Surreal Stormont farce


By John Meehan

DUBLIN — On July 15, the British government triggered a gadget (the D'Hondt mechanism) for electing a devolved Stormont government in Belfast — and the Irish "peace process" sank into farce that would not have not been out of place in John Cleese's Fawlty Towers. It was like switching on the booby-trapped engine of a parked car.

Within a couple of hours, both the First Minister Designate, David Trimble, and his deputy, Séamus Mallon, had lost their titles, supporters of the Good Friday agreement (GFA) were busily blaming each other for the shambles, the agreement was "parked" and a "review" was announced by British secretary of state Mo Mowlam.

Proceedings began at 10.30am in the Stormont puppet parliament without the presence of Trimble or his Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). They convened at their party headquarters in Glengall Street, announcing they were boycotting the election of ministers to a devolved government. This meant they did not have to vote against a Democratic Unionist Party motion from Ian Paisley barring Sinn Féin from taking seats in a new cabinet.

The speaker John Alderdice moved on to the nomination of ministers and the assembly elected 10 designate ministers, six from the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and four from Sinn Féin. In surreal scenes, the SDLP's Mark Durkan got the "ministry" of finance while veteran Derry Sinn Féin activist Mary Nelis took the "department" of culture. It is a shame that Portadown Orange leader and Stormont Assembly member Denis Watson was not made "minister for silly walks" — the "fantasy" cabinet would have been complete.

As the voting ended, the speaker said the whole thing was illegal as there were no Unionist ministers. Then Mallon resigned as Deputy First Minister, automatically dethroning his absent "colleague" Trimble as well.

From a true republican and socialist perspective, could there be any better argument in favour of the demand "no return to Stormont"?

Despite a huge vote in May 1988 on both sides of the Irish border in favour of the GFA, the political parties in Northern Ireland have been unable to agree on setting up an internal government or various other institutions. Time and again, the British government has set "deadlines" for implementation of the deal: October 31, 1998, April Fool's Day, 1999 and June 30 to name but a few. None have been met.

The issue holding everything up has been constant for some time: the disarming and disbanding ("decommissioning") of the Irish Republican Army. The party allied to the IRA (Sinn Féin) points out that the GFA asks parties only to "use their influence" to bring IRA decommissioning about.

However, Trimble won't let Sinn Féin into a devolved government without the beginning of decommissioning, hence the slogan "guns before government". The UUP has also said it will live with both parties "jumping together"; that is, IRA decommissioning and the formation of an internal government occurring at the same time.

For some time, the Sinn Féin leadership claimed that Trimble was bluffing, saying that the British government should implement the agreement. The truth is that Trimble has both Sinn Féin and the SDLP at his mercy for, without him and the UUP, the agreement cannot proceed.

Months ago, when Trimble proposed that the agreement should be parked, the nationalist parties made a noisy protest. Now Trimble has got his wish.

In the meantime, the Sinn Féin leadership has gradually been forced to drop its opposition to IRA decommissioning.

Sinn Féin presented a statement during the June talks saying, "All of us could succeed in persuading those with arms to decommission them". Further on it said, "All parties are committed to the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations and are obliged to use their influence to bring this about by May 2000". (Irish Times, July 2). British Prime Minister Tony Blair called it a "seismic shift".

However, this medicine has gone down badly with many Sinn Féin supporters. According to former Sinn Féin publicity director Danny Morrison, there was "shock and bewilderment, quickly followed by dismay" in republican circles following these new moves by the leadership.

Morrison, still a critical supporter of Sinn Féin's pro-GFA strategy, refers with apparent approval to a "stinging comment" from well-known dissident Anthony McIntyre: "Not only will republicans be consigned to administer British rule for the foreseeable future, [but] the acceptance by them of the principle of decommissioning has served to de-legitimise and criminalise the previous republican resistance to that rule" (Guardian, July 13).

In response to such criticisms, the Sinn Féin leadership claims its offer is no longer on the table. This is simply not credible.

Up to now, many socialist critics of the Sinn Féin leadership strategy have argued that such a move on decommissioning was unavoidable. Traditional republicans have reassured themselves with "trusting" their leadership. Now these moves are out in the open and the critics are starting to get a better, more sympathetic hearing.

In the long run, this can only damage the leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. In terms of timing, they will never again get a better chance to sign up to an internal settlement. It is likely they will still succeed, but the cost will escalate.

Finally, let us note that once again the Dublin government is prevented from deleting Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution (which states Ireland's claim to the northern six counties). These were amended in last year's referendum on the peace process, but can only be implemented if the institutions of the GFA are set up.

Already, in June, the Irish parliament had to pass a special law extending the time limit for changing these articles by 12 months. Who dares say they will not have to do the same in the year 2000?