agitate for a Yes vote.  Gordon Brown showered largesse on Ulster.  Even Elton John, U2 and Richard Branson played their part.  Opponents of the Agreement were smeared and demonised as warmongers, bigots and associates of the LVF.  Tony Blair came over and promised that the Union was safe.  He gave handwritten pledges, which turned out to be worthless, in order to swing an initially sceptical unionist electorate. 

He got his way.  The GFA gained the support of 71% of the Ulster electorate and 95% of the Éire electorate.  However, it wasn’t too long before many of those who voted Yes complained that they had been deceived.

 What were our criticisms of the GFA and have they been all vindicated?  We raised objection to the limited constitutional choices offered either conditional participation in the Union with Great Britain or a ‘sovereign United Ireland’.  There is no mention of a sovereign independent Ulster.  The GFA’s commitment to self-determination is deliberately ambiguous.  Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom has been placed formally on a conditional basis.  The Agreement provides for regular seven-yearly polls to determine whether or not our six counties should remain in the UK or join the Republic.  No provision has been made for any other option, for example, repartition or independence.  Only a 50% + 1 simple majority in favour of such a change is needed to bring about an all-island state.  In the meantime, ‘harmonisation’ of the two states rolls onward.

The Trimbleistas, the Alliance Party, the PUP and the UDP all claimed that the GFA copper-fastened the Union; yet to Gerry Adams, “The reality is that the Good Friday Agreement is not a peace settlement.  It is transitional.  It is an accommodation. It heralds a change in the status quo.  It is a transitional stage towards a democratic peace settlement.  And it could become a transitional stage towards reunification.”  Tim Pat Coogan described it as “another giant step towards a united Ireland”.  As we stated at the time, it was possible that both these factions were wrong in their analysis but both could not be right!  We argued then that a ‘settlement’ that called for seven-yearly reviews of the status of our six counties was not a recipe for stability.

We criticised the Assembly as “more like a colonial sub-assembly than a normal elected body where the majority party or coalition of parties form a government.”  The contempt for democracy shown by Tony Blair and Paul Murphy when they cancelled this year’s Assembly elections confirms that we were right to say this.

Our major objection was to what we branded as ‘the formal institutionalisation of sectarianism’ in the Assembly through the requirement for members to register a ‘designation of identity’ as unionist, nationalist or other.  The farcical nature of this system was proven when Alliance and Women’s Coalition ‘others’ temporarily redesignated as ‘unionists’ in order to re-elect David Trimble as First Minister in 2001.  This could have been avoided if the Assembly had introduced weighted voting as ‘others’ would not have been rendered irrelevant.

The d’Hondt system, which gives out ministerial seats in proportion to votes gained in an election, has one grave defect.  It does not allow for an opposition – an alternative government in waiting.  As I write this, the Scottish Labour Party and Scottish Liberal Democrats have completed an agreement to govern Scotland in a voluntary coalition.  If votes to the Scottish Parliament had gone another way there could have been a Scottish Labour government or a coalition with another party or group of parties.  In Ulster under the GFA institutions, there’s no chance to ‘throw the rascals out’.  No matter how often elections take place the same government gets in!  We take the view that a permanent four-party state in not four times as democratic as a permanent one party state.  It’s a travesty. 

Will the Assembly ever return?  God knows.  We don’t!  Certainly, David Trimble’s former partners in government, Sinn Féin, seem unwilling to help out their ‘DeKlerk figure’ and if this remains the case, the chances look slim.  They seem happy enough to let the institutions collapse and blame the unionists and the British government, than they are to make any gesture to restore them.  The GFA in its present form seems dead. 

Some anti-GFA members of the UUP are delighted with the reimposition of direct rule.  This is a mistake.   If we get an extended period of direct rule, it will be in a green-tinged form—virtual joint authority.  Even if the flawed Assembly never returns there are aspects of the GFA that are likely to remain to haunt us.  The amendments to the Irish Constitution allow Éire to exercise ‘extra-territorial jurisdiction’ [Art. 29], presumably through cross-border bodies and the North-South Ministerial Council which are likely to continue in existence.  Even worse is the new super-quango, the Equality Commission, which is likely to continue to advance a liberal-leftist agenda under the guise of human rights and equality of opportunity. 

In 1998, we believed that the Good Friday Agreement was, on balance, bad for Ulster.  This scepticism was justified as events have borne out.  We could and must do better.  Will we? Watch this space.  

David Kerr

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