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|From: Irish Political Review: Editorials|
|Date: December, 2009|
The North Convolutes
|Northern Ireland continues to be a problem. That is its destiny. It was designed by its Creator to be a problem and it does not presume to thwart the will of the problem-setter.
The purpose for which Northern Ireland was conceived was to keep Protestants and Catholics together as coherent communities in conflict with each other, within the British state but excluded from its political life, disputing in various ways (from academic to military) over an issue which is incapable of being resolved.
There is disagreement about whether there is a strong case for seeing the Universe as a product of intelligent design which may presume the existence of a Designer. But there is no reasonable ground for doubting that Northern Ireland was constructed by the intelligence of a Designer. It was created by an Act of the Imperial Parliament at a moment when the Empire ruled the world and the wisdom of two and a half centuries of representative government was concentrated in Whitehall. When Britain did what it did in those circumstances, it was not without malice aforethought. What has been happening in Northern Ireland ever since is in line with what a realistic estimate of probabilities would have expected.
The Catholic third of the population remained a coherent Nationalist community sustaining an Anti-Partitionism as its politics, because there was nothing else for it to become within the actual political context to which Northern Ireland was consigned. The Protestant two-thirds remained a coherent Unionist community because it was required to return a Unionist majority at every election—and it had twice as many elections as the rest of the British state—in order to maintain the 'connection with Britain'.
The Protestants ran a sub-government dealing with minor issues while the major issues of state were dealt with by Whitehall under the direction of Governments which Northern Ireland played no part in electing. The major thing done by that local Protestant sub-government was the policing of the Catholic community.
The local sub-government was scrapped by Whitehall in response to an all-out Catholic assault on it in 1972—to which St. Jack Lynch contributed. For the next thirty years there was 'direct rule' by Whitehall. That is to say, the North was governed by the Government of the state. This was decreed by Whitehall to be an abnormal emergency measure, and the North continued to be excluded from the democratic political system of the state.
After 1998 local sub-government was restored, but on essentially altered terms. The pretence that Northern Ireland was some kind of democracy was abandoned. It was formally recognised that there were two communal electorates with little or no overlap between them. The new arrangement provided for the representatives to control pieces of the new sub-government as of right, with Ministers being appointed directly by the communal parties, not by the First Minister, and not being subject to a Cabinet.
The Unionist Party, led by David Trimble (who was advised by Professor the Lord Bew) did not allow the new system to start for a number of years after 1998. When, under extreme pressure, he finally nominated Ministers to it, it was always on a short lease. He participated under a post-dated letter of resignation, to become operative if certain conditions—which it was virtually certain would not be met—were not met. His purpose throughout was to get the system suspended and have Sinn Fein blamed for it. The Taoiseach (Bertie Ahern) collaborated in this exercise. "Save Dave" was the order of the day.
It was asserted, without a shred of evidence and in defiance of probability, that the peaceful raid on Castlereagh high security Barracks at mid-day, without masks but with the security cameras accidentally switched off, was done by the Provos. And likewise with the robbery of £26 million from the Northern Bank in central Belfast, in which the getaway-van was traced on CCTV cameras for fifteen miles out of Belfast before disappearing from sight of the universal cameras and without leaving a trace.
Trimble, playing his clever game of subverting the Good Friday Agreement while purporting to participate in it, steadily lost ground to Paisley, his close ally of the Drumcree confrontation. It was only when Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party outstripped the UUP that the Belfast Agreement became functional.
When Paisley decided to operate the Agreement with Sinn Fein he did so with a good grace. But that was not in the script, so the subversion of Paisley began.
The ersatz party systems in Northern Ireland have nothing to do with conflict over policies to be implemented by the Government, or even the sub-government. And there is not one system, but two. There is no Unionist/Nationalist conflict as there is no middle ground, no floating vote, between the two. The party-conflict is within each community. It is thus twice removed from the rational object of party-politics, which is the governing of the State.
