Recent celebrations of the Belfast Agreement anniversary glossed over the fact that it is simply not working, and the flaws are intrinsic.
The recent 20th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement was a bit of a pantomime with those rather out-dated comedians, Clinton, Blair and Senator George Mitchell, playing the leading parts in celebrating its great success as the centrepiece of Northern Ireland’s peace process, while at the same time resolutely refusing to look behind them, and see the Agreement is not working, and the process is stuttering.
At the same time we have had a chorus of doom-merchants telling us this exemplary settlement might be blown apart by the installation of a measure of regulatory control at what has been a totally open border in Ireland for a decade longer than the Agreement.
Richard English, Pro-Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University, played a supporting role via an article in the Irish Times, in which he described the more than a year-long absence of a devolved administration, and of a functioning Assembly, as an indication that political progress has ‘rather stalled’. Merely a blip, it would seem, that should be seen in the context of real progress in pursuit of the goal of non-violent politics ‘based on respect for rival perspectives’.
As the collapse of the Executive has resulted directly from the DUP and Sinn Fein’s lack of respect for ‘rival perspectives’ it is hard to see where the real progress has been made at political level. Granted Northern Ireland today is a more peaceful place than it was when the Agreement was signed, but can one say, as English does, that we now have ‘an imperfect but astonishing set of political relationships in Northern Ireland between unionism and nationalism’?
How does one square this with the reality that following the Agreement we have seen a radical near-elimination of anything like a middle ground in politics? In 1998 the dominant forces were the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP. One was staunchly Unionist, the other staunchly Nationalist and their ‘moderation’ was seen mainly in comparison with the more extreme DUP and Sinn Fein.
In the 1997 Westminster election, the UUP out-polled Paisley’s DUP by more than two to one, and the SDLP were comfortably ahead of Sinn Fein, by 24% of the vote against 16%. Today neither the UUP nor the SDLP is represented at Westminster, and in the last Assembly elections the DUP out-polled the UUP by more than two to one while Sinn Fein won twice as many votes as the SDLP. The Alliance party, over the two decades of the Peace Process, is down from 8.5% in 1997 to 7%. This sustained swing to the extreme parties, and the inability of the DUP and Sinn Fein to maintain an Executive and a working Assembly, makes one wonder whether the progress seen by some is the better yardstick by which to evaluate the Agreement.
Of course it is understandable that the governments in London and Dublin, the main political parties, and lots of other interests want to paint the most positive picture. But, for example, just because some dinosaurs have, for their own purposes, dismissed the Agreement as beyond its sell-by date, as a shibboleth, does not mean we have to treat it like a sacred cow and sing its praises, rather than take the opportunity to look at it again, and ask if the Agreement itself is perhaps at the very core of our continuing difficulties.
It has been widely seen as a peace treaty, plotting a path to a long-term solution. But it was, essentially, an armistice, with the primary and immediate goal of ending the terrorism of the previous three decades. While the security threat remains officially ‘severe’ and terrorism still accounts for murders, bombings and the maiming of individuals in ‘punishment’ attacks, the armistice has largely held.
But did the architects of the Agreement, particularly in London and Dublin, really expect that, 20 years on, the political divide in Northern Ireland would be arguably wider than ever?
The texts of the Agreement demonstrate the extent to which its priority was to persuade, primarily, the Provisional IRA to stop its violence. An agreement to end terrorism nowhere uses that term to describe the violence of the Troubles; terrorists have become ‘paramilitaries’, no one is asked to surrender illegally-held arms and explosives, instead they are politely requested to ‘decommission’ ‘their’ arms, not under the supervision of the state, but under the eagle eyes of two elderly clergymen with no expertise in arms.
In fact, the Agreement did not demand anything of the terrorists, for the fiction was maintained that the negotiations were between the governments and political parties who agreed to do their best to persuade the terrorists to give up guns and violence.
The governments had both long protested that there would be no concessions to, or negotiations with, terrorists. Unknown at the time, some of the earliest talks were directly between British government negotiators and the Provisional leadership in the Maze, who were convicted terrorists.
