Behind the news: Deadlock in Belfast

Submitted by Anon on 9 December, 2003 - 2:39

In the Northern Irish elections, Sinn Fein has emerged as the biggest party on the Catholic-Nationalist side and their political polar opposites, Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, as the biggest party on the Protestant-Unionist side.

The Good Friday Agreement stipulates majority consent in each of the two communities as a condition without which no Northern Irish government can be set up. The Democratic Unionist Party opposed the Good Friday Agreement and now demands that it be "renegotiated". What seems to follow is that restoration of Belfast government - which has been suspended for more than a year - is now an impossibility.
It would require that Ian Paisley be First Minister and Gerry Adams his Deputy (or their "seconds", Peter Robinson and Martin McGuiness). It is not inconceivable, but it cannot and would not happen without major change in the DUP. The probability is that it will not happen; and in any case, it will not happen quickly.

At best, the Northern Ireland power-sharing government part of the Good Friday Agreement has been rendered inoperable for years.

This outcome was anticipated. To avoid disaster for the Good Friday Agreement, the British government postponed the election from last April; but then it went ahead with it in November. Only 63.1% of the electorate voted.

Paisley's DUP won 30 seats - an increase of 10 seats on the 1998 election. This is only 25.71% of the first preference vote (a rise of 7.49%), but in Northern Irish politics there is no such thing as a "total" vote - there are two total votes, just as there are two of everything, one for each community.

Official statistics did not give breakdowns into Catholic and Protestant votes. The number of DUP seats show that they are the decisive majority in the Protestant community.

David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party won 27 seats - one down - on 22.67% of the total first preference vote. That was 1.43% up on its 1998 vote, but transfer votes under the proportional representation system lost them a seat.

In 1998 the UUP has won 30 seats, but two later defected. The UUP support seems, on the face of it, to have held up well. But that is a deception.

Four, possibly five, of the UUP members of the Assembly, Jeffrey Donaldson, David Burnside and others, are closer to Paisley than to Trimble on the Good Friday Agreement. They may separate from Trimble's party.

The constitutional nationalist Social Democratic Labour Party was the second biggest party in 1998, with 24 seats. This time it won 18 seats, down six. Sinn Fein/IRA won 24 seats, up six, at the expense of the SDLP. Sinn Fein won 162,758 first preference votes to the SDLP's 117,547 (23.52%, up 5.89%; to 16.98%, down 4.98%).

The Progressive Unionist Party, which is to the Ulster Volunteer Force para-militaries what Sinn Fein is to the IRA, lost one of its two seats. Billy Hutchinson, who calls himself a socialist in the Old Labour sense of the word, was defeated.

Of the smaller parties, Alliance, non-sectarian Unionists, kept the six seats they won in 1998. The Women's Coalition lost its two seats. The UK Unionist Party - opponents of the Good Friday Agreement, advocates of close union with Britain and no Northern Irish Parliament - lost four of its five seats. The socialist Eamonn McCann, standing for the Socialist Environmental Alliance, got a respectable 2,300 votes in Derry.

There are 108 seats in the Assembly, distributed between Protestant and Catholic according to percentages of the total vote. Of the 108, leaving out one "independent", 35 or 36 members of the Assembly are opponents of the Good Friday Agreement and all that it has meant over the last five and half years (DUP, UKUP and four or five UUP). 71 or 72 members of the Assembly are for the Good Friday Agreement (SF, UUP minus four or five, SDLP, Alliance, PUP).

In the 1998 Assembly, opponents of power-sharing were 26 (plus two or three UUP who were anti-Trimble). The supporters were 82 (minus two or three UUP).

These election results formalise what has long been clear: while only a bare majority of Protestant Unionists supported the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, for most of the time since a majority of Protestant-Unionists have been against it.

Strictly speaking the last time David Trimble was First Minister he did not (because of the defections from his party) represent a majority of Protestant-Unionists; the Good Friday Agreement rules were bent a little.

