By GERRY FOLEY
The Good Friday Peace Agreement, which was supposed to end the conflict in Northern Ireland, went into crisis at the end of June, when because of new conditions posed by the pro-British Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the deadline was missed for installing the power-sharing executive, the central pillar of the Agreement.
The crisis deepened on July 14, when the UUP decided to refuse to participate in the Executive that was to be set up the following day.
The Agreement is based on a series of balances and interlocked steps. The Executive cannot be set up without a certain balance between nationalist and pro-British parties. The Unionists thus can block implementation of the agreement simply by refusing to participate in the power-sharing cabinet.
Moreover, if power-sharing does not go into effect within a specified period of time, the referendum by which the formally independent part of Ireland dropped its claim to sovereignty over the North becomes null and void, and the peace process as a whole could begin to unravel.
The deadline of June 30 was missed. Then the second deadline of July 15 was missed. And now there is no indication of when the deadlock can be resolved. The only date now set is for a review of the process in September.
The Unionists insist that they will not share power with Sinn Fein, the party of the nationalist insurgency, until the nationalist armed organization, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), gives up all its weapons. This was a sticking point throughout the negotiations.
The IRA argued that it cannot give up its weapons until after power-sharing has been shown to work and a decree of mutual trust has been established. This obstacle was removed by a compromise in the negotiations. Sinn Fein was able to sign the Agreement because it did not make the disarming of the IRA a precondition for starting power-sharing. But the Unionists have now reneged on the compromise.
The UUP’s calculation obviously was that the bourgeois nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labor Party, could be enticed into representing the nationalist community on its own and thereby make it possible to both exclude Sinn Fein and meet the conditions of the Agreement. The nationalist vote is divided between Sinn Fein and the SDLP, with the bourgeois party having a significant but not qualitative advantage. .
However, in the present political climate, the SDLP cannot take such a chance. The SDLP designate for deputy premier of the devolved government, Seamus Mallon, immediately resigned after the Unionists pulled out of the Executive.
The UUP’s decision provoked the biggest crisis so far in the attempt to end the conflict in Northern Ireland by means of a compromise parliamentary solution brokered by Washington and Dublin, as well as the British government. It came despite the British government’s introduction of a bill calling for Sinn Fein’s exclusion from the executive if it “defaulted,” i.e., failed to get the IRA to give up its arms.
In its July 15 issue, the Sinn Fein weekly An Phoblacht wrote: “On Wednesday evening [July 14], David Trimble [the UUP leader and prime minister of the still fictional Northern Ireland government] threw Tony Blair’s concessions back into his face, proving that the policy of continually caving in to unionist pressure does not work and will never move the political process forward.”
Martin McGuiness, the main Sinn Fein representative in the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, said: “The refusal by the UUP to attend the Assembly today is a sign of the contempt they have always shown towards the nationalist and republican electorate.”
In further remarks, McGuiness indicated what is the fundamental obstacle to getting the IRA to disarm-that is, that the various Unionist organizations are linked to armed groups that have waged a systematic terror campaign against the nationalist population:
“This is not about guns. We only have to look at the founding members of Ulster Resistance and those who were involved in all of the different armed organizations over the last 30 years. We have only to think of the career of Brian Nelson and the current attacks on isolated Catholics and Nationalists using weapons brought in by him, some of which were brought in by Ulster Resistance. We have only to think of all of that and it would be easy for nationalists and republicans to give vent to justifiable and righteous anger.”
Sinn Fein spokesman Martin Ferris said July 23 in a prepared statement: “No one should underestimate the extent of the crisis that we are in now.”
The IRA issued a statement July 21 that suggested that it now believed that the peace process itself was in question: “The argument that the present political process can deliver real and meaningful change has been significantly undermined by the course of events over the past 15 months.”
British Prime Minister Tony Blair had announced July 2 that “the process of decommissioning will begin within days; within weeks, actual decommissioning will occur; and all paramilitary weapons will be decommissioned by May 2000. If any part of the process breaks down then provision has been made for an absolute failsafe.” The failsafe was Blair’s bill calling for the exclusion of Sinn Fein if it failed to get the IRA to disarm.
Blair hailed Sinn Fein’s commitment to getting the IRA to disarm as a “seismic shift,” that is, a definitive abandonment of the traditional Irish Republican principle of armed struggle to win Irish unity and complete independence from Britain.
Now the British and Irish press are speculating that the IRA may abandon the peace process and resume its guerrilla campaign. That, however, seems unlikely given the failure of guerrilla warfare for 25 years to achieve its objective.
However, the Republican movement has reached an impasse in its political strategy. If it makes more concessions to the guardians of the status quo in Ireland, it risks discrediting itself in the eyes of its traditional supporters. And if it doesn’t, it is not going to get any of the benefits of playing the parliamentary game.
The only way out of this dilemma is for the Republican movement to extricate itself from the “peace process” game and develop a strategy based on mobilizing the nationalist community for concrete demands without relying on any capitalist government or parliamentary politicians.