Despite the lack of a rational object the ersatz parties must follow the example of the real parties in Britain and try to destroy each other. But, in Britain, because it is subject to the rational object, the destructive conflict is more apparent than real.
While the UUP was the major Protestant party the story was that it could not operate the Good Friday Agreement wholeheartedly because it had to guard itself against the DUP. Then the DUP became the major party and, against expectations, undertook to operate the GFA with a good will. If the apologia of the UUP had been in earnest, it would have welcomed this new departure by the DUP and helped to consolidate it. Instead of doing that, it reversed roles with the DUP and accused it of selling-out to the Fenians. That is to say, it adopted what was called the 'extremist' position when played by the DUP, and set about destabilising the DUP/SF accommodation.
The most sensitive measure involved in the GFA was the transfer of policing to Stormont. Under the old system there was a simple Protestant policing of Catholics (with a token presence of Catholics, many of them from outside the North). Under the new system there was to be some kind of supra-communal or trans-communal system. Sinn Fein was reluctant to play a part in the Policing Boards until the RUC was remade. That was then a strong Unionist point against it. Then Sinn Fein began to participate, and that became a reason against it.
Paisley was a big human presence on the Protestant side. He was not submerged in the pettiness of intra-communal ersatz politics. His purpose, when he decided to operate the Agreement, was to implicate Sinn Fein in it, in conjunction with a strong Unionist presence. He was therefore amenable to devolving policing authority, and binding Sinn Fein into it.
So Paisley was branded a 'Lundy' by the 'moderates' of the UUP.
It is conceivable that even though Republican Ireland—i.e. that part of Ireland which is a Republic—has recently embraced its Protestant heritage, with official celebration of the Williamite conquest, the Southern reader may not be familiar with the important historical figure of Lundy. Lundy is burned in effigy on the bonfires of the Eleventh Night. He proposed the Opening of the Gates (of Derry) to the besieging Army of James. And Paisley was for establishing a devolved Police Authority in which Sinn Fein, as the major representative of the Fenians, would play a part.
The anti-Paisley campaign launched by the UUP, appealing to the most primitive element of Ulster Protestant culture, operated on an element of the DUP which had gone along with Paisley in the first instance. It was given extensive coverage by BBC, NI—which, unlike the BBC in general, is a Whitehall Government apparatus (and was so even in the days when, according to Lord Professor Bew of Queen's and Professor Keogh of Cork, there was a 'Northern Ireland state'), and its influence is usually mischievous.
The Unionist 'moderates', being overtaken by the Unionist 'extremists', set about recovering ground by attacking the 'extremists' for selling out to Sinn Fein. But in the official nomenclature the UUP remained 'moderate', even when attempting to destabilise the DUP/SF arrangement, and the DUP remains 'extremist', even when making a deal with Sinn Fein. And the game was to destabilise the deal made between the 'extremists' who were acting moderately.
An evening paper, The Belfast Telegraph, is now owned by the Irish Independent Group. For many years it was little more than a sheet for property advertising. It has now been remade into a newspaper and become a morning daily. And of course it engages in 'investigative journalism'. Its major investigation was to discover 'political corruption' in the Paisley family—basically the payment of a rent slightly above average by Ian Paisley junior for office premises with which there was some personal connection. It hammered away at this piece of trivia, feeding into the UUP/BBC stirring up of fundamentalist Unionism against Paisley.
Paisley senior decided not to bother any more. He retired. Paisley junior, reared in the liberal atmosphere of the Paisley family, took a back seat. DUP leadership passed to Peter Robinson and Jeffrey Donaldson.
That Paisley's domestic circle was liberal in secular affairs was well known—or should have been. Religious certainty is not incompatible with secular broadmindedness—a fact made evident thirty years ago when the Irish Times tried to browbeat Paisley with the homosexuality of some members of his movement. And, conversely, religious uncertainty within Unionism is not necessarily conducive to secular liberalism.
