Northern Ireland talks: Another deadline! Will it work?

The British and Irish governments ended the three days of all party negotiations in Scotland by announcing the "St Andrews Agreement".

They did so despite the fact that nothing had actually been agreed by the parties during these talks.

Before the talks the governments were sticking to their 24 November "absolute" deadline for the Northern Ireland Assembly to be up and running. With all hope of a deal within this timeframe fast receding into the Scottish mists, they put forward a timetabled sequence of events leading to a new deadline of 26 March and presented this as the "St Andrews Agreement".

Fundamentally this potential deal requires a commitment from Sinn Fein to sign up to support the police and the judicial system and, in return, a commitment from the DUP that they will share power with Sinn Fein. The other parties are now only bit players looking on.

Under the proposed timetabling, Sinn Fein are to hold an Ard Fheis before the end of the year to discuss policing. If, as is likely, delegates give a thumbs up to the leadership’s recommendation to support the PSNI and to take their seats on the Policing Board, other events could fall into place and the 26 March deadline just might be met. Ian Paisley could become Northern Ireland’s First Minister with Martin McGuiness, someone who up to now he has stubbornly refused to speak to, the Deputy First Minister.

While this is now a possibility, it is necessary still to inject a note of caution. Negotiations between the main sectarian parties have continued off an on for the last decade with little result. The capacity of the politicians to spin things out almost interminabley has meant that every previous deadline has been missed and then forgotten.

In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was only possible because contentious issues were either fudged or put to the side for future negotiation. Likewise, this potential deal is short on detail. Contentious issues like an amnesty for "on the runs" or the DUP’s call for the "proceeds of terrorism" to be handed over do not get a mention. The problem of parades merits only a paragraph which talks vaguely and quite meaninglessly about a "review" to reach an "agreed long term strategy".

The politicians may try to sell it by stressing assurances they have been given in private discussions with Tony Blair. But verbal assurances are not the same as written agreements and the DUP’s interpretation of what was said can turn out to be very different from that of Sinn Fein.

The one thing that is certain is that the political clock will not tick smoothly in the countdown to 26 March. There are plenty of potential "deal breakers" that can arise that can bring the whole exercise to a sudden shuddering halt.

Policing could still be one. The St Andrews draft agreement insists that parties should be "actively encouraging everyone in the community to co-operate fully with the PSNI in tackling crime in all areas."

The DUP will probably insist on a literal interpretation of this. They are likely to demand that Sinn Fein demonstrate their support for the PSNI by publicly calling on people to come forward with, for example, evidence about punishment beatings, firebombings or any of the other activities currently still being carried out by dissident republican groups. It is easy to see how an issue such as this could quickly emerge to throw the whole process into reverse.

Nonetheless, it is possible that a deal roughly along the lines of what was sketched out at St Andrews will eventually be reached. That this possibility exists at all is in the main down to the huge concessions that have been made over the last few years by the leadership of the republican movement.

Sinn Fein’s over riding objective in recent years has been to develop their political base in the south. They believe that a deal and ministerial posts in the north would give them a needed electoral boost and a chance of extra Dail seats. They would also use their "responsible" behaviour as ministers in the North to put pressure on the southern establishment parties, especially Fianna Fail, to admit them to government.

They could then attempt to convince their increasingly sceptical republican constituency that Sinn Fein’s presence in government North and South will somehow unlock the door to a united Ireland. This might appear fanciful, even laughable, but other than admit defeat, it is the only strategy left to the republican leadership. They are prepared to make almost limitless concessions to clear any obstacles that seem to stand in the way of a deal – or to make sure that the blame is seen to rest with the DUP if there is not a deal.

Two years ago the "Comprehensive Agreement", negotiated mainly by the DUP and Sinn Fein, on restoring the Assembly, collapsed, apparently over the DUP’s insistence on photographic evidence of decommissioning. Since then the IRA has unilaterally decommissioned the bulk of its weapons. Parts of the IRA have been stood down.

The political concessions have been even more dramatic, as the shift to the right at the top of Sinn Fein has continued at breakneck speed. One indication of this shift was the banner that formed the backcloth at a Sinn Fein rally in Belfast Europa Hotel called just before the Scottish talks to prepare Sinn Fein members for the coming about turn on policing. In place of traditional slogans like "Brits out" or "end British rule" it read simply "End British Direct Rule"!

Concessions on policing

At St Andrews, there were more concessions. Up to then the deadlock over the policing/power sharing equation had been over who would "jump first". The "agreement" announced by Tony Blair requires Sinn Fein to do so and they have meekly acquiesced.

Sinn Fein had been insisting that power over policing would be devolved from Westminster to the Assembly. The draft agreement gives no specific commitment. It allows that, by May 2008, the Assembly may request that policing powers be devolved. However, the proposed decision making mechanisms for the Assembly mean that the DUP, so long as they are the majority unionist party, have a veto over whether or not any such request is ever made.

