Stormont returns

January 26, 2000

By John Meehan

DUBLIN — In early June 1998, the Good Friday agreement (GFA) was endorsed by huge majorities in parallel referendums on both sides of the border dividing Ireland. One month later elections to a new devolved Northern Ireland parliament based in Stormont returned a heavy majority for pro-GFA parties. Yet the "peace process" sank into months of recriminations and paralysis.

The main blockage was the "No guns, no government" policy of the Ulster Unionist Party, led by First Minister David Trimble, which stipulates that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) must decommission its weaponry before Sinn Fein would be allowed its quota of two cabinet ministers.

After months of intrigue and back-room manoeuvring — orchestrated by the former US senator George Mitchell and Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson — the UUP modified its tactics at a special party conference on November 27. The party agreed to a Trimble proposal to go ahead with the election of a devolved government, including two Sinn Fein cabinet ministers. They set a new deadline: it was decided to reconvene the party conference on February 12. UUP ministers would resign from the cabinet unless the IRA had decommissioned by that point.

A few days later, the Six Counties of Northern Ireland got back a devolved Stormont government, which had been dissolved in 1974. The new Stormont contains an equal number of unionists and nationalists. It is buttressed by new constitutional provisions in the south of Ireland accepting the principle that partition cannot end without the "consent" of a majority in the Six Counties. In other words, the "unionist veto", long rejected by nationalists, is now accepted.

Several of Trimble's ruling-class allies argued that once Sinn Fein members were part of the Six County government and were "ministers of the crown", IRA decommissioning would have to follow.

Mitchell, who ran the talks which produced the GFA in June 1998, was called back into the game after the surreal events of July 15, when the ministerial elections were boycotted by the UUP. Mitchell called all the pro-GFA parties into a round of secret talks.

Trimble lobbied successfully for the removal of Mo Mowlam as secretary of state for Northern Ireland, to be replaced by Mandelson, a long-time ally of British PM Tony Blair.

Mitchell concluded his "review" in mid-November and publicly endorsed Trimble's new tactics: "There is a chance of decommissioning with this process — there is none without it". He was right.


Mandelson was recorded on TV advising UUP members to "call Sinn Fein's bluff" by letting them into government. This was, apparently, a private conversation. Given Mandelson's deserved reputation for intrigue and shadowy dealings — he did not acquire the title "Prince of Darkness" for nothing — we can allow ourselves a doubt or two.

The Mitchell review bore all the stigmata of the media "spinning" which is such a feature of Blair's "new Labour" government. Belfast journalist Ed Moloney observed in the Sunday Tribune, "We're being manipulated over the Mitchell Review, asked to believe that all the statements from the provos, the unionists, the Brits, and Dublin bear no relationship to each other and that we really don't know how this is supposed to end".

A few days before the UUP conference, Mandelson awarded the George Cross to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the overwhelmingly Protestant police force. This rare royal tribute was awarded just once before — to the people of Malta for enduring Nazi bombing and staying loyal to the British Empire during World War II.

The cynicism of this gesture was stunning. Let us focus on just one of several sordid chapters in the RUC's history of shame — its role in the car bomb murder of Lurgan solicitor Rosemary Nelson in March 1998.

For several months before she was killed, Nelson testified publicly about death threats made against her by named RUC officers. To date no action has been taken against the RUC, despite a hostile report on its conduct by a United Nations' special investigator, Param Cumaraswamay.

On the night before the murder, the RUC and British Army mounted a major security operation around Nelson's home, ensuring that all people in the neighbourhood stayed indoors. This made it easy for the bombers to plant their bomb undisturbed, and sneak away under the averted gaze of the state forces.

What's next? Perhaps an anti-racism award for the London police, who failed to investigate the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence? Better still, an international decoration for the Los Angeles police who distinguished themselves in the Rodney King case?

Moloney asked, was it "really a coincidence that on the eve of the crucial vote, when Trimble needs all the help he can get, that Mandelson suddenly signals his sympathy with the RUC?"

In addition, Trimble planted a nasty sting in the tail for Sinn Fein. Moloney explained, "Under the terms of the motion, Trimble and three of his executive colleagues will trigger their own default mechanism by lodging post-dated letters of resignation from the Executive — these will come into effect if decommissioning does not happen.

"The effect of the motion is actually to reinstate the 'No guns, no government' mantra in a way that is more explicit than was contained in George Mitchell's long-laboured-for agreement with the parties."

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams angrily stated he had no advance warning that Trimble would frame his resolution like this. However, the UUP leader had little choice — it was his only chance to win the vote. Trimble got it through his conference by the fairly narrow margin of 58% to 42%.

Internal settlement

In fact, there is plenty of evidence that the Sinn Fein leaders have already agreed to a deal on decommissioning. On November 14, Moloney reported the contents of a deal which included decommissioning by the end of January. Sinn Fein spokespeople refused to comment on this report, despite being given ample opportunity to do so by the media.

Whatever the precise timetable that eventually emerges, there can be little doubt that the GFA is here to stay. Sinn Fein stresses cross-border structures, while the unionists are happy to get their hands back on devolved power at Stormont.

In reality, this is an internal settlement. We can see it most clearly by referring back to the basic problem that triggered the mass revolt in 1968: sectarian discrimination in favour of the Protestant majority and against the Catholic minority.

A recent study compiled current statistical information from the 1991 census and is brutally clear. The population is grouped according to affluence in chunks amounting to tenths ("deciles") of the total population. The top 10% (the most affluent) comprise nearly 150,000 Protestants and just over 40,000 Catholics: a disproportion of nearly four to one.

As you progress down the scale, Protestant advantage remains right down to the bottom 20% of the population — the ninth and tenth deciles. In the very bottom decile (the most disadvantaged), you find 110,000 Catholics but only about 25,000 Protestants. According to the 1991 census, Catholics make up 43.1% of the Northern Ireland population, 56.8% are Protestants.

The new internal settlement will not significantly change these statistics. The dangerous middle- to long-term trend is towards increased "Balkanisation": Catholics and Protestants increasingly tend to live in communities of their own and become more radically segregated than before.

It can only be a matter of time, maybe 10 years, maybe 20, before these conditions lay the basis for a dangerous sectarian war.

Many people, all over the world, were shocked by the recent petrol-bomb murder of the Quinn boys in Ballymoney. But this is part of a regional pattern in East Antrim, where loyalist paramilitary gangs are terrorising Catholics and driving them into isolated ghettos of their own.

The Quinn boys were products of a "mixed" relationship — the parents came from different sides of the sectarian divide. That made them especially vulnerable to the sectarian bombers of the Ulster Volunteer Force who killed them.

Administering British rule

Sinn Fein used to stand for the destruction of the Northern Ireland state. Nowadays, in the words of leading Sinn Fein Stormont member Francie Molloy, the party "administers British rule in Ireland".

A debate is starting in Belfast's Andersonstown News. Former republican prisoner Tommy Gorman asks, "Is there an alternative? Call me extreme, call me idealistic, but the first alternative to administering British rule is not to administer British rule in Ireland.

"Sinn Fein is a minor partner in a centre- to far-right coalition. They will be squeezed between the two larger blocs and will have no alternative other than to rubber-stamp policies that will inevitably mean the less well-off being shafted."

And, if there is no principled objection to this behaviour in the Six Counties, why not repeat it in the 26 Counties? Sinn Fein has a growing left-wing vote in the 26 Counties, but was recently attacked as too "right wing" by the Labour Party leader, Ruairi Quinn. Do the different policies of self-declared left alternatives matter when everyone knows they will be sacrificed for a coalition with one of the main right-wing parties — either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael?

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