Paisley's accommodation with Sinn Fein has been subverted. Discontent within Paisley's rank and file has been made effective. There has been significant loss of electoral support. But, so far, the defections from the DUP have not gone to the 'moderate' fundamentalists of the UUP, who began the stirring. UUP fundamentalism is too subtle—or still smells too much of the fur-coat brigade of olden times—to be a suitable vehicle for the DUP discontent it stirred up. That discontent has gone into the forging of a third Unionist movement, the Traditional Unionist Voice, which split the Unionist vote in the European Election and enabled Sinn Fein to top the poll. If that is repeated at the next Assembly Election, Martin McGuinness could become the First Minister.
Forty years ago it was evident to us, on the basis of obvious social realities, that there were two possible courses of development in the North. We suggested that the Protestant community should be recognised by the Republic as a distinct national community as a basis for rapprochement. That proposal was instantly rejected by the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch. When we argued that a common ground of politics for Protestants and Catholics should be established within the democratic politics of the British State, that was rejected by Fianna Fail and by the Fine Gael and Labour Parties.
The alternative was the intensification of the conflict of the two communities. After the events of August 1969 that conflict could no longer tick over in routine manner.
Intensified communal conflict—the wearing down of the Protestant community through escalating attrition—was the course decided on. And Dublin Governments have been active participants in that process, tut-tutting along the way over some of the 'extreme' expressions of a conflict which it supported in its extreme fundamentals.
It is possible, of course, that the will of the Protestant community will in the end be worn down by the pressure put on it. If that happens, then it happens. But it has not happened yet. Unionism has fragmented into three parties. It did so before, in the 1970s. The significant thing is that none of the three are committed to the GFA.
Parties in the North are not parties in the normal sense. They do not relate to society as parties whose object is to govern states do. (Sinn Fein is the only Northern party which has that object.) The political will of the community is formed independently of them.
But if Sinn Fein does become the major party at the next Assembly Election, that will be an interesting conjuncture.
The DUP is now dragging its heels on the issue of Transfer of Policing and Justice Powers to the Assembly in the expectation of a Tory Government next Summer. It dragged its heels two years ago, expecting good things when the Presbyterian Scot replaced the slippery Anglo-Catholic in Downing Street. But the good things did not come: on the contrary, Brown condemned DUP behaviour whilst not criticising Sinn Fein—a novel development in British conduct of NI affairs.
We may, of course, be entirely mistaken in what we see, even though wishful thinking plays no part in it. We therefore give an alternative view, that of Lord Professor Bew, the rigorous Marxist-Leninist who served with the Stickies, became an adviser to David Trimble, and now writes for the Tory Spectator:
"The DUP visibly fears the prospect of a Cameron predominance in British politics to the point of actually demonstrating against him on his visit to Ballymena. The party privately hopes that somehow New Labour will survive and leave the tramlines of local politics—the protected fractious community psychotherapy process at Stormont—undisturbed. Increasingly the DUP makes it clear that they do not want to see Sinn Fein having to face any possible inconvenience or challenge arising from a Conservative victory and, therefore, from an alleged London partiality for any local faction in the province. But the status quo in Northern Ireland means a cocooned political class in Stormont—underwritten ad infinitum by the British taxpayer, the great unsung hero of the Troubles, and playing no role in shaping, or being shaped by, the wider UK debate on public policy.
"This already feels like a somewhat nostalgic vision. But there are strong local interests involved in maintaining it. It is, however, now bound to be challenged, because Northern Ireland is, after all, part of the United Kingdom.
"Any incoming Cameron government requires the stability of the Agreement and its devolved institutions, but it needs to be able to move on from it in certain respects. The prospects are reasonable. Since the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, Irish nationalism has been addicted to the idea that it could progress by doing deals with London which could then be imposed on local unionists. David Cameron has emotionally distanced himself from that part of the Thatcher legacy. Nationalists, as a result, will be compelled to return to the position famously endorsed by Eamon de Valera in the Irish Senate debate of 1939, that of seeking an accommodation with unionists rather than decisive British intervention against them.