Nor have they gained anything on the role of the Special Branch and MI5, the people who Sinn Fein regularly denounced as the "Securocrats". No mention is made in the St Andrews documentation of the Special Branch, presumably meaning no change except that Sinn Fein’s presence on the Policing Board will make them accountable!

The future of MI5 is dealt with in an appendix to the main "agreement". Behind all the verbal camouflage about "sharing intelligence" and "integrating personnel" this section makes it absolutely clear that MI5 will remain in place and will be as unaccountable as ever.

They will liaise with the PSNI but will also be able to "run directly a small(?) number of agents who are authorised to obtain information in the interests of national security" who will be free to do pretty much as they like.

"National security" is interpreted loosely as "responding to the threat from terrorism, including from international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda". The "threat from terrorism" can be read to mean local groups like dissident republicans and also any re-stirrings by the IRA and no doubt the DUP and government will choose to read it this way. In other words, a complex and lengthy appendix which could be shortened to just three words – "no real change".

If they do sign up to a deal both the DUP and Sinn Fein will meet with some opposition from within their ranks and among their supporters. However, at this stage, the dissenting voices are likely to represent only a small minority on both sides.

While the sectarian polarisation that intensified hugely during the "peace process" remains as sharp as ever, the intensity of the conflict has dimmed for the moment. There is no appetite for a return to war.

Unable to see any viable alternative other than deadlock and a possible return to conflict, the majority of people would be likely to give a weary and unenthusiastic thumbs up to any deal that emerges.

The last attempt at power sharing, between the SDLP and Trimble’s UUP, was broken mainly by opposition from the Protestant community, an opposition that was whipped up by those now negotiating on behalf of the DUP. This time the DUP would be on the inside and are in a stronger position to face down any resistance at least for a period.

The concessions that they can claim to have wrung from the republican movement have softened Protestant hostility to power sharing with Sinn Fein. There is now much less of a sense in the wider Protestant community that allowing Sinn Fein to take ministerial positions puts them on a "slippery slope" that points towards a united Ireland.

Hence the clear signs of a defrosting of the DUP’s stance on sharing power with "Sinn Fein/IRA". After a long career of saying "no" to everything, Ian Paisley now probably relishes the idea of becoming Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, even at the price of having to carry Martin McGuinness around in his pocket.

The DUP can argue that in accepting Sinn Fein into government largely on their terms they are accepting the "surrender" of the IRA. This plus the huge authority still enjoyed by Paisley, means that, if they choose to do so, they can carry the bulk of the Protestant community with them.

The overwhelming majority of Catholics have supported the "peace process" seeing it as an engine of change. That support remains but, with the "engine" permanently stalled, there is a growing feeling, especially among working class Catholics, that "we have given everything and got nothing".

The Sinn Fein leadership would be able to carry a deal that puts them in power, but not without opposition, especially on the issue of policing. People in Catholic working class areas want some form of effective policing to deal with the rampant problems of crime and anti social behaviour. This does not mean they will be easily persuaded to endorse the PSNI. To most people the PSNI, even if it does get a stamp of approval from Sinn Fein, is no more than a revamped version of the RUC.

Many people in the Catholic community would be prepared to say "yes" to a deal in general while remaining sceptical, even opposed to much of the detail.

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern have already trumpeted the "St Andrews Agreement" as a road map to a "final settlement". No doubt, provided the parties do clear all the obstacles and get things up and running by 26 March, we will a lot more of the same from them at that time.

The reality would be very different. It is one thing to get the parties to agree, it is another thing entirely to make that agreement stick. Getting past the 26 March deadline would be just the beginning of the difficulties.

Sectarian pact

The idea of a "final settlement" comes from the fact that, for the first time, all the main parties would be signed up in favour. This assumes, quite wrongly, that the conflict in Northern Ireland can be reduced to a spat between sectarian political parties.

The real problem is the division that exists on the ground, where communities, particularly working class communities, are now quite rigidly segregated along sectarian lines. The sectarian parties, which are the political expression of this division, spend most of their energies making sure that the communities are kept apart.

An agreement to share power doesn’t mean they are making a commitment to try to overcome this division. Power sharing assumes that the sectarian division is both legitimate and permanent. It is an agreement between the political reflections of that division on how they can oversee and manage it.

A new deal between Sinn Fein and the DUP would in reality be a sectarian pact on how they can carve up Northern Ireland between them. The DUP would accept that Sinn Fein speaks for and represent Catholics, while they represent Protestants and vice versa.

It would not be a step to a lasting peace but a further step in the direction of balkanisation. Those who think otherwise should remember that the few brief periods when the previous Assembly and Executive were functioning saw a significant increase in sectarian tension and conflict. Ultimately the growing divisions in society made the whole thing untenable and it collapsed.

Even with the DUP this time on the inside the prospects for a new power sharing government are not much better. A new Assembly would be a sectarian bear pit no different from its failed predecessor while the new Executive would once again be a sectarian tug of war between rival Ministers.

The lack of any sizeable opposition outside the Executive might allow it to stumble along for longer than the Trimble led coalition but this is by no means certain. Sooner or later the divisions within society would reflect themselves in some issue which would tear the Executive apart from within.