Supporters of the Agreement and the peace process indignantly dispute allegations of appeasement, but whatever the label, London and Dublin, plus Washington, and even John Hume, went to extraordinary lengths to facilitate IRA demands, not just in the language of the Agreement, but also its implementation.
President Robinson met and shook hands with Adams in Belfast in 1993, before any ceasefire; President Clinton gave Adams a hitherto-denied visa to enter the USA, resulting in a triumphant visit in early 1994. From being the public apologist for IRA violence Adams became a leading figure in the peace process, photographed in Downing Street, Merrion Street and the White House.
The sanitisation of Sinn Fein was carried forward in the Agreement itself, and in its implementation. Mo Mowlan initiated the process of installing the Executive long before the IRA had ‘decommissioned’ its arsenal, effectively forcing David Trimble and the UUP into government with long-term defenders of the terrorist campaign and in some instances with the leaders of that campaign. This made nonsense of Blair’s blackboard promise that there would be no place in Government for those associated with violence.
Trimble and his party were denounced by Paisley and the DUP, who vigorously opposed the Agreement. The general belief that the Agreement was endorsed in the referendums North and South by a large majority takes no account of the fact that it is calculated that up to 47% of the Unionist community had voted against it. As the release of prisoners, the disbandment of the RUC and other elements of the settlement were put in place, the DUP’s standing with Unionist voters rose dramatically, and Trimble and the UUP were sent packing.
On the nationalist side Sinn Fein had been transformed into peacemakers, indeed into media celebrities, and it became easier for many in that community to welcome the new dispensation and do what they had steadily refused to do during the years of the Troubles – give their votes to those who had supported violence. John Hume and the SDLP were reduced to bit players.
Was the Agreement more than an armistice? In some regards it was. The restoration of devolved government, and potentially useful North-South bodies offered hope for a more settled Northern Ireland. There seemed a chance that working together to rebuild the economy and repair the social damage inflicted by the violence would move politics towards concentration on making Northern Ireland a better place for all, leaving the old divisions for the distant future. But the system decreed under the Agreement is not exactly parliamentary democracy. Tribalism is institutionalised; all elected politicians must declare themselves as unionist, nationalist or other, and these categories play a key role in decision-making in the Assembly. The ‘power-sharing’ coalition Executive is not what it seems – it is a mandatory coalition composed of unionists and nationalists, but they are there, not on the basis of any negotiation or agreed programme, but automatically according to their numbers in the Assembly
The pressure on unionist or nationalist parties is not to seek common ground, but to ensure that tribal support is maximised in one party from each side. The Northern Ireland problem at its most stark is thus reflected in the mechanisms of the Agreement as essentially a choice between continued membership of the UK and absorption into a united Ireland. The only solution offered is a referendum on Irish unity, called when the UK government decides there is a possibility that it will be passed.
As Irish nationalists generally, and Dublin governments in particular, have, at least since the 1960s, accepted that unity could come about only by persuasion, meaning persuasion of the Unionist community, or at least a substantial portion of it, the referendum clause is an ill-advised backward step. Does anyone think that a border poll in five years’ time, or 20 years’, would bring a settlement any closer?
The Agreement will not, perhaps cannot be scrapped. But it should be critically examined, not blindly applauded. It is not just recently that the Agreement has ‘stalled’. The institutions have had to be suspended on several occasions, and have functioned for about one third of the time they have existed. The Agreement has been creaking since 1998, and the present deadlock was not caused by Brexit.
Much that is good in the Agreement is threatened by Brexit, not only or even mainly by the re-imposition of some sort of physical border. The Belfast Agreement has no more than a handful of references to the EU, but the joint participation of the UK and Ireland in the European project was vital to any peace process.
A rebuilt border would be an eyesore, a nuisance, and a shock to us all who have been enjoying an undivided island for almost 30 years, but the UK’s abrupt decision to walk away from a uniting Europe is a hammer blow to hopes of moving beyond the exaggerated notions of Irish and British national identities that still prolong our agony.
Dennis Kennedy is a writer on Irish and European affairs and a former deputy editor of the Irish Times