"The removal of the spectre of an imposed Anglo-Irish Joint Authority, which is effectively what Cameron has done, means that the local parties have no choice but to work within the existing devolved compromise. But it also means that there will be no excuse for a Little Ulsterist failure to engage in the wider public debates of the Westminster parliament…" (Spectator. Sept. 12.)
So Lord Bew has noticed that the North "is after all part of the UK", and he aspires to be a Little Ulsterist no longer. For his services to Little Ulster (a.k.a the Northern Ireland state) he was made a British legislator. But how does he think people in the North who are not raised to the expiring peerage of the state can engage in the politics of the state which they are, after all, part of?
He might notice that there are in the Lower House three parties which aspire to govern the state and two parties which aspire to take Scotland and Wales out of the state. And there is Six County miscellany, whose members are sharply divided amongst themselves on matters which have nothing to do with the governing of the state. Some of them would like to take their region out of the state while others want to keep it within the state. But whether they want to stay or to leave, they are excluded from the parties whose business is to govern the state. They are essentially spectators within the arena through which the state is governed. And, when there was a promising movement in the North to get the Six Counties included in the political life of the state, Lord Bew was vehemently opposed to it.
As to the "existing devolved compromise", it was forced on the UUP by Whitehall. Lord Bew was still earning his peerage then, so he supported it. He was a member of an exclusive Unionist Think-Tank, the Cadogan Group, which made a pretence of denying that it was Unionist. There were disagreements within the Group about the Agreement. The issue seemed to be over whether it was a permanent and final settlement of the Northern Ireland Problem, or was a transitional arrangement which improved the position of the Nationalist community for further development of the Problem. Dennis Kennedy, a former EU official who was able to read a document in the old-fashioned way, saw that it was essentially transitional and he opposed it. Bew, living in the shadow of his coming event, and trained in bizarre modes of reading by Althusserian Marxism, saw the Agreement as providing for a final settlement of the Problem. But, at the same time, he became adviser to Trimble in the delaying tactic to prevent the implementation of the Agreement.
Lord Bew was on the People's Democracy March forty years ago that was ambushed by Unionists at Burntollet and helped to destabilise the old Northern Ireland. He later said on Radio Eireann that he wished he had stayed in bed. And he must now wish that he had made a straight reading of the Agreement eleven years ago—though if he had, there would have been no peerage.
The Agreement was implemented piecemeal and with a bad grace while Trimble's co-operation was needed—as is being done now by the post-Paisley DUP. It was therefore implemented in a way that was advantageous to the Nationalist community, and especially to Sinn Fein. The advantage that might have come to the Unionist community by taking the lead in implementing the Agreement as consolidating Partition—which Trimble, as a debating point, said it did—was warded off.
Why was the assertion that the Agreement reinforced Partition never more than a debating point? Why was it not acted upon as a real potential to be realised in fact? Apparently because of a widely-felt need in the Unionist community to be on hostile relations with the Nationalist community, and a disturbed awareness that Sinn Fein was eager for friendly relations. That need was given acute expression, not only in Trimble's politics, but in his personality. (Dublin politicians taking part in joint conferences under the Agreement remarked that he always seemed to bring a chill into the room with him.)
So that is how the Agreement was implemented—except for Policing. Lord Bew says: "The government is well aware that this is the last juicy plum it can offer to Sinn Fein. All the other goodies… have long since been delivered…"
It's true enough. Trimble/Bew reduced the Agreement, which they purported to support, to a supply of goodies for Sinn Fein. Or to put it less pettishly: Sinn Fein was the only party political enough to take advantage of the ambiguities of the Agreement.
Lord Bew now wants the Agreement to be set aside: "The government's obsession with delivery of policing and justice, while understandable, obscures the fact that the problems of the Adams leadership are wider and deeper. But the obsession remains…"
The "obsession" is of course a measure provided for by the Agreement, ratified by referendum, election, etc. etc.
