Can the agreement last?
It was all smiles and photo opportunities at Stormont, just outside Belfast, on 8 May, when the new Northern Ireland Executive was set up, with Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Ian Paisley installed as First Minister and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness as his deputy.
Tony Blair was there, basking in the smiles and handshakes, all in the hope that these images would encourage history to be kind; that he would be remembered as the Prime Minister who brought "peace" to Northern Ireland, not as someone who helped create the bloody carnage of Iraq.
Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach [Irish Prime Minister], was also there, his mind on more immediate matters [the current Irish general elections]. His appearance at Stormont was followed, a few days later, by a photo opportunity alongside Ian Paisley at the Battle of the Boyne site [scene of a 1690 battle, during the Williamite War, commemorated each year by the Orange Order], near Drogheda [in the Irish republic] and then by the first ever speech by an Irish Taoiseach to the joint houses of the Westminster Parliament – all in order to try to boost the prospects of his government being re-elected in the 24 May Dail [Irish parliament] election.
The decision by the DUP and Sinn Fein to share power, coming after years of tortuous negotiations, is a significant about turn by both these parties. It is not so long ago that leading members of Paisley’s DUP were describing former IRA man, Martin McGuinness, as the "butcher of the Bogside" [the Bogside is a working class Catholic area in Derry city]. Sinn Fein, like most of the Catholic community, have for decades regarded Paisley as an archetypical bigot and one of the main authors of the Troubles.
Sinn Fein’s political transformation
That an agreement between old enemies has been possible is more down to the political transformation that has taken place at the top of Sinn Fein than to a change of heart by the DUP.
In the early 1980s, when Sinn Fein emerged as an electoral force on the back of the 1981 hunger strikes, they put forward a radical image, spicing up their nationalism with left sounding rhetoric: All that has long since been jettisoned.
The Sinn Fein leadership long abandoned the idea of armed struggle, the IRA decommissioned their weapons and, more recently, Sinn Fein signed up to support the police.
Now they are in government with Paisley in the north and are itching to get into government with Bertie Ahern in the south. Their previous policy of demanding an increase in Corporation Tax in the South has been abandoned during the current election, to reassure Fianna Fail [the main right wing party of the outgoing Irish government] and southern big business that they are fit for government.
The fact that Northern Ireland’s two most "hard line" parties are now in government together means that there is little or no parliamentary opposition to the new agreement. This means the new Executive may hold together for a period.
But a honeymoon based on the "politics of smiles" and little else cannot last indefinitely. The reality is that, behind this agreement at the top, Northern Ireland remains as polarised along sectarian lines as ever. There is no meeting of minds on the national question or any of the contentious issues that regularly arise from it.
Paisley justifies the new administration by arguing that the neutering of Sinn Fein makes the union with Britain safe. Sinn Fein, meanwhile, are trying to reassure their supporters that having Sinn Fein ministers in power north and south would somehow be a step on the road to a united Ireland.
Opposition to sectarian parties
Both Sinn Fein and the DUP have a vested interest in making sure that society – and especially the working class – remains strictly divided on sectarian lines. The fact that they have agreed to share power, in other words to divide the sectarian spoils of office among themselves, will in no way help to overcome that division. Sooner or later, the smiles will fade and the old divisions will tend to resurface.
The one area where there is likely to be a meeting of minds between all the main parties is on their economic policies. An all-party "programme for government committee" has already signed up to a pro business policy of tax breaks and grants to private industry alongside measures of privatisation and attacks on the public sector. The Assembly has agreed to "review" water charges but the minister in charge of this, Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy, is likely to propose the introduction of the charges in some form next year.
Supporters from the Coalition Against Water Charges, including the We Won’t Pay Campaign, protest outside Stormont buildings, on 8 May 2007, as the New Executive was sworn-in
There is no doubt that opposition to the newly formed Executive will surface, perhaps very quickly. However, it is not inevitable that the main opposition will be from the sectarian dissidents on either side. Issues such as water charges or privatisation can provoke united resistance from the working class, Catholic and Protestant. The fact that the local parties no longer have the luxury of permanent opposition can create an opportunity for the building of a united class movement that could lay the basis for a real way forward.
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