The convoluted procedures for the operation of the Assembly that were agreed by Sinn Fein and the DUP two years ago in the "Comprehensive Agreement" are now, by and large too convoluted, to be put into effect. They are a recipe for paralysis and collapse.

The Trimble Executive functioned by Ministerial dictat with no accountability. Now the DUP have insisted on, and Sinn Fein has consented to some degree of ministerial accountability. If three Executive members object to a decision taken by a Minister they can, subject to certain complicated and potentially contentious criteria, insist on a cross community vote whereby a decision can only be made if a majority of both unionists and nationalists back it.

It is not hard to see how a cross community vote on a contentious issue like, for example, the policing of a parade, could result in disagreement and paralysis. Previously, the Secretary of State would have stepped in and suspended the Assembly. The Comprehensive Agreement removed this power of suspension. If this is also the case with a new Agreement a deadlock on policy would mean the Executive would fall and there would have to be a new election. An election fought in these circumstances would almost certainly result in even firmer deadlock.

This is just one of many ways a new power sharing arrangement could fall to pieces. In the absence of an alternative to represent the united interests of the working class, it would leave behind a far worse situation than now exists.

After Tony Blair announced the "Agreement", television and radio interviewers went into so called "hard-line" communities to test the response. What was interesting was that most of those who favoured a deal did so because they wanted something done about issues like water charges, rates, public services.

This sentiment has been echoed by trade union leaders and by the professionals who work in the labyrinthine NGO type structures in the community and voluntary sector who, for some time, have been busy pressurising the politicians to "do the deal". They argue that we need accountable local institutions to safeguard jobs and services.

In saying this they are sowing an illusion, not only that a deal between right wing and sectarian politicians can bring peace, but also that these parties can deliver for working class people on social and economic issues.

The experience of the parties at St Andrews and in the various shadow Assembly committees that have been meeting since last June, shows otherwise. At St Andrews one of the only social issues that the DUP dug in on was their demand that academic selection in education, i.e. the grammar system, will stay.

The government gave way on this and so did Sinn Fein. As part of an overall deal, the government agreed not to press ahead with plans to scrap selection. Sinn Fein may argue that they are still opposed to selection but, in agreeing that this should be dealt with by the Assembly, they are accepting that the Unionists will have a veto over any change and that selection will therefore remain.

Neo-liberal policies

The lengthy St Andrews documentation gives over only five paragraphs to the issue of a financial package for the new Executive, this despite the fact that both the DUP and Sinn Fein had previously insisted that there must be a major financial underpinning of a new deal.

The only specific concession it makes is on rates. It promises a cap on domestic rates, a concession that will only benefit the already better off. On public services it promises to "continue the process of necessary reform." Public service workers know that the word "reform" in Tony Blairspeak actually means the privatisation and partial dismantling of public services.

There is also a commitment to "consider" the proposals put forward in an economic report recently produced by an Assembly sub committee that involved all the main parties.

This document is a charter for business that shows clearly the right wing economic agenda that is common to them all. It does not even make a call for additional money for public services. Instead, ignoring hospital waiting lists, run down schools and the completely in adequate public transport system, it merely states that the existing levels of spending should be maintained for a "transitional period".

It accepts the argument that the public sector is too large and seeks to change this "public sector bias" by giving more subsidies to the private sector. It demands more grants for industry, industrial de-rating, and a cut in corporation tax to the 12.5% level in the South. It also seeks a "partnership" between business and the education sector, with Further Education curricula "better integrated with the needs of business" and through the creation of "an enterprise culture in schools, including the primary sector."

This gives a glimpse of what the call made by trade union leaders and others for these parties put themselves in power means in practice – vitriolic sectarianism on the one side and undiluted neo-liberalism on the other.

Socialists are in general in favour of the maximum possible devolution of powers from central government. We supported devolution in Scotland and Wales, arguing for Assemblies with real powers, such as the power to take over and run industries. But we have to be concrete, taking local circumstances into account, in deciding whether to raise this call and also the manner in which we raise it.

At the height of the Troubles any call for devolution was treated with suspicion by Catholic workers who feared that it would mean a return to Stormont misrule.

That situation has now moved on and it is possible in a general sense to support the establishment of an Assembly with real powers but not in the way it has been raised by the trade union leadership.

With or without power sharing an Assembly dominated by the sectarian parties will not work. Power sharing institutionalises sectarianism and cannot last. Majority rule would mean unionist rule and would never be accepted by Catholics and by a good many Protestants.

This is why any call for devolution must be linked to the building of a party to represent the united interests of the working class. A mass party campaigning on socialist policies and for a socialist solution would provide working class people, Catholic and Protestant, with an alternative to the sectarian parties and lay the basis for a real and lasting solution. Instead of joining with the main parties in their countdown to 26 March, trade unionists, community activists and socialists should now prepare to put up candidates to oppose them if Assembly elections are called at the start of that month. n

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December 2006