One way out for the overseeing London and Dublin governments would be to stand on the fiction-riddled truth that about 70% of the electorate support power-sharing parties, brushing aside the fact that the 70% incorporates greatly uneven portions of the two communities, and form an Executive based on the Catholic Nationalist parties (Sinn Fein, SDLP) and the consenting minority of Protestant-Unionists.

That would mean moving from the Good Friday Agreement's requirement that a majority in each community support the Executive, that is, breaking the framework of bureaucratically enshrined sectarian balance on which the Good Friday Agreement was constructed. In effect it would be moving back to the power-sharing system of the Sunningdale Agreement, which led to power-sharing for four months in 1974.

Now as in 1974, that would mean governing without the consent of the Protestant-Unionist majority. The General Strike of May 1974 put an end to power-sharing in that government for a quarter of a century.

To proceed to such power-sharing now, after the election, would risk provoking a violent Protestant backlash. They might think that could be containable this time round: the Protestant-Unionist community is not now what it was in 1974.

Within the framework of the Good Friday Agreement, the Paisleyites hold the initiative. Events must wait on them.

In fact, despite their loud denunciations of the Good Friday Agreement, they have taken part in the Northern Irish government, when there was government.

The Paisleyites have been working with Sinn Fein on the local government level for a long time now.

They say they want to "renegotiate" the Good Friday Agreement. They will not, they say, even talk to Sinn Fein until the IRA has formally been disbanded.

Some of their leaders - Peter Robinson - are said to be hungry for office. Trimble has said that the DUP is now where his party was six years ago and, he hopes, they will eventually learn as he did.

The theme of the different parties moving in the same direction, but at different speeds, is central to Northern Irish politics. Seamus Mallon of the SDLP famously said of Sinn Fein/IRA's support for the Good Friday Agreement after opposing "Sunningdale" that the Agreement was just "Sunningdale for slow learners". But it may take a long time for the Paisleyites to catch up with the Trimbleites. If they do.

If Six County (Northern Ireland) self-government is over for the foreseeable future, as it seems it is, will the nine-year old ceasefire hold? In terms of Sinn Fein/IRA, the answer is certain: yes. They have done tremendously well out of the turn to politics. They have just won a great victory over the SDLP. They continue to grow in the 26 Counties of the South.

Five years ago, the unknown element in the situation was how much of a militarist backlash against "politics" there would be in the IRA and in the IRA splinter-groups, the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA, on whose long-held traditional principles Adams and the politicians were reneging. The tragic fiasco of the Omagh boming neutralised the splinter groups. They exist still, but the overwhelming majority of Catholics back Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

In 1998 it seemed a possibility that "rejectionist" para-militaries on both sides could spark off each other - in the way that the Israeli right and such Palestinian groups as Hamas do - and that killings and other atrocities would erode support for Adams and the SDLP. The sparking off has proved containable.

On the Catholic-Nationalist side, political conditions - essentially Catholics contentment with what they have got from Good Friday - are radically unfavourable to the splinter groups.

The Protestant Unionist paramilitaries have, since the early 1970s, never had a level of support equivalent to Catholic support for the IRA. Mostly they are gangsters. Johnny Adair, the muscle-bound Belfast equivalent of an east-London gangster, is now the slightly exaggerated epitome of the Protestant para-militaries.

A visitor to both the IRA and Protestant paramilitaries in prison once put it like this: in the Republican cells there are many books about Irish history, Irish culture and international politics. In the cells of the Protestant para-militaries, there are books about… body-building.

They are one aspect of the tragic political retardation that continues to disable the Northern Irish working class.

But the paramilitaries may benefit from rising Protestant alienation and discontent. Their potential for sparking an escalating tit-for-tat sectarian interaction that might change the whole political situation, is by no means at an end.

The only way out is through the development of a united working-class movement, fighting for (and made possible by socialist advocacy for) a consistent democracy: a federal united Ireland with regional autonomy for the Protestant-majority in the north-east.

Jane Ryan

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