The reasoning is that Sinn Fein is in trouble because "conventional wisdom in Dublin" is that the economic crisis weakens the case for unity—as if Dublin had in recent memory been pressing for unity; and that "demographic realities in the North are not those envisaged… by Sinn Fein in the 1990s", i.e. Catholic breeding has slowed down; and that the Agreement can therefore be aborted.
"Sinn Fein's response has been predictable. Mr. Adams's rhetoric has become noticeably more militant, and he continues, as always, as if the pro-consent clauses of the Good Friday Agreement—which link Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK—do not actually exist. More worrying is the strategy of tension on the streets…"
There is no obligation under the Agreement for Nationalists to become Unionists. What it provides for is an improved official position for the Nationalist community in the conflict with the Unionist community. The Agreement presumes a continuation of the conflict of communities, and structures it into the devolved system. The Provos failed in a valiant effort to gain Irish unity without Protestant consent but gained a Constitutional arrangement in which to pursue that aim by other means.
Probably only Paisley had the stature to implicate the Unionists in working with Sinn Fein. Now that his tactic of implicating republicans in the running of Northern Ireland was set aside, nothing else is realistically possible under the term of the Agreement, any more than under the terms of the 1920 Act, than the aggravating conflict of a Unionist community which has long been excluded from the democratic life of the British state to which it professes attachment, and an Anti-Partition community which always knows it must lose the election but in recent decades has found increasing satisfaction in improving its position within the conflict to which it was consigned by Britain.
This situation leads naturally to tension in the streets, which is not a "strategy", but an effect. There would possibly be less tension if Unionism had adopted the Agreement in the first instance as an accommodation with the Provos under which the Provos undertook to nurture the Republican spirit into compliance. What Unionism did (with Lord Bew as part of it) was try to diminish Provo standing in the Catholic community, and thereby maximise Republican dissent from the Agreement.
The title of Lord Bew's article is Terrorism Is Back In Northern Ireland. Of course it is. Did he expect something else to result from the attempt to discredit Adams and McGuinness, and to devalue the Agreement by withholding the "goodies".
During the years when there was a vigorous Catholic/Protestant movement demanding that the British Labour Party should function in the Northern Ireland region of the state of which it was one of the governing parties, Lord Bew was utterly opposed to it. Under the Unionist trauma of 1985 the demand for inclusion in the party politics of the State was extended to include the Tory Party. That movement then campaigned within the branches of the Tory and Labour Parties in Britain, and engaged in intensive lobbying of Party Conferences. Pressure within the Tory Party became so great that the Secretary of State had to take part in the argument, apply bribes and threats to Party members, and introduce token individual membership, before the movement could be quelled. Lord Bew was opposed to that movement too.
But now he sees potential for something in the merger of the UUP faction of Unionism with the Tory Party as a tactic in its dispute with the DUP. It is hard to see what Tory leader David Cameron hopes to gain from this connection with Sir Reg Empey's Unionists. The UUP, apparently at the end of its tether, hopes to revive as an appendage to a Tory Government which will enable it to outflank the Robinson DUP on its 'extremist' flank by setting aside the Agreement.
This Tory alliance with a minor factional Unionist Party has no relevance for the Nationalist community, part of which now looks to Fianna Fail. And it needs to be said in this respect that, while in British affairs the party system is the dominant thing (and that one party alone is not half of the system) that is not really the case with 26 County politics. Fianna Fail has pretty well sustained the system by itself ever since the Free State party went astray into the authoritarianism of the late 1920s and into Fascism in the mid 1930s. The appearance of the Tory Party in the North as the instrument of a Unionist faction would not be an equivalent to the appearance of Fianna Fail.
PS: "the British taxpayer, the great unsung hero of the Troubles"! Are the taxpayers not the electorate then? And in a democracy is not the electorate responsible for what the state does? Perhaps not what one Government does after one election, but the Northern Ireland mess has now continued for close on a century, in accordance with the will of the British electorate. So let the British taxpayers pay for the damage they